With that Owen left them. When he had a duty to perform, however unpleasant it might be, Owen was accustomed to grappling with it, and not compromising.
Thad looked after the other and remarked:
"How queer things do come about, Hugh. Just to think of Owen discovering Tip sauntering along the road and smoking one of those stolen cigarettes. Pretty cute of him, too, sneaking back and hunting for the evidence. I suppose it'll wind up in Tip being locked up with Leon, and eventually going to the Reform School."
"Few people will be sorry," observed Hugh, although he felt a twinge when his mind reverted to the mothers of the two boys.
"I wonder what Nick thinks of it all," mused Thad. "He must realize that he had a narrow squeak of it; because, only for that sudden change of heart on his part, brought around by what you did about those nickeled skates, he might have been in the cooler right now, along with crafty Leon."
As they had arrived at the point where their paths diverged, the two chums separated. Hugh had returned home somewhat earlier than customary, as he had something to do for his mother, just as Owen had admitted was the cause of his absence from the ice that same afternoon.
Usually boys like to linger on the ice until long after the shades of night have settled down and time for supper is perilously near. With a jolly bonfire blazing on the bank, and the skaters going and coming all the while, the prospect is so alluring that it is indeed difficult for any lad to break away. And the father who has not forgotten his own shortcomings of long ago is apt to wisely overlook some such transgression of parental authority, when the ice beckons, and, in spite of good intentions, all outdoors seems to grip a fellow in fetters of steel.
Some little time later Hugh might have been seen in a neighbor's family sleigh heading out of town. There was plenty of snow for this sort of thing, though the ice had been kept well cleared through the use of brooms handled by many willing hands. The skating had not been injured in the least, for they flooded the pond each night afresh, giving it a glittering new surface by morning.
Hugh had to go a couple of miles out. He, too, was bound for a farm, to fetch back a sack of potatoes that his mother had purchased, and which should have been delivered before then, only that the one horse on the place had taken a notion to fall sick, and that rendered the farmer helpless.
It was already well on toward sunset when Hugh started out. He expected to be overtaken by twilight before getting back home; but that was a small matter, since he knew the road very well, and with the snow on the ground it would not be really dark at any time.
It was certainly bitter cold. Hugh wore warm gloves especially suited for driving, or any purpose when the zero mark was approached by the mercury in the tube of the thermometer. He also kept his ears well muffled up by means of a toque of dark blue worsted, which he wore under his ordinary cap.
As he had on a heavy wool-lined pea-jacket that buttoned close up under his chin the boy found nothing to complain about in that cold atmosphere, for his blood coursed through his veins with all the richness of healthy youth.
"But all the same," he was telling himself, as he passed an humble cottage where, through a dingy window, a lone lamp could be seen; and some children gathered about the kitchen stove, "I'm thinking this bracing weather that we boys have wanted to see so much, is pretty hard on poor folks. The world is unevenly divided, as mother often says; some have too much for their own good; and others far too little for comfort."
He presently arrived at his destination. The neighbor's horse, while not at all fleet, was a steady goer, and Hugh had not allowed him to "loaf on the job" so long as he could touch the whip to the animal's broad back.
The sack of potatoes was soon tucked away in the back part of the big sleigh. He also bundled some extra coverings about it, which he had brought along with him, to prevent any chance of the precious tubers freezing. A basket, with some other things, was also stowed away in the back of the vehicle; after which the boy said good-night to the farmer, and started on his return trip.
Hugh was about half-way home when something occurred to excite him not a little, though at the time he did not even suspect what an intimate relation it might have in connection with certain facts that he and his chum had only recently been discussing at length.
His horse suddenly gave a series of snorts, and at the same time shied to one side as if startled. Hugh gripped the lines tighter, and strained his eyes to see what was wrong, while, perhaps, his heart did start to beating faster than ordinary, although he could not be said to be alarmed in the least, only excited.
A wavering figure started out toward him. Then Hugh discovered, greatly to his surprise, that it was a woman, and that she held by the hand a child of about five, a boy at that.
She tried to speak to him, but seemed overcome with weakness, as though she might have been trudging along until exhausted by want of food and the severe cold. Hugh guessed that possibly the couple must have come out of a side road he had passed a few hundred feet back, for they were certainly not there when he went by on the way to the farmer's place.
He saw her stretch out her hand toward him, caught the feeble words, "Help—my poor little boy!" and then, to Hugh's utter dismay, she sank to the ground in a heap!
THE MYSTERY DEEPENS
Fortunately, Hugh was a lad equal to any occasion. Of course, he had never had an experience like this before; but somehow he seemed to understand that the first, indeed, only thing to be done, was to get the woman and child in the sleigh some way or other, and then make for home at breakneck speed.
So out he jumped, and, after considerable difficulty, managed to lift the now unconscious woman into the sleigh. He had never realized until then how like lead an inert person might seem, although not heavy in reality, when possessed of life and animation.
He tore the coverings off the sack of potatoes, and tucked them eagerly about his charges; for he had also placed the little fellow, now sobbing bitterly, under the possible impression that "mommy" was dead, in the sleigh. As for the potatoes they could "go hang," as he told himself under his breath; though, perhaps, they might not freeze in the brief time he meant to be on the road now.
In again Hugh jumped. Old Bill felt the whip come down this time in deadly earnest, and actually jumped in his amazement. Hugh kept him going at a mad pace. He was thrilled with the importance of getting home as speedily as possible. The woman had looked so deathly white that the boy was alarmed. And how he pitied the little chap who cuddled against his side, still surging over now and then with his grief, while Hugh drove along.
They struck town, and people turned to stare upon seeing Hugh whipping his horse so unmercifully. They could not understand it, and rubbed their eyes. Surely that was Hugh Morgan in the sleigh, but why should he be pounding his horse, and half standing erect? If it had been a fire chief going to a blaze he could hardly have excited more comment.
A boy who was walking briskly along the street with a package under his arm came to a full stop, and stared as though he thought he had taken leave of his seven senses. It was Thad Stevens, and no wonder he was amazed, having recognised his chum in the frantic driver.
Thad gave vent to a whistle to relieve his pent-up feelings. Then he started on a gallop after Hugh. He could not rest easy until he had learned just what might have happened to cause his usually collected chum to act in this strange fashion.
When he arrived at the Morgan home it was to find Hugh had landed the child on the little porch in front of the door. This latter was open, and his mother, together with the hired girl, stood there, trying to comprehend what Hugh was saying.
Thad came panting up, and was immediately seized upon by Hugh.
"Great luck! Just in time to give me a helping hand, Thad!" cried the other.
"What with—the Murphies?" asked the astonished Thad; for he had known Hugh expected to go out to the farm after a sack of potatoes.
"Not this time," snapped the other; "it's a poor woman who fainted from cold and exhaustion while she was trying to ask me the way somewhere. That child is hers. Come, give me a hand, Thad, and we'll carry her into the house. Mother says she must be put to bed right away, and won't hear of my taking her over to the hospital."
That aroused Thad, and between them the two stout lads had little difficulty in carrying the still unconscious young woman into the warm house. Up the stairs Mrs. Morgan and the girl led them, and into the neat spare-room, reserved for favored company.
Once she had been laid on the bed, after the blankets and coverings had been turned down, and the little boy was being soothed by Hugh's mother, she told the boys they could now go downstairs again, and she would report later as to what next should be done.
"First carry in the potatoes, Hugh, for they are too expensive this season to let the frost get them," she went on to say, patting the little fellow, whose tears had by now ceased to run down his chubby cheeks; "then call up Doctor Cadmus, and tell him to come around immediately. I'm sorry your father is away from home just now, but I can depend on my son."
The boys went out again and lugged the heavy sack of potatoes around to the cellar door, by means of which they were taken in where they would be safe from the bitter air of the winter. Then Thad was sent around to the neighbor's with the horse and sleigh, while Hugh meant to get the good physician on the wire, and hasten his coming on an urgent call.
"If Mr. Jones notices that old Bill is wheezing a bit, as if he'd had a warm run of it, please explain how it happened, Thad. I wouldn't like him, after all his kindness, to think I'd whip up his horse for nothing, or just in a spirit of sport."
As it was an hour when Doctor Cadmus was through with his day's calls, Hugh had the good luck to hear the physician's voice on the wire.
"Mother wants you to come right over, Doctor!" Hugh told him.
"Who's sick?" demanded the other, being very fond of all the Morgan family; "not your good mother, I hope, Hugh?"
"No, neither of us, Doctor," the boy continued. "I ran upon a young woman and a small child when on the road after potatoes in Mr. Jones' sleigh. She fainted dead away before she could tell me who she was, or where she was going. I managed to get them both aboard, and fetched them here. Mother has put her to bed; but she is afraid a fever is coming on, and it worries her. You'll be here right away, Doctor, won't you, please?"
"As fast as I can get there, my son!" came the prompt reply.
If there was a touch of pride in the voice one could not wonder at it; for like a good many other people of Scranton Doctor Cadmus had conceived a great liking for Hugh; and thought there had never been another boy fashioned after his model, which, of course, was all nonsense, as Hugh often protested indignantly when he heard any such talk.
Only a short time elapsed before the doctor and Thad reached the front door at the same minute.
"Wait for me in the library, Thad, if you don't mind being late for your supper. Doctor, I'll show you the way upstairs," and with this remark Hugh preceded the stout little physician up to the second floor.
As for Thad, he never once dreamed of "breaking away" at that most interesting stage. Suppers occurred three hundred and sixty-five times a year, with an extra one thrown in for good measure when leap-year came around; but exciting events like the one happening to Hugh were of rare occurrence. Catch him thinking of eating when there was a chance right at his door to have a hand in a thrilling drama that beat the "movies" all hollow!
So Thad sat down.
Hugh soon joined him. He was immediately pounced upon by his curious chum, and plied with all manner of questions. By degrees Thad "pumped him dry," and there was nothing more to tell.
"We'll have to wait until she comes back to her senses," Hugh finally remarked sagely, "before we'll be able to learn anything definite about them, mother and the doctor both say."
"And she's actually out of her head, is she, right now?" Thad demanded.
"Yes, and keeps on saying the same thing over and over, just as if it might have been in her mind so much lately. She keeps on pleading with someone she calls grandfather, and begging him not to put them out of his heart and home, for little Joey's sake—it's always little Joey she's worrying about and not herself. The doctor says she was utterly exhausted by want of sustaining food, added to anxiety and the exposure she had suffered."
"But where could she have come from, Hugh? She has never been in Scranton, you said that, and I never saw her before either. You told me the little boy can only say his name is Joey Walters; and honest to goodness, Hugh, there isn't a single family of that name in or around this town that I ever heard of."
"They've been trying to get some clues out of the little chap," continued Hugh, "but without much success. All he's said so far is that they've come ever so far, and that he liked riding on the cars first-rate, only mommy cried so much and wouldn't eat every time he did. From the way he talked they suspect that the young woman may have come from the West somewhere."
"She is young then, Hugh?"
"Yes, not over twenty-five or so, the doctor says, but frail-looking. He thinks there is nothing serious the matter with her, only that she's been underfed for a long time, and has suffered. Perhaps she's denied herself proper food so as to save up enough money to make this trip."
Thad shook his head as if feeling sad over the happening; for the boy had a tender heart.
"Well, I certainly hope she'll be better tomorrow, and able to tell something about herself," he went on to say, as he prepared to leave. "And, Hugh, it was fine of your mother to refuse to let her be taken over to the Scranton Hospital, when the doctor proposed such a thing."
"My mother wouldn't hear of it," Hugh told him proudly. "Why, already she's in love with that little chap, and he's enough of a darling to make any woman with a heart want to mother him. Both of us seem to think we may have seen him before somewhere; or else he resembles someone we've known once on a time; but, so far, we can't imagine who or where it was. But once she comes to her senses, whether to-morrow, or some days afterwards, of course the truth will be known."
"And Hugh," said the other, with one of his smiles, "if you feel that you can't wait for her to tell, suppose you start out to-morrow afternoon and try to strike a clue on your own account. That wonderful faculty you possess for investigating things ought to put you on the track."
"Perhaps I may, that is, if I have time to-morrow," chuckled Hugh; "because, you know, we have our last practice at hockey before meeting those Keyport experts."
"You said you felt sure she must have come out of that side road near where you met them," continued the persistent Thad.
"Yes, but only because I hadn't seen them when going out to the farm," his chum explained. "They may have come out of that road; and then again it's barely possible they were trying to make a fire somewhere among the trees to keep them from freezing."
"By going along that same road, and inquiring at every house you came to," Thad continued, "like as not you'd get word of them, if so be they stopped to ask directions, or a warm cup of coffee. People around here never refuse anyone who comes to their doors. Well, see you in the morning then, Hugh. Good-night!"
A MOTHER'S SACRIFICE
Friday afternoon had come, and the game at the park was over. Although the scratch team organized by Mr. Leonard to oppose the Regulars put up a strong fight, they were virtually "snowed under" by the splendid playing of Hugh and his six comrades.
The experienced coach seemed very well satisfied. He openly complimented the lads after the contest had been carried to its finish.
"You are doing splendid work, fellows," he told them, with a look of pride on his face; "and the way you played this afternoon was worthy of any Montreal Seven that ever toured the East to show how they do things up there in Canada at their favorite winter sport. And the boys who fought tooth and nail to hold you back, I congratulate them also; for they did excellent work. It was no disgrace to be beaten in that game; few hockey teams could have held their own against such fine play. Keep it up to-morrow, and there need be no doubt as to who the winners will be."
It can be easily understood that Hugh and Thad were feeling in a particularly good humor then, as they started to walk to town after the game, having an errand there before going home.
"I haven't had a fair chance to say a word with you to-day, Hugh," the latter broke out with, once they were alone; "and I'm awfully anxious to hear how that poor young woman at your house is coming along. Has she spoken yet, and told who she is, and where she came from?"
Hugh shook his head in the negative.
"Never a word as yet, Thad. Fact is, Doctor Cadmus says she mustn't be worried by questions for several days, possibly."
"Then she's still wandering in her mind, is she, Hugh?"
"Yes, and saying all sorts of things about her girlhood days, as well as about her husband, who, mother thinks, must have come to his death in some accident. She calls him Joey, too, just like the boy. It must be a family name, we imagine. So mother is content to wait until she is better, when she will tell all she wants us to know."
"Then you didn't bother taking that wise tip I gave you, Hugh?" and Thad's voice had a little ring of disappointment about it.
"Oh! I was up early this morning, and, as the road out there seemed so hard and firm, the snow being packed down solid, I just jumped on my wheel, and took a little run up in that direction. It wasn't so easy, once I struck in on that side road, but I managed to pedal along somehow."
"There are a number of houses on that road, I chance to know, Hugh; the Simms live there, likewise the Thompsons and the Garrabrants."
"I managed to reach those three houses," Hugh continued; "but it didn't pay me, so far as results went, though I enjoyed the run all right."
"From that I imagine nobody had seen the woman and child yesterday afternoon coming along that particular road, eh, Hugh?"
"No one could remember having met or seen such a person," Hugh told him; "and as strangers are uncommon in these parts they would surely have noticed her if she passed their doors. So I came to the conclusion, as I couldn't even find the marks of her shoes in the snow along the road, that she must have come over from Belleville way, and was in the woods at the time I first went by, which would account for my not meeting her."
"To change the subject, Hugh, I notice that Nick still fights shy of the rest of the crowd these days. He was skating on the ice to-day; but absolutely declined to take part in the game; though Mr. Leonard, wanting to make the opposition as strong as possible so as to put us to our best licks, went over and talked with him, trying to coax Nick to join the line-up. What makes him act that way, Hugh? One would think Nick'd be glad of the chance to play."
"He would, Thad, he certainly would, because he enjoys hockey as much as you or myself; but I reckon Nick, for the first time in all his life, finds himself afflicted with shyness. You see, he knows people don't, as a rule, believe in this sudden reformation. They can't have any faith in a fellow who's fooled them so often before. And that makes him want to keep away. Nick is fighting it out all by himself. If we knew all the wonderful things that he's grappling with these days I imagine we'd sympathize with the poor fellow, Thad."
"Hugh, you may be right. Already I'm beginning to feel sorry for saying some of the mean things I did when first we guessed Nick was trying to turn over a new leaf. It must be terrible hard for a boy who's always been bad to change around and face the other way."
"Stop and think, Thad. Take the case of that Jean Valjean, for instance. Now, he underwent a complete change of heart, and from being a beast, hating humanity, he grew to love other people, and be ready to sacrifice himself to save another. You remember how he voluntarily gave himself up to the law in that courtroom scene, just to save a miserable wretch who was about to be punished under the belief that he was the genuine Jean Valjean."
"Yes, but Hugh, he was unknown when he fought his battle, and won out. Besides, he had the money he received for the silver the priest gave him, with which to get a start in the world. But Nick here is known, and people point their fingers at him with scorn, and talk openly about his playing another of his pranks."
"That was just what I had in mind when I spoke, Thad. Nick has the harder row of the two to hoe. And if he wins out he'll deserve a lot of praise, I tell you. But see who's coming along here in a rig, will you?"
"Why, it's good old Deacon Winslow, the blacksmith weather prophet; and, Hugh, isn't he beckoning to us right now?"
"Just what he is; let's cross over and see what he wants with us," Hugh immediately went on to say; for, as has been intimated before in these pages, he had come to feel a great interest in the brawny smith, and wanted to cultivate a closer acquaintance with him; there was something so genial, so wholesome about the owner of the crossroads smithy.
"Jump in and go along with me, lads," sang out Mr. Winslow, as they came up. "I'm bound around to the home of Mrs. Disney on a little errand; and, since you two are interested, I thought you might like to help me explain to the poor woman that I want to go on her boy's bail. It's a shame he has to stay in the lockup all this time, waiting for his trial to come off."
The chums exchanged quick looks.
"How about it, do we go along, Hugh?" asked Thad.
For answer the other hopped up alongside the deacon, and, of course, Thad did likewise. Since the Disney home was not far away they were quickly at the door, and knocking for admittance.
Leon's mother answered the summons. She looked frightened at seeing the huge bulk of the blacksmith there, and the two boys with him. But no sooner had he spoken in his kindly fashion than the anxious expression fled from her pale face.
"Please excuse me for dropping in on you, Mrs. Disney," said the deacon, after they had been ushered into the humble sitting-room, where a wood-fire burned on the hearth; "but I just couldn't stand it any longer. I want to stand bail for your boy, so you can have him home again with you till his trial comes off."
Leon's mother looked embarrassed. She twisted her apron in her nervous fingers, and seemed very near the point of tears.
"Oh! it's kind of you, Deacon Winslow, indeed it is!" she finally exclaimed, as she looked up at the smiling, sympathetic big man; "but, after all I think it is better that Leon remained where he is though it almost breaks my heart to say it."
Thad looked astonished, but Hugh nodded his head, as though he could understand what was back of those words so strange for a mother to speak. Deacon Winslow was also considerably surprised, it seemed.
"But the bail bond is only for a thousand dollars, madam," he said; "and I can afford to put that up for his appearance in court later."
"Thank you again and again for your kindness to a poor woman, and a mother, sir!" she exclaimed with a half-suppressed sob in her voice; "but there does not seem to be any doubt about my boy's guilt, much as I hate to acknowledge it. His association with that Lang boy has been his ruin. And he would be likely to run away, to try and escape his just punishment, so that the bail bond would be forfeited."
"But even so it wouldn't ruin me, Mrs. Disney," continued the deacon; "and I hate to think of you sitting here, and crying your eyes out because he is locked up."
She looked straight at him then, as she went on to say bravely:
"But, sir, I am thinking of what will eventually become of my boy. If he runs away now he will sink lower and lower, until he commits some terrible crime, it may be. But Dominie Pettigrew tells me that if he goes to the Reform School there is a chance that he may come out later on completely changed in heart, and ready to play his honest part in the world. No, I have thought it all over, and prayed to be led to do what is best for my Leon. I cannot accept your offer, though you mean it in all kindness. For his sake I will wait until his time has expired, and continue to hope it may be the making of my poor boy."
Deacon Winslow did not attempt to urge her. Indeed, he could hardly say anything, for he was half choking with emotion. But he squeezed her hand, and gave her a look that must have carried some comfort to her poor distracted heart.
Once outside, the boys shook hands with the big man. Hugh was feeling more drawn towards him than ever.
"I'm coming out to visit you soon, Deacon," he told the other; "I want to know you better. There are a lot of things I mean to ask you about the habits of those little animals from which you get your hints about the weather; and you told me to drop in any time I felt like it, you remember."
"You'll be doubly welcome, both of you, lads!" the big blacksmith assured Hugh, as he drove away, more or less disappointed because his little plan to assist a sorrow-stricken mother had fallen through.
"Say, his heart must be as big as a bushel-basket, Hugh," admitted Thad, as they walked along, heading for the open square in the center of the town.
Two minutes later and Thad gave vent to an ejaculation.
"It's all up now, Hugh!" he said, in a half-disappointed tone.
"What is?" demanded his comrade wonderingly.
"The Chief has arrested Tip Slavin, I mean. He must have heard what Owen Dugdale had to say about meeting Tip Slavin smoking a cigarette on the road to the mill-pond, and set a trap for him. He's just stopped his big car in front of Headquarters, and one of his men is lifting out a load of stuff, doubtless the plunder Tip cached in the woods up there. And the Chief has his hand on Tip's shoulder as they get out. I notice that Tip has lost his arrogant look, and seems badly scared, too!"
TIP SATISFIES HIS CRAVING—AND LOSES
"Let's step over and see how it happened, Hugh!"
As Hugh himself was not averse to picking up some information along that same line, the two chums entered the station-house just after the Chief and his man. The latter officer had placed the large package done up in a burlap bag on the floor. He was grinning, as though considerably pleased with the final results of the raid. Chief Wambold, too, was indulging in a smile as the boys entered; he even winked one eye at Thad, as though in a particularly good humor.
But there was one person present who did not seem to be in a happy frame of mind. That was Tip. He looked "in the dumps," as Thad expressed it; and on seeing the boys enter dropped his chin upon his breast in shame. All the bravado was gone from his demeanor now; he knew that with that evidence against him he was headed for the House of Refuge on a fast train.
The man took him through a door into another room, the Chief's private office. From this Hugh guessed that Tip was about to be questioned at length, in the hope of his possibly implicating still a third party in the theft.
"So you found his secret cache, did you, Chief?" remarked Thad boldly. "When Owen Dugdale left us he said he was going straight to you, to tell about meeting Tip on the road smoking a cigarette; and he showed us that it bore the same trademark as those stolen from Paul Kramer's place."
Thad went into detail so as to let the tall Chief understand they already knew all about the discovery, and had been told, in fact, even before he was.
"Yes, we took a hunt up there in the woods this morning," explained the other, with a broad smile; "and ran across some tracks that looked like Tip's. When we followed the trail it led us direct to a big tree that was hollow; and inside the cavity lay that bundle, wrapped in a burlap sack. It was almost too easy. An experienced crook would never have committed such a blunder, and left so plain a trail. Why, it looked as if we were being taken by the hand and led there."
"But I guess you didn't carry away the stuff right then, did you, Chief?" Thad went on to say, a wise look on his face.
"Hardly, son, hardly," replied the other, with a gesture of his hands. "That would have been too silly for anything. What we did was to back away, and cover our own footprints as well as we could. Then we hid to await developments. I left my man up there while I came back to town to conduct my business. Later in the day I once more joined him. I expected the boy might be getting hungry for a smoke about the same time Owen met him on the road. Well, he came, and we pounced down on him just when he had opened the pack, and was lighting a weed with his trembling, tobacco-stained fingers; because, just like Leon Disney, and that slick Nick Lang, Tip is a confirmed cigarette fiend, you know."
"Well, for one, Nick has cut the habit out, Chief, I happen to know, for he told me so," Hugh ventured to say.
The big police officer sneered, as though he refused to believe there could any good come out of the boy who bore that detested name of Nick Lang. During the whole of the time he occupied his present exalted position, Chief Wambold had been plagued by the pranks of Nick and his cronies; and, in spite of all his efforts, up to now he had been unable to fasten anything serious upon them, although he gave them credit for every piece of maliciousness practiced in Scranton during that period.
"Well, perhaps some people may believe Nick didn't have a hand in this outrage," he went on to say, "but I'll never think otherwise than that it was his genius for organizing raids that was responsible for the robbery. At the least, he may have changed his mind, seeing things getting too warm in police circles here. But never forget to keep one eye open when dealing with such a slippery customer, for his repentance is only skin-deep at the best."
Hugh made no reply. He knew it would have been utterly useless, because the Chief was not only a very stubborn man, but inclined to be a narrow-minded one in the bargain. So he and Thad walked out. The last they heard the officer call after them was:
"Make up your minds, boys, Scranton is going to be purged now as never before. We've made a good beginning, and it'll be pretty unhealthy for anybody to start a racket from now on. Tip and Leon will be going to the Reform School inside of a few days, after they've had their trial before the Justice; and the town will be well rid of a pair of scapegraces. And thank you for what assistance you may have given us, boys."
As they walked along Thad vented his feelings in the matter.
"It looks as if that episode might be called closed, eh, Hugh? The evidence is so powerfully strong that neither of the boys can put up anything like a half-way decent defense. They're going to be sent away, and we'll not be bothered with the bunch again. With Nick on the mourners' bench, the old town is going to be pretty orderly for a while, until some fresh spirits break loose."
"Let's hope it may be a long time before Nick has a successor," said Hugh. "This whole thing is going to be a lesson to such fellows as were inclined to run around with the street gangs, and play practical jokes nights."
"I notice one thing," remarked Thad, "which is that some of those fellows who used to loaf on the street corners in summer are now coming to the club-house at the baseball park, now it's opened three nights a week. The only trouble is they haven't got half enough magazines and games there to go around, so many visit the big room to get in out of the cold these nights."
"That is going to be remedied before long," Hugh told him. "Some of the men of the town, and Deacon Winslow heads the list, I understand, have arranged to spend a lot more money on certain improvements; and among other things there will be a pretty fair gymnasium, as well as more reading matter of the right sort for boys."
"Now, that's news to me, Hugh!" exclaimed the delighted Thad; "queer that I hadn't heard a word about it before. But then you get wind of everything that's going on. Folks think they ought to ask your advice on all sorts of subjects. That's what it means to be the most popular boy in a town."
"Thanks for the compliment, Thad," he said; "but just think of the weight of responsibility I have to stagger under, even as the captain of the Scranton Seven. Why, everybody stops me on the street, and asks the most remarkable questions. They seem to think I'm gifted with prophetic vision. They ask me to tell them just how badly we're going to whip Keyport to-morrow morning, and lots of other things that I know no more about than a baby might."
"Well, have you decided to give up trying to learn where the woman with the little child came from?" asked Thad, again switching the subject in an abrupt fashion he had.
"Oh! I don't know whether it will pay me to go out again, and try to trace her back to Belleville, or some such place," said Hugh. "Doctor Cadmus assured my mother she would certainly be in her rational mind inside of two days at the longest. So I reckon I had better lie on my oars, and wait. I've got plenty to bother about, as it is, with that hot game coming off in the morning."
"Perhaps you're wise about that, Hugh. I know I'm a lot too impatient by half, and can't bear to wait for things to come to me. That's why I always stepped out to meet the ball when at bat; and I often caught it before the break came to make it a sharp drop."
"Mother says she thinks her full name is Judith Walters, though, as far as we know now, that doesn't help any. Still, if she didn't recover, it might assist in finding her family, so they could take the boy. He's a fine little chap, and I've already made great friends with him."
"You say she keeps on speaking to someone she calls grandfather, who seems likely to turn them both out of the house?" Thad persisted, as though he might be trying to figure something out.
"Yes, and so we take it for granted there must be some sort of a pitiful family tragedy about the whole affair," Hugh told him. "Mother suspects she may have married some years ago against her grandfather's will; and, losing her husband suddenly through accident, she is now on her way back, to plead with a hard-hearted old man for a place under his roof. But as you say there's no family named Walters near here, and we certainly don't know of any girl leaving her home that way."
"The chances are," Thad said decisively, "that she was meaning to pass through Scranton, and was heading for some other town, perhaps Allandale. You might find out if any such thing happened there some years ago; or if an old man could be found who would welcome a dear little boy named Joey."
The subject being exhausted for the time being, the boys talked of something else until they finally separated, each heading for his own particular supper table.
Of course, the news of Tip's arrest was soon known all over town. Most people had anticipated such an event, and professed not to be in the least surprised to hear about it. Nevertheless, the clever device of Chief Wambold, which he took care should be passed from lip to lip, so as to add to his popularity, was highly commended.
And there never was a time when Scranton passed a more peaceful night than on that occasion. Already great good was coming of the breaking up of the vicious gang that had held sway much too long. With two of the members locked up, being just as good as on their way to the Reform School, and the leader forsaking his former evil practices, it looked as though the police force of Scranton would soon become fat and lazy through lack of activity.
Hugh did not go out that evening. He was tired, and wished to conserve his energies so as to be in first-class trim for that lively morning brush with Keyport's Big Seven.
So he spent considerable time playing with little Joey; and, being still hopeful of learning something that would afford a clue to the mysterious past of the boy's young mother, Hugh often plied him with questions.
But his success was hardly flattering to his acumen, for the little fellow could not tell him anything that would be of material help. Hugh guessed that they had once been out in some mining country, from certain things the boy chanced to mention. He also had reason to believe the father had come to his death through such a catastrophe as so often happens in the mines; for the boy spoke of many families losing those they loved when "poppy" was buried in the cold ground.
It was slow work, and anyone less tenacious than Hugh might have given up all hope of making a discovery. He believed, however, that if no other way arose by means of which they could find out what they sought, some time or other Joey was apt to let fall a word that might lead to discoveries.
The doctor came before bedtime, and said his patient was getting along nicely.
"Given one more day, and possibly by Sunday she may come into her senses again," he told them before leaving. "And then she can thank you, madam, for all your kind heart has done for her. But that little boy is a sunbeam for any house. I have half a mind to steal him myself."
THE LIVELY GAME WITH KEYPORT'S SEVEN
Many a fellow in Scranton felt blue early on Saturday morning, when, jumping from his warm bed, and hastening over to a window, he looked out to discover a few flakes of snow lazily drifting earthwards.
The gloomy sky seemed to be in fit condition for a heavy snowfall, that would put the hockey game with Keyport entirely out of the question.
By the time breakfast was ready, however, these fugitive snowflakes had ceased falling entirely, and, shortly afterwards, the bright sun broke out, lifting the load from myriads of enthusiastic young hearts.
After all, it turned out a perfectly glorious winter's day, the air being keen, but with little wind to mar the work of the contenders on the icy rink.
Along about nine in the morning people began to gather at the park, paying for seats in the grandstand. Everybody was as warmly clad as possible, since it is no joke to sit for an hour or two, with the thermometer registering half-way down to zero.
As before, one-half of the enclosed area was shut off from the general public, in order to afford the hockey players the benefit of the new ice. Of course, it had been flooded on the preceding night, after the last skater had left, and this caused a splendid surface to congeal.
Boys and girls came flocking to the place. Many bore skates, but there were others who only wished to witness the contest between the two rival high-school teams, as scheduled for that morning. There were hosts of other people present also; and already cars and conveyances of every description were arriving from Keyport, Allandale, Belleville, and such places, filled with eager enthusiasts, who loved a good hockey game above all sports, and would journey far afield in order to be present when one was to be played.
Shortly afterwards some of the Scranton players appeared on the enclosed area. Their coming was greeted with all sorts of cries, meant, for the most part, as encouragement, and expressing a firm belief in their ability to win out.
"We're pinning our faith on you boys. Dugdale, remember!" cried one fellow.
"Don't let them get too big a start on you, because they're terrible fighters, once they get a lead!" came from another, who, having lived in Keyport, was supposed to know the characteristics of the boys on that team.
"And, Hobson, always remember that it's the longest pole that knocks the persimmons!" whooped a third fellow student.
Thad and Hugh were sitting on a low bench, adjusting their skates leisurely, and listening in an amused way to much of this friendly badinage.
"The boys are certainly wanting to win this game, Hugh," chuckled Thad. "Makes me think of some of the warm sessions we had last summer in baseball contests with Allandale and Belleville. ["The Chums of Scranton High in the Three-Town League."]
"It seems as if Scranton boys and girls have developed a voracious appetite for every kind of out-door sport lately," Hugh went on to say. "Did you hear what the committee in charge of the grounds here intends to do next week?"
"Haven't heard a whisper so far, Hugh; so give me the news," pleaded the other.
"Why, you know the fellows have been building bonfires here at night-times when skating. It was all very fine, but there seemed to be considerable worry about the new high fence taking fire and burning during the night. So they've concluded to run wires across from side to side, and string electric lights for use on dark nights, but only when the skating is good."
Thad looked pleased.
"Why, that's a boss idea; who suggested it, Hugh?" he demanded.
"Oh! somebody just happened to think of it, and the committee agreed it was a good scheme," returned Hugh; but something about his manner told Thad the truth.
"Huh! I can give a pretty good guess who that smart chap is; but don't bother trying to deny it, Hugh. The only bad thing about it in my mind is that we'll miss those jolly fires. It's always been so fine to skate up and stand before one, to get warm, and hear the flames crackle, while the girl you're skating with sits on a log, or something like that, to warm her feet."
"Oh! well, when you want the romantic side of night-skating, Thad, you'll have to go out to Hobson's mill-pond, like you say you used to do. There, with plenty of wood handy, you can have the biggest fire you feel like making. Here, so close to town, we have to get our light in a more modern way. Now, I reckon I'm ready for any sort of a scrimmage that comes along."
A shout presently announced that the boys from Keyport had arrived in a big car of the "rubber-neck" variety, with five seats across; and used for sight-seeing purposes, or any excursion where a dozen or twenty wished to go in a crowd.
A little later the fellows came on the ice in a body, with their distinguishing jerseys. They appeared to be an exceedingly lively bunch, and were soon spinning about, displaying a nimbleness that excited apprehensions in many a loyal Scranton heart.
As boys need little introduction, the opposing players quickly intermingled, and seemed on the best of terms. Captain Mossman and Hugh paired off, to talk over matters connected with the game. They were soon joined by Mr. Leonard, and several gentlemen, some from Keyport, others hailing from Allandale and Belleville.
It was soon decided that the officials should be chosen as far as possible from neutral territory. There were to be a referee, an assistant referee, two goal umpires, as many timekeepers, and a pair of penalty timekeepers.
Fortunately, Allandale and its sister town had quite a quota of former college players and gentlemen who had been members of famous hockey clubs in Canada and elsewhere when younger. They had kept in touch with the progress of events, so that they were eminently qualified to act in the various capacities to which they were now assigned by Mr. Leonard and the coach of the Keyport Seven.
Hugh kept looking around from time to time. He wished to be posted as to what other promising players connected with Scranton High were on the ice, so that in case of necessity he could call on one of them to take the place of an injured Scranton boy.
And when he finally noted that Nick Lang had arrived, and was on his skates, somehow Hugh seemed relieved. Deep down in his heart he believed that should he have occasion to replace a player, as the rules allowed, on account of serious injury, which is about the only excuse for such a thing, Nick would be his first choice.
He wished now he had spoken to Nick about it, so that he could depend on his remaining throughout the game. There was not another fellow who would be of such great benefit to Scranton as the boy now wearing Hugh's old hockey skates. But it was too late to think of seeking him out, for the game was about to be called.
When the rival teams faced each other, and listened to the last instructions of the head referee, they were found to line up as follows:
Scranton High Position Keyport Stevens .......... Goal ............ Kellogg Hobson ........... Point ........... Ackerson Danvers .......... Cover Point ..... Bell Smith ............ Right End ....... Elly Dugdale .......... Center .......... Braxton Juggins .......... Left End ........ Mossman Morgan ........... Rover ........... Jackson
Hugh faced Mossman when the puck was dropped on the ice, and play began. There was a furious scramble, but Hugh came out of it first-best, for he bore away the little elusive rubber disc, and managed to carry it some distance down toward Keyport's goal before losing control. Then the fun became fast and furious, indeed. Those agile skaters whirled back and forth across the smooth ice with every imaginable turn and twist.
Clever plays were continually occurring on either side, and these were greeted with outbursts of enthusiastic cheering.
The crowd really seemed very impartial and sportsmanlike, considering that possibly four-fifths of it represented the local team, and might be supposed to feel prejudiced in their favor. They shouted themselves fairly hoarse over a brilliant dash on the part of Captain Mossman, whereby he outwitted his opponents, and, despite all Thad's efforts to block the play, shot the puck home in the cage for the first well-won goal of the game.
Later on Owen Dugdale repeated the performance in almost as masterly a manner. The applause was, if anything, a shade more uproarous. Now the game went on evenly, with a goal apiece; but Keyport was out for scoring and would not be denied; so, in a hurry, they pushed the fighting down on Scranton territory, and put another goal to their credit, though three times did Thad balk the effort before it was accomplished.
When the first twenty minutes had expired the score was six to five. Keyport was ahead, but the margin was so small that no one despaired.
After the intermission they went at it once more, "hammer-and-tongs." Thus far no one had been injured seriously enough to more than delay the game a few minutes, and, before the fatal seven had expired, the fellow who had been hurt was able to take his place in the line; so no substitutes were called on. Hugh was glad of this, though he frequently shot a quick glance around to see if Nick Lang still hung about; which he certainly did, being deeply interested in the game.
The second half was even more fiercely contested than the previous one had been. Scranton rallied behind Hugh, and put up a savage attack that carried them up a couple of pegs, the score then standing eight to seven; but after a bit Keyport came back and tied it again. So it remained until the limit of the game approached perilously near, and it seemed as though an extension of time would have to be granted, as the rules allowed. But at the last minute, Hugh himself carried out a daring steal of the puck; and, before the opposing players could block him, shot it into their net for the winning score.
Before the players could get in position again, and the puck be faced, the whistle of the referee declared the game over, with Scranton a bare winner.
The Keyport players were plainly greatly chagrined, but they proved game losers, and had not a fault to find, shaking hands cheerfully with their late opponents, and expressing a hope that a return match could be arranged on their rink at some date not far in the future.
It was well on toward noon when Hugh, tired of skating for one day, started homeward. For a wonder he walked by himself, something Hugh seldom had happen; for if his chum Thad Stevens was not at his side, some other fellow, possibly several, would be sure to hurry so as to catch up with him.
But Thad had been compelled to go home an hour before on some account, his folks having certain plans that forced him to accompany them immediately after lunch.
Hugh was feeling a bit tired, but in good spirits, nevertheless, because of the clever victory his team had won, in which he had borne his part consistently. It always gives a boy a warm sensation around the region of his heart to realize that he has not failed those who put their faith in his ability. How many can look back with a feeling of pride to that "great day" when it was their home-run drive, or whistling three-bagger that pulled the home team out of a slump, and started a batting-bee that, eventually, won the game? Those days are marked with a red letter in the pages of memory.
When part way to town, for the athletic grounds lay outside the limits of Scranton, though not far away, Hugh suddenly discovered a familiar figure just ahead of him, which, somehow, he had not noticed up to then. It was Nick Lang. He had his skates dangling over his shoulder by a strap, and Hugh could actually catch his whistle as he strode along.
Somehow this told him Nick was feeling in higher spirits than had lately been the case. Perhaps he was beginning to feel a new confidence in himself, Hugh suspected. In the beginning Nick must have seriously doubted his ability to, as some of the boys would have called it, "come across, and deliver the goods," when he set out to reform his ways.
He had now been keeping up the pace for more than a week. It was gradually growing easier, too, the further he went along the unfamiliar road. People did not sneer quite so much at him as in the beginning. Some even ventured to give him a half-friendly nod when they chanced to meet.
And so for the first time perhaps since that day when he made up his mind, Nick was unconsciously whistling as he walked along, his thoughts busy with matters connected with his set purpose.
Obeying an impulse Hugh quickened his pace.
"Oh, Nick! Hold on a minute, will you?" he called out.
On turning his head quickly and seeing who it was, Nick stopped short in his tracks. He was looking a little confused, yet not displeased, when Hugh reached him.
Hugh thrust out his hand, and, of course, Nick had to accept it, though he did look a little awkward, because this was a new experience with him. Still, he gave Hugh's digits a fierce squeeze that might be taken as an index to his feelings toward his one-time hated enemy.
"I've been wanting to have a little chat with you for some time, Nick," the other hastened to say; "but somehow every chance I got something would interfere, and the best I could do was to wave my hand, or give you a nod. Now this morning, just as I started to skate through the crowd to say something important to you, the coach called me back and said they were ready to start play. Do you know what it was I meant to ask of you this morning, Nick?"
Nick looked puzzled and curious also.
"I might guess it in a week, Hugh," he said, grinning; "but not right away. You see, I ain't used to having anybody ask things of me. It's generally been a scowl, and a suspicious look, as if they thought I mean to play a trick on 'em if they so much as turned their heads on me. But then that's just what I used to do often enough; so I oughtn't to complain. What did you want with me, Hugh?"
"I was going to ask you to stand by during the entire game, because, in case one of my players was hurt so badly that he'd have to be dropped out, rather than cut both sides down to six, I meant to put you in as substitute, no matter what position had to be filled."
Nick caught his breath. His face flushed, and a glow appeared in his eyes. That expression of confidence shown in Hugh's words filled his aching heart with new encouragement. Hugh could see the muscles of his cheeks working, as though he found it difficult to control his emotions. Then Nick spoke.
"That was mighty kind in you, Hugh, to think of me," he said, with just a suspicious quiver to his voice. "I'd sure liked to have played in that game; but do you think it'd have been wise to have picked me for a substitute when there were plenty of other fellows on the ice competent to take the place?"
"Not one able to fill your shoes, Nick, and they know it," asserted Hugh stoutly.
"But then if you'd done that there'd sure have been a howl raised later on by lots of folks who still have it in for me because of the past," urged Nick, though it could be easily seen that he felt particularly pleased by what the captain of the Scranton High Seven had just told him.
"Let them howl," Hugh went on to say. "There never yet was a fellow who nobly redeemed his past but what a bunch of wolves set up a howl on his heels. Don't you pay any attention to those fellows, Nick. Stick to your game through thick and thin. Every day you go on as you have been doing you win fresh friends. Even Mr. Leonard, who used to fairly detest you, is now singing your praises; and Dr. Carmack told me he was pinning his faith on you. He's a long-headed man, Nick, a very far-seeing man, who knows boys and is not easily deceived. He believes in you; so do I, and a lot of other fellows. You're going to make good, and I know it."
"Well, I'm going to keep on fighting, that's all I can say, Hugh," replied Nick grimly. "I'll get there, or bust the biler trying. But sometimes I have an awful time with myself, just because I can't wholly believe folks will respect a chap who's done as many mean things as I have in the past."
"You must put that out of your mind, Nick," urged the other. "Why, don't you think I'd have ten times as much respect for the fellow who's been down, and climbs up again through his own will-power, than for the one who's always been shielded from temptation, and never really proved what he had in him? Nine-tenths of the fellows who walk along so straight are kept on that road because they happen to have wise parents to watch over them; and they were never given an overpowering appetite to do wrong things."
Nick drew a long breath. His eyes glistened again, and perhaps with something besides the animation that Hugh's kind and encouraging words kindled within his soul.
"You see," he went on to say, presently, when he could control his voice, "I always did like to run smack up against a hard proposition. It's in my nature to want a good fight, and I reckon I've got it this time. But I'm a whole lot stubborn, too, Hugh, as likely you've learned; and I don't give up easy. Since I started to reform I'm a-going to get there if it takes a leg. Anyhow, it's a heap sight pleasanter doing it outside the Reform School than inside, like some fellows I used to train with are a-going to do, it seems."
All this kind of talk pleased Hugh immensely. He felt more than ever satisfied with the magnificent result of that clever little scheme of his. Reading Hugo's masterpiece had brought it about, too, and he would always have occasion to remember this when handling that volume recording the wonderful achievements of the one-time ignorant convict and human beast named Jean Valjean.
Nick just then saw several other boys hurrying to overtake Hugh. He immediately evinced a desire to start off on a tangent, and head elsewhere.
"I've got an errand over in town, Hugh, so I'll break away," he said hurriedly, though Hugh could easily guess the real reason for his departure. "But I want to tell you I appreciate your kindness, and if in the next hockey match there's need of a substitute, and you see fit to put me in, why, I'll work my fingers to the bone to make good, sure I will."
And Hugh believed it.
WHERE THE SPARKS FLEW
Along about three o'clock that afternoon Hugh, feeling refreshed, made up his mind he would go for a walk. There had been no positive change in the condition of the mother of little Joey. She was coming along nicely, though, Doctor Cadmus assured Mrs. Morgan, and would very likely awaken in her proper senses on the following morning. He was successfully combating the inclination towards fever, he told the good lady, and this gave Hugh's mother considerable relief.
The boy was a fine little chap. Hugh had already come to feel a deep interest in him, and had played for an hour with Joey.
"Why not take him out with you, Hugh, if, as you say, you're going for a walk?" asked his mother.
"I'd like to," the boy said, "if you thought he could stand going such a distance as out to the Cross-roads; for I meant to drop in on Deacon Winslow. He asked me to come and see him, and perhaps stay to supper in the bargain, for he wants to have a good chat with me. And, Mother, I've been meaning to get to know that fine old man better; there's something about him that draws me. He's got such healthy ideas about everything, and is an entertaining talker when it comes to the habits of animals, and the secrets of all animated nature."
"Well, I'm sure little Joey would enjoy the walk. He seems fond of being outdoors, and has been shut up here since you brought him home. And if Deacon Winslow urges you both to take supper with him, there's no reason why you should decline. He may fetch you home in his sleigh, if the child seems tired, and sleepy."
Hugh decided he would do as his mother suggested.
"Would you like to take a nice long walk out in the country with me, Joey?" he asked the little fellow, who had been hovering near by, and listening to all that was being said.
"I like to walk," the small chap replied quickly; "but not all day, like mom and me did. Mebbe she'll be awake when we come back, Hugh?"
Each time he had been allowed in the room to see his mother was when she happened to be in a deep sleep, and her ravings had ceased; so it was natural for Joey to conclude she was only making up for lack of rest.
So, shortly afterwards, the two started forth, the little fellow with his hand in that of Hugh. He had come to feel the utmost confidence in this big boy who, in the time of their distress, had fetched himself and his poor fainting mother to the nice warm house, where they seemed to have the nicest things to eat he could ever remember of seeing.
Hugh kept an eye about him, half hoping he might run across Thad, although the other had not expected to return before dusk. No such luck befell him, and so Hugh concluded he must carry out his original scheme, and have only the child for company during his stroll.
Of course, they could not walk at a fast pace, and so it took quite a long time for them to draw near the place where the two roads crossed. Here, at a point where there was much traffic in vehicles, the smithy of the old deacon stood. Time was when he attended only to the shoeing of horses, and such other business as a blacksmith would find in his line. The coming of the auto had made him change his work to some extent; so he kept a line of rubber tires and tubes in his shop, and was capable of doing all ordinary repairing, such as might be found necessary after a minor accident to a car on the road.
It was pleasant, indeed, when the wintry air was so keen, to step up to the open doors of the shop, and see that seething fire in the forge beyond the grim anvil. Mr. Winslow stood there, with his leather apron on, and his woollen sleeves rolled up to his elbows, showing his brawny arms with their muscles of steel. He was working the bellows and singing softly to himself, after a habit he had when alone.
Apparently, he had let his helper off earlier than customary that afternoon, for the deacon was not a hard employer, and ready to grant favors when business was not rushing.
Hugh stood there and took in the striking picture, with the glowing fire in the forge, that fine, big figure of the old blacksmith standing there. The rosy light played on his strong features as he crooned his song, his thoughts possibly away back in the past, as is the habit of those who near the end of their life span.
Just then little Joey sneezed. The low song of the deacon came to an abrupt end, as he turned his head and discovered the two figures in the open doorway.
He recognized Hugh immediately, and a look of genuine pleasure flashed across his face.
"Is that you, Hugh?" he called out, stopping work with the bellows; "and have you come out to take a bite with the old lady and myself? I'm certainly glad to see you, lad. And who might this fine little chap be?"
It was only natural that a man who loved all boys, little and big, as Deacon Winslow did, should drop down on one knee and take Joey in his arms. When he looked into the little fellow's winsome face he seemed strangely moved. But then in these later days it was always so with the old man; never a child did he see but that long-hidden memories flowed again, and once more he seemed to be looking on his own boy, gone ages and ages ago.
"He and his mother are stopping at our house," said Hugh, meaning to tell how he had come to find them in their extremity, later on, when possibly the child was not present to hear what he said.
"I've just got a small amount of work to finish, and then I'm done for the week," said the brawny smith, as he arose again, winking very fast, it seemed to Hugh, for some reason or other. "Here's a bench you can both sit on, and watch the sparks fly from the anvil when I get my hammer busy. Likely the lad has never seen the same before, and it is always deeply interesting to children, I've found."
So they made themselves comfortable. Little Joey was a bit tired after his long walk, and leaned confidingly up against Hugh, who had thrown an arm about him.
The smiting of the red bar with the hammer caused a shower of sparks to fly in every direction. It was fairly fascinating, and Joey stared with all his might. Even Hugh always enjoyed seeing a blacksmith at work, and hearing the sweet-toned ring of steel smiting steel.
Now and again as he worked, Deacon Winslow would ask some question. He was acquainted with the fact that the boys of Scranton High had expected to play a hockey match that morning with the Keyport team, and as no one had thus far told him how the game came out, he asked Hugh about it.
From this subject the talk drifted to others, always being of a somewhat sporadic nature, caused by the smith's starting work again, after heating his iron bar sufficiently in the fire.
"I'll have the night free, for a wonder," he told Hugh, with a sigh of pleasure. "I try as best I can to avoid working late on Saturday, because I want to be as fresh as possible Sundays, which are always full days for me. So when Nick wanted to come out Saturdays, I induced him to change it to an earlier night instead. By the way, how is the lad coming, on these days with his new resolutions?"
Accordingly, Hugh started in to tell him how Nick was doing finely, and even repeated a part of the little talk he and the other had had that morning, while on the way to town from the park.
Mr. Winslow listened intently, as he worked the bellows.
"I'm very much interested in the outcome of your experiment, Hugh," he said. "It was a clever idea on your part; and now that Nick has made a start I do believe he'll see it through. I always thought he had it in him to work out his own salvation, if ever he got a fair chance. That opportunity has now dawned, and he's on the right road, Hugh; he's on the right road."
"I agree with you there, sir," said the boy. "The very stubborn spirit that used to get him into so much trouble is now going to be his redemption, since he's got it harnessed up to the right sort of vehicle. The more they try to shove Nick off the track the harder he'll be apt to stick."
"It was the luckiest thing that ever happened for him," continued the deacon, "when you hatched up that wonderful plan on the spur of the moment, and tried it out on him. But for that, Hugh, he'd now be locked up with his former mates, and headed for the Reform School at full speed. As it is, he is free to walk the streets, and already beginning to win the confidence of many good people in the town."
Ten minutes afterwards and the brawny smith threw his hammer aside, and commenced to undo the thongs that fastened his leathern apron about his loins.
"I've finished my stint, lad," he said; "and now we can go into the house, where you'll meet my better-half. I've told her so much about you, she is eager to make your acquaintance. As for this fine, manly little chap here, who seems to spring straight into my heart the more I look at him, as if he belonged there, she'll be half-tickled to death at the chance to cuddle him in her motherly arms. Alas! lad, it's been many a long, weary year since she had the privilege of loving a child of her own. Sometimes when I see her sitting there, so quiet like, and looking into the wonderfully brilliant sunset skies, I seem to know what she is thinking about, and I feel for her. It's harder on a mother, than anyone else, to lose her child as we did our poor, reckless boy."
Hugh felt a queer sensation in the region of his heart when he heard the big man speak so mournfully. He realized then as never before how the heart of a parent can never fully recover from a cruel shock, such as the loss of one who as a little child had come, it was hoped, as a ray of sunlight in the lives of those who loved him.
The home of the smith adjoined his shop. There was, in fact, a door that connected them, and through this Deacon Winslow now led his thrice welcome guests. Presently they found themselves in what seemed to be a cozy little sitting-room, where a wood-fire blazed cheerily on the hearth.
Seated in one of those invalid wheel-chairs, which can be so easily manipulated by the occupant, after becoming expert at the job, was a most benign-looking and motherly old lady, with snow-white hair, and a face that was one of the sweetest and most patient Hugh had ever gazed upon.
He knew instantly that he was going to like Mrs. Winslow just as much as he did her big husband. All the good things he had heard about her benevolence must then be true, he concluded, as he looked on her smiling face.
"Mother, here's my friend, Hugh Morgan, come out to take supper with us, as I told you he'd half-promised to do," said the deacon, in his breezy fashion. "And see, he has fetched a little chap along with him who'll warm your heart as nothing else could do. This is Joey Walters, who, with his mother, is stopping at the Morgan home. Hugh didn't say whether they were any relatives of his or not; but this is a mighty winsome morsel, Mother, for you to hug."
He thereupon lifted the child up in his strong hands and placed him in the lap of the old lady. Hugh noticed that she started, and stared hard at the chubby face of little Joey, just as the deacon had done; and then she turned her wondering eyes toward her husband. There was a look akin to awe in their depths, something that told how the sight of the child took her instantly back years and years to those never-to-be-forgotten days when just such a lovely little cherub had come to bless their home.
Then the old lady gave a long sigh.
"Oh, Joel!" she said, in a trembling voice, "how the sight of him startled me. I can shut my eyes, and think time has taken me back to our first year of wedded life. Yes, I am overjoyed at making the acquaintance of such a robust little fellow. And, Hugh, forgive me for not speaking to you before. I have heard much about you, and am pleased to know you. But, above all things, let me thank you for bringing this child out here to open the hearts of two lonely old people who live only in the past as their sun goes down toward the darkness of the night."
"I'll run along now, and take my regular bath after my work," said Deacon Winslow, trying to speak cheerily, though Hugh knew very well he had been more or less affected by what his wife had just said.
Left alone with the old lady, while the servant bustled in and out, laying the cloth, and setting the table, Hugh commenced an interesting conversation. She asked him a multitude of questions covering all sorts of subjects, even to that of athletic sports.
"You see, the Deacon is fond of boys to an extent that it has become his one hobby," she explained, in order to let Hugh know why she felt an interest in such matters. "He spends all his spare time doing things to make growing lads happier, and more contented in their homes. People will never know one-tenth of what he's done to save boys who were going the pace. His latest protege in that line you happen to know, a hulking fellow named Nick Lang, who, I understand, has been the terror of Scranton for years. I've met him, and must say I have my doubts whether he can ever be tamed, and molded into a respectable member of society; but Joel seems to believe no boy is so bad but what he has a soft streak in him somewhere, if only you can find it."
"Well, since he hasn't told you about the inspiration that came to me," Hugh felt constrained to say, though averse to speaking of his own successes, "I want to say that right now Nick Lang is on the road to making good."
"Please tell me all about it then, Hugh?" she urged him.
Accordingly, Hugh started to relate the story from the very beginning; and he had a deeply interested auditor; for Mrs. Winslow sat there in her wheel-chair, with little Joey cuddled in her arms, and one of his soft, chubby hands patting her face.
AT THE DEACON'S FIRESIDE
"Hugh, I do believe you will succeed in your undertaking, and that Nick Lang is already firmly planted on the right path!" exclaimed the old lady, with considerable warmth, when the story had been brought up to date, bringing in an account of Hugh's most recent talk with the former terror of the town.
"It looks encouraging, anyhow," he merely replied; though, of course; he felt a flush of boyish pride at the warm look she gave him when saying what she did.
"My husband has worked with many an erring lad," she continued reminiscently; "sometimes with fair success, but only too often without, apparently, winning him away from his bad companions. But your idea was most unique. To think it all came of your reading Hugo's masterpiece, and taking it to heart. But here comes Joel; and we can soon be seated at the supper table."
The more Hugh saw of this remarkably genial old couple the closer did he seem to be drawn to Deacon Winslow and his crippled wife. Indeed, Hugh soon came to the conclusion that they were the warmest-hearted pair he had ever known in all his life.
Mrs. Winslow was wheeled cheerily to her appointed place at the table by her husband, who waited on her just as assiduously as though they were lately married; instead of having "trudged along life's highway in double harness," as the deacon, humorously put it, for a matter of sixty years or so.
Of course, as Deacon Winslow was a deeply religious man, Hugh expected he would ask a blessing before partaking of the bountiful spread that was placed on the table; nor was he disappointed. The deacon's deep-toned voice was wonderfully musical, and to Hugh it sounded almost as though he were singing whenever he spoke. He never grew tired of hearing the old blacksmith talk; though they would not allow him to be a mere visitor, but, by asking many questions, kept Hugh in the conversation.
The little fellow had been placed in a high chair. It looked of very ancient vintage, Hugh thought, when first sighting it. Seeing the look on his face the good lady of the house said in a voice that she tried to keep from vibrating:
"It was our Joel's chair; somehow we have managed to keep it intact through all the years. There was a time when I dreamed of some day seeing this boy seated at my table in his father's high chair. But your small friend, Hugh, fills a long vacant spot. I could almost fancy he belonged there, he seems so like——"
Deacon Winslow must have seen that his wife was getting on forbidden ground, for just at that moment he broke in with a question that demanded an answer from Hugh; and so the subject was dropped. But Hugh understood, and he felt his boyish heart throb with genuine sympathy for this splendid couple, who had yearned to have a house full of children, but somehow found their dearest wish set aside by a mysterious decree of Providence.
They had a merry time at the table. Little Joey was as bright as Hugh had ever known him to be, and fairly captivated the aged pair with his prattle. The old lady in particular hung upon his every word, as though in an ecstacy of delight. She anticipated his childish wants, and, really, little Joey could never have sat down to such a bountiful feast as on that memorable occasion.
Then the meal being ended they repaired again to the cheery fire. The deacon put on fresh wood, and the crackle of the blaze was very delightful on that cold night. Hugh had already spoken of the long walk ahead of him, and how, perhaps, he had better postpone his visit for another occasion, so as to get the child back home before it grew too late.
"Don't think of it, son," said Deacon Winslow instantly, and in a tone that would not be denied. "When the time comes I'll hitch my horse to the big sleigh; we'll wrap the child up as snug as a bug in a rug; and be over to your house in a jiffy. What if he does get a bit drowsy; let him take a nap. I'm sure he'll be safe in the loving arms of grandma."
At his mention of that last word the old lady hugged the child, and bent her wrinkled kindly face close to his cheeks; but Hugh believed it was to hide the rush of sacred emotions that swept over her.
Then they talked.
By degrees Hugh got his host started on the subject that was nearest his heart, and which had to do with the wonderful habits of all the small, wild animals of which the deacon had made a life-long study.
"It's a wonderfully fascinating subject, Hugh," the old blacksmith philanthropist went on to say, as he started in. "I took it up just as a fancy, but as the years went by it became a habit that grew on me more and more. Yes, I have had an amazing lot of pleasure out of my observations. As the good wife here will tell you, I've spent hours on hours at night, hidden in the woods, with a light fixed on some nest of a muskrat or gopher or fox, just to learn what the cunning little varmint did betimes; when of rights I should have been in my bed getting rested for another hard day's labor at my forge."
"His holidays have always been taken up in the same way," interrupted Mrs. Winslow, smiling lovingly at her husband, whose heart she evidently could read as though it were a printed book. "At first I begrudged him the time, but later on I knew it was taking his thoughts away from subjects that we were trying to keep out of our minds, and I never tried to hold him back."
"It was my study of the habits of these small animals and birds that gave me what little faculty I may possess for prophesying the weather ahead," continued the old man. "They seldom, if ever, go wrong. If I've hit it wrong now and then, the fault was mine, not theirs. I had failed to properly interpret their actions, that was all."
So he went on to tell Hugh many deeply interesting experiments he had undertaken along those lines. He also had a fund of wonderful anecdotes, many of them quite humorous, connected with his little friends of fur and feather.
The more Hugh heard him tell the greater grew his interest. He resolved that at some time in the not distant future, when an opportunity came along, he, too, would begin to pay more attention to the multitude of interesting things that could be discovered in almost any woods, if only the observer kept his eyes about him, and did nothing to alarm the timid inmates of various burrows and hollow trees.
So an hour passed, all too quickly.
Once Hugh took out his little nickel watch, as if under the impression that it must be getting near time for him to think of saying good-night; though he hated to leave such a jolly fireside, and the fine couple.
"Please don't think of going home yet, Hugh," said the old man, looking distressed at once. "The night is young, and I don't know when I've enjoyed anyone's company as I have yours. My dreams in the long ago were for just such a son as you. I envy your parents, my lad. Providence, however, saw fit to turn my activities in another direction; and I have done the best I could to be of some little help to other people's sons. I only bitterly regret that I am able to do so little."
"But I'm afraid the child may become too much bother for your good wife, sir," Hugh was saying, although already deciding he would remain longer.
The deacon laughed softly. He put out his big hand, and gently touched Hugh on the sleeve.
"Look yonder, lad!" he went on to say; "does that strike you as if a heavenly little sunbeam like the boy could ever be too much trouble for her? See how her dear face is lighted up as she bends over him. He's gone fast asleep in her arms, as contented as though with his own mother. Ah! lad, it was a kindly act, your fetching that tiny bit of humanity out to visit us. You have made her almost happy again for once."
Hugh, looking, saw that the old lady was paying no further attention to them, or listening to what they were saying. She touched the sweet face of the child, and pressed her withered lips against his soft skin. If a tear fell on the little fellow's head, was it to be wondered at? He saw her open his clothes at the neck, as though the heat of that blazing fire might be a little too much, in her matronly estimation.
The deacon, too, was looking as though his heart might be in his eyes. Such a spectacle as that must have been of rare occurrence at his fireside, deeply as he regretted it.
Then he started talking again, for he had been in the midst of an unusually interesting description at the time he drew the boy's attention to the beautiful picture at the opposite side of the fireplace. And Hugh, becoming wrapped up in the amusing episode for the moment forgot all about little Joey and the loving soul who had him held in her arms.
What the blacksmith was telling related to a thrilling happening he had experienced on one occasion, when lying out in the woods watching for a certain timid little rodent to commence moving around. At the time the deacon had one of those new-fangled hand electric torches with him, which he meant to use when the proper moment arrived.
Hearing voices drawing near he thought it best to warn the darkies who were advancing in time, for, otherwise, they threatened to walk directly over him in the pitch darkness. When, however, he flashed his light suddenly toward them, he must have given them the fright of their lives, for they uttered howls, and fled precipitately, despite his reassuring calls.
"I afterwards learned," said the deacon, smiling broadly at the amusing recollection, "that the three men were those colored players who constitute the band you young people always have at your barn dances, Daddy Whitehead, the leader, and his able assistants, Mose Coffin and Abe Skinner. They really believed they had met something supernatural in the woods, when taking a shortcut home, after attending a dance somewhere out in the country. And, really, I never had the heart to undeceive the poor ignorant chaps. But I warrant you they kept to the highway after that terrible experience with ghosts."
Hugh laughed at the mental picture of those three aged musicians, one with his fiddle, another carrying a 'cello, and the third an oboe, "streaking" it through the dark woods madly, possessed of a deadly fear lest their time had come, and that they were pursued by something from the spirit world.
He was just about to make some remark when the words froze on his lips. Mrs. Winslow had given vent to a cry. It thrilled Hugh strangely, as though he feared some agonizing pain had suddenly gripped the old lady.
Both he and the deacon were instantly on their feet. As they glued their eyes on the figure across on the other side of the broad hearth they saw that she was sitting there with a marvelous look on her wrinkled face—a look that seemed to tell of sheer amazement, exceeding great joy, incredulity, and many other like emotions that Hugh could not stop to analyze.
A WONDERFUL DISCOVERY
"Joel, come to me quickly!" they heard her gasp, as though she were almost suffocating; and both of them hastened to her side.
"What has happened, wife?" cried the alarmed deacon.
"Oh! tell me, am I awake, or dreaming, husband?" she went on to say thickly. "See what the child is wearing about his dear chubby neck! Surely we ought to know that tiny gold locket. It carries me far back through the long, weary, waiting years to the day I clasped it about his neck—my baby Joel!"
The deacon snatched the object from her quivering hand. He stared hard at it, as though he, too, might suspect he were asleep, and that it was all but a vision of a disordered mind.
Hugh was trembling, he hardly knew why. Something seemed to rush over him, something that thrilled him to the core. He had felt a touch of the same sensation when the good old lady let him look at the pictures in her family album, and pointed to one of her baby boy; although at the time he could not fully grasp the idea that appealed so dimly to his investigating mind.
Then Deacon Winslow found his voice, though it was thick and husky when he went on to say hastily:
"Yes, it does look mighty like the one you had for the boy; and we never found it again, you remember, after he—left home; so we thought he had taken it along with everything else he owned. But wait, wife, don't jump at conclusions. It is next to impossible that this should be the tiny chain with the plain gold pendant that you bought for our little Joel. Surely there must have been many others like it made."
Apparently, he was sorely afraid lest the bitter disappointment would follow. The blasting of those new, wild hopes of hers might have a bad effect on the old lady. That was why the deacon tried to keep her from being too sanguine, even though he himself was possibly hugging suddenly awakened rapturous dreams to his heart.
"There may have been others, Joel!" she cried exultantly; "but look on the back of the medallion. I feared it might be lost some day, Joel, so I scratched his initials there. My glasses are too moist for me to see well; look and tell me if you can make out anything, husband!"
Even Hugh held his breath while the deacon turned the tiny medallion over in his hands. Then he snatched up a reading glass of considerable power from the table, and held it close to the object in his quivering clutch.
They heard him give a cry, and it did not hint at disappointment.
"Oh! Joel, are the three letters there?" she begged piteously, as she hugged the still calmly sleeping child closer and closer to her heart.
"Something I can see, wife, although it is very faint," he told her. "But then think of the many years that have elapsed. The scratches must have been very lightly done at best. Hugh, your eyes are younger than mine; and, besides, I'm afraid there are tears dimming my sight. Look, and tell us what you see!"
It was a picture, with those two old people so eagerly hanging on the decision of the clear-eyed youth. Hugh used the glass, for he wanted to make certain. It would be doubly cruel if by any mistake on his part those anxious hearts were deceived.
"I can plainly make out the first initial, which is J beyond question," he almost immediately said.
At hearing that the deacon cast a swift look toward his wife, which she returned in kind. Neither of them could find utterance for a single word, however, such was the mental strain under which they labored.
"The last letter looks like a W," continued Hugh. "Yes, now that I've rubbed it with my finger I am positive of that. As for the middle one, I think it must be either an O or a C, though it's rather hard to say."
Deacon Winslow gave a deep sigh.
"And our boy's middle name was Carstairs, named after his mother's family!" he hastened to say.
Then they exchanged more wondering looks. It was very like a miracle, the bringing of the little child into the home of that couple whose fireside had so long awaited the coming of such a sunbeam.
Deacon Winslow turned almost fiercely on Hugh, and gripped his sleeve.
"You must tell us more about the boy," he said. "Who is he, and where did he come from? Those are vital things for us to learn. We could never know peace again if this mystery were not made clear. So tell us, Hugh, tell us as quickly as you can, so that we may learn the best, or the worst."
He saw that they were strangely shaken, and Hugh wisely believed it best to reassure them in the very beginning.