“You’ve been very good indeed to me, Mrs. Jones – almost like a mother,” returned Ben. “I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to repay you.”
“Now don’t talk that way. Goodness gracious! ain’t y’u fussed ’round amusin’ Jimmy, a-fixin’ squirrel traps an’ swings an’ things for him? That’s more’n squared any little thing I could do for y’u to make y’u comf’table.”
“Look!” cried Jimmy. “The little dog is hungry. See him begging. He’s hungry, mom. Can’t I feed him?”
Pilot was sitting on his haunches, his forward paws drooping as he turned his head to look from one to another beseechingly.
“’Course y’u can feed him,” said the widow quickly. “I sorter forgot about him. Lemme look, an’ I’ll see if I’ve got a bone in the pantry.”
She found some bones and scraps, which she brought forth on a plate, and Jimmy, begging the privilege, was permitted to feed Pilot, who expressed his appreciation by a sharp bark and such frantic wagging of his tail that his whole body was shaken from side to side all the way to his forward shoulders.
When supper was over, to satisfy Jimmy, Ben was compelled to tell about the football game, and this he did with such modesty that the listeners, who had not witnessed the contest, were given no inkling as to how conspicuously he had figured in it. He was even fair and generous enough to accord Hayden all the credit the fellow deserved.
At the first mention of Bern’s name the blind lad uttered a cry of astonishment and alarm, reaching out a trembling hand to touch his brother.
“Ben! Ben!” he exclaimed. “It’s not Bern Hayden who – who used to live in Hilton – not that fellow?”
“Yes, Jerry, it’s the same fellow. He lives here in Oakdale now.”
“But, Ben, he – why, you know what he did. You know – ”
“I’m not likely to forget it, Jerry.”
“He hates you.”
“There’s not an atom of love lost between us,” was the grim retort.
“He made you go away from Hilton.”
“And he tried to drive me out of Oakdale, but he failed in that, Jerry. He came mighty near it, it’s true, and only for the good friends I made here he would have succeeded. His old father even went to Prof. Richardson, at the academy, and tried to poison his mind.”
“Oh, I’m afraid of them, Ben! I know Bern Hayden would do anything to hurt you – anything.”
“You needn’t be afraid. Roger Eliot is my friend; his father is, too, and Mr. Eliot has fully as much strength and influence in Oakdale as Lemuel Hayden.”
“That’s right,” confirmed Mrs. Jones, “and he’s lived here lots longer. Everybody knows Urian Eliot ’round these parts; an’, even if he is a rich man and rather tight and close in business dealin’s, they do say he’s honest an’ just. ’Course he’s got his enemies, same’s anybody has; but even the wust on ’em can’t point out no crooked thing he’s ever done.”
Nevertheless, it was no easy matter to calm and reassure the agitated blind boy. Presently, after they had talked for a time, Mrs.
“I won’t keep y’u up no longer, for I know y’u must be tired an’ want to go to bed – anyhow, I’m dead sartain your brother is plumb pegged out. But to-morrer is the day of rest, an’ y’u can sleep jest as late as y’u want to.”
Good nights were said, and the brothers mounted the narrow back stairs, Ben assisting Jerry while the little dog scrambled up behind them. When at last they were in the privacy of Ben’s room, he questioned Jerry.
“I didn’t want to ask too many things before people,” he said, “because I thought perhaps there might be something you wouldn’t care to answer; but I don’t understand how it was that I found you, tired and worn out, tramping to Oakdale. How did Uncle Asher happen to let you leave his home?”
“Uncle Asher is dead,” said Jerry.
Ben was startled. “Dead,” he cried, aghast – “Uncle Asher dead?”
“Yes,” answered Jerry, sitting on the edge of the bed, “he was took off sudden, Ben. He didn’t live much more’n an hour after he was struck down. It was apoplexy or something like that. The doctor, he couldn’t do anything. Uncle, he never spoke but once, and that was just before he went. Of course I was awful scat, Ben, but I was in the room, and I heard him whispering my name. I went to the bed and felt for his hands. One of them didn’t have any strength, and it was stone cold. The other was cold, too, but I felt it grip my wrist, and then, sort of husky and choky, Uncle Asher said, ‘The will, it’s in’ – and that was all. He never finished; he couldn’t. I don’t believe it was ten minutes after that when they told me he was gone.”
Ben seemed to be stupefied by the intelligence of this tragedy. “Uncle Asher dead!” he repeated, apparently finding it difficult to comprehend the situation. “He was good to you, wasn’t he, Jerry?”
“Always. He wouldn’t talk about you, Ben; all he’d say was that nobody knowed what had become of you. But he was good to me, and he said I’d always be taken care of.”
“I’m sorry,” said Ben simply, brushing away the tears which welled into his eyes. “As long as he was good to you, I don’t mind what he thought about me, for I suppose he had reasons to believe I was bad.”
“I wanted to tell you all about it when we met back there on the road,” said Jerry; “but I thought perhaps it wasn’t best to talk too much before other people. I was afraid to talk, Ben, and I’ve got good reasons to be afraid. Listen, Ben; I ran away.”
“You – you what?” gasped the older lad in great astonishment.
“I ran away, Ben. I didn’t even wait till the funeral was over.”
“What made you do that?”
“Because – because they were going to send me off to some institution for poor and helpless children. I heard them talking about it, the doctor and the lawyer and one or two of the neighbors. They didn’t know I heard them, but I couldn’t help listening. The lawyer had come, and he said he’d drawn up Uncle Asher’s will four years ago. It was in a safety deposit vault at the bank. I heard him telling that there wasn’t no provision made for me in that will. Something was left to the housekeeper and one or two distant relatives, and all the rest went to benevolent institutions; I was left out.
“Of course I thought of you, Ben, the very first thing, and I wanted to let you know; but there wasn’t nobody who could tell me where you were. It was pretty hard to think mebbe I’d be shut up in some institution and kept there and never, never find you again. When I thought about that all alone in my room I got desperate, Ben. All that was left to me was my little dog, Pilot, that uncle had bought for me and trained to lead me round; and I was afraid they’d take Pilot away from me, too. So that night I packed up a few things, and took the violin Uncle Asher had given me, and took Pilot, and we stole out of the house and ran away.
“I told Pilot just what I was going to do, and, honest and true, I believe he understood what I said. I told him Uncle Asher was gone, and that if we didn’t run away mebbe folks would separate us and we couldn’t be together no more. He’d never been outside that town before, Ben, but when we took to the road in the night he just kept going straight ahead without once trying to turn back. Needn’t nobody ever tell me some dogs don’t understand as much as human folks.
“I’d took along some bread and doughnuts out of the pantry, and, when it come morning and I could feel the sun shining, we had breakfast side of a little brook, after which we crept into the bushes and hid all day long. I heard people going by on the road, but I told Pilot to keep still, and he minded. There was enough food left for supper, and the next night we tramped it again all night long, stopping only two or three times to rest. In the morning I had breakfast off some apples I found in an orchard. Pilot he left me, and I thought mebbe he’d deserted for good, and I guess I cried, Ben; but he hadn’t gone far, and after a while he come back with an old bone he’d found, and that served him for breakfast. We got into a shed and slept there till it was dark and we could travel some more.”
“Oh, Jerry,” cried Ben sympathetically – “oh, Jerry, it must have been terrible!” He seated himself beside the blind lad, about whose shoulders his arm was tenderly flung. The little dog, half dozing on the floor, rolled a contented, satisfied eye toward them and closed it again.
“I can’t tell you all we did and all we went through, Ben,” the blind lad continued; “but we managed to get along somehow, though I was always scat for fear they’d catch me and take me back. I played on the violin and sometimes I sang, and Jerry he would sit up on his haunches and beg, and people gave us some money. That’s how we were able to live and buy food.”
“It was a marvel you were not caught, Jerry. Perhaps no one searched for you.”
“Oh, yes, they did,” declared the blind boy quickly – “yes, they did, Ben. It was three nights ago I was stopping at a house in a little village where some kind folks agreed to put me up when I heard somebody knocking at the door. It gave me a start, and I listened. I heard a man talking to the man of the house, and he was asking about me. He described me – a little blind boy with a fiddle and a dog. I hadn’t undressed for bed, and that was lucky. I called Pilot softly, and somehow we got down the back stairs and out of the house before they came up to that room to look for me. Again we tramped it all night long, though it was awful cold and I shivered and almost froze every time we stopped to rest. Everywhere I went I asked for you, and I kept praying to find you, Ben, though it didn’t seem that there was any chance. I guess, though, that prayer was heard.”
“It was, Jerry; it must have been. Something led you to me, and something guarded you from capture until you had found me.”
“But what if they find me now, Ben – what can we do?”
The older lad meditated a moment. “I can take care of you, Jerry,” he said. “I’m strong, and I can work. I’ll have to give up school for a time and find work again.”
“But you know, Ben – you know they think you’re bad. They might separate us on that account. I’m sure they would.”
“And only for Bern Hayden,” exclaimed Ben bitterly, “I’d never have such a reputation! We’ll do the best we can, Jerry; don’t you worry. Fortune has seemed to favor me here in Oakdale, and I feel sure everything is bound to come out all right in the end. We won’t be separated, little brother; we’ll stick together.”
Again Ben Stone found himself confronted by a problem that demanded immediate solution. It disturbed his pillow long after Jerry, wearied to the extreme, was sleeping soundly; and when at last he slept it gave him troubled dreams.
He was first to waken in the morning, and, when he would have slept still longer, the great question swooped upon him and tore away the last shred of slumber. The little dog welcomed him with wagging tail as he crept softly out of bed that he might not disturb his sleeping brother. He was nearly dressed when Jerry awoke with a startled cry, sitting up on the bed and thrusting out his thin arms, his hands spread open as if to hold away some fearsome thing. In a twinkling Ben was at the bed, speaking reassuringly to Jerry.
“Oh – oh, is it you, brother?” gasped the blind boy, as he felt himself gathered into the embrace of Ben’s strong arms. “I thought they had caught me. I thought they were going to take me back.”
“You were only dreaming, Jerry. You’re quite safe with me.” Tenderly he caressed the little lad, who, trembling, clung to him.
“You won’t let them take me away, will you, Ben?”
“No, Jerry, they shall not take you away.”
Mrs. Jones would have had them down to breakfast, but when she came to call them they had eaten from Ben’s small store of apples and sandwiches, and they seemed quite happy and contented, so that she had no glimpse of the threatening shadow which hovered near.
During the greater part of that Sunday the brothers remained in the little room, having many things to talk about and being unwilling to advertise for the general public the fact that Jerry was in Oakdale. Late in the afternoon, however, they walked out together, turning westward to avoid the main part of the village and passing the academy. Before reaching Turkey Hill they left the road and set off across the fields toward a grove of pines upon the shore of Lake Woodrim. Pilot, unleashed, frisked before them. On the shore of Bear Cove they found a seat beneath one of those pines where the ground was carpeted with soft brown needles.
They were sitting there, talking, when a small, flat-bottomed punt containing a single occupant rounded Pine Point in full view and was paddled toward them. The person in the boat was Spotty Davis, who, despite the fact that it was Sunday, had been fishing. He discovered them almost immediately, and, recognizing Ben, called loudly:
“Hello, Stoney, old fel; what ju doin’? Thought mebbe I could ketch a pick’rel or two here in the cove.”
Although Ben had not found Spotty’s friendship wholly unwelcome, he was now far from pleased by the chap’s appearance. It was too late to get away, however, and so he waited until Davis, paddling straight in, grounded the punt upon a bit of gravelly beach and sprang out. Pilot regarded the stranger doubtfully, growling a little.
“Say, who’s your friend, Stoney?” inquired Spotty, advancing unhesitatingly. “Gee! what an ugly lookin’ dog!” he added, with a derisive grin. “Don’t let him chaw me up, will ye?”
“Down, Pilot! Be still!” commanded Jerry. And, although he obeyed, the dog continued to regard Davis with suspicious eyes.
“This is my brother Jerry,” explained Ben. “He arrived in Oakdale last night. Jerry, this is one of my friends, Tim Davis.”
“Your brother, hey?” said Spotty, taking the thin hand Jerry held forth. “Say, what’s the matter with his blinkers? They look awful funny.”
“He’s blind,” explained Ben in a low tone.
“Sho! Can’t see nothin’? Jerusalem! that’s tough. Can’t he really see nothin’ at all?”
“As far as sight is concerned, he can’t distinguish daylight from darkness.”
“Whew!” breathed Spotty, sitting down and staring at Jerry. “I never see nobody like that before. You never told me about him, Ben; you’ve never said much of anything about your folks.”
“I thought possibly you had heard some stories from Bern Hayden.”
“Well, not much; he just sorter knocked you, and I s’posed that was ’cause he was sore on you. Say, I guess you proved that you could play football yesterday. Bern didn’t have much on you in that game. Wasn’t it tough I got knocked out? Them fellers kind of picked me out and soaked me. They’ve always had a grudge against me, them Clearporters. Last time I played baseball against them Harry Hutt spiked me, and that put me out of the game, too. Eliot he was mad, ’cause he said I wasn’t hurt so bad I couldn’t play; and I s’pose he was mad yesterday, too. He’s awful stiff-necked sometimes; but you certainly got on his soft side through what you done for his sister, and I guess he’d back you up in anything. He brought Hayden to terms all right when Bern tried to force you off the team by gettin’ the fellers to quit. I wish you’d heard a few things Bern had to say yesterday ’cause Roger invited you to ride home in the automobile.”
“I’m decidedly glad I didn’t hear them,” returned Ben. “All I ask is that Bern Hayden keeps away from me and lets me alone.”
“He didn’t like it much when some of the fellers said we couldn’t ever won that game only for you. That was a hard pill for him to swaller. He’s always used me all right, in a way, though I know he thinks he’s better’n I am ’cause his father’s got the dough. I don’t think it’s right, either, for some folks to have so much money and other folks to have so little. Now there’s lots of things I’d like if I only had the chink to buy ’em. Look a’ the rotten old fishin’ tackle I’ve got in that bo’t; if I had money I’d buy an elegant jointed rod, a triple action reel, a silk line, and any amount of hooks and flies and baits. How long is your brother goin’ to stay?” Spotty concluded suddenly with that question.
“I – I don’t know about that,” faltered Ben. “We haven’t quite decided. Isn’t it pretty late in the season for fish to bite?” he asked, seeking to turn the drift of conversation.
“Guess ’tis,” admitted Davis. “I ain’t had a bite. We can generally ketch pick’rel pretty late, though.”
Ben rose and assisted Jerry to his feet. “I think we’ll go back,” he said.
“What’s your hurry?” asked Davis. “It’s kinder comf’table here. The wind don’t cut into this cove, and the sun’s warm.”
But they left him, and, after they had passed through the grove and were recrossing the open field beyond, Jerry said: “Somehow, I don’t like your friend, Ben. There’s something about his voice and the way he talks that I don’t like.”
“Oh, I reckon he’s a harmless fellow, and he was one of the first in Oakdale to be really friendly toward me; I can’t forget that.”
When they reached the house they learned that Roger Eliot had been there asking for them.
“He seemed real disapp’inted,” said the widow. “P’raps y’u’d better walk ’round to his house an’ see him.”
But it was late and growing dark, and Ben decided not to call on Roger that night.
Stone appeared at school the following day wearing a gravely troubled face, which led Eliot to question him, and he was on the point of telling Roger everything and asking his advice when several other boys came up and the opportunity was lost. All day long Ben’s mind dwelt on the perplexing problem, and gradually he came to believe there was only one solution; he must give up school, leave Oakdale, and find a job of some sort by which he could support himself and Jerry. It meant the shattering of all his plans, but he faced the alternative bravely, and even became a bit more relieved and cheerful when he had decided to accept it as the only thing that could be done.
When the boys came out for practice that afternoon neither Stone nor Hayden was with them. Spotty Davis was on hand, however, and, after a consultation with the coach, Roger called Spotty aside for the purpose of telling him as kindly as possible that he would be no longer needed upon the team.
Davis instantly showed his resentment and anger. Hayden, coming up, heard him shrilly saying:
“That’s all right, Mr. Eliot, you can fire me. I’ve seen other fellers knocked out in football games, and they wasn’t fired. Mebbe you’ll need me yet, and mebbe you won’t get me if you do.” With which he walked away and sat down alone on one of the lower rows of seats, his sly face wearing a sour expression of resentment and anger.
Practice was begun without Stone. In the midst of it he appeared, wearing his plain, homespun clothes, and called to the captain.
“Roger,” he said, “I can’t play football any more.”
Eliot uttered an exclamation of surprise. “Why not, Ben? What’s the matter now?”
“I told you my story some time ago; you’re the only one who has ever heard it from me. Uncle Asher, who took my blind brother to care for, is dead, and now someone must look after Jerry. I haven’t money enough to attend school and take care of him too, so I’m going to leave school. I must find work; I’ve settled on that.”
“Oh, say, that’s too bad, Stone, old chap! Now don’t be hasty; let’s think this matter over. Perhaps my father will do something for Jerry.”
Ben shook his head. “I couldn’t permit my brother to accept charity, Roger; I thank you very much for the generous thought, but I’ve made up my mind. I’ve left the suit you loaned me, and everything else, in the gym. Perhaps I’ll see you again to-morrow before we leave Oakdale. I couldn’t practice to-night if I wanted to, for Jerry is all alone. I went to see him after school was over and tell him my decision; that’s why I wasn’t here promptly. Don’t say anything to the rest of the fellows now. I’d like to bid them all good-by, but I don’t want to do so here at this time.”
Roger found it useless to advance argument, and finally Ben departed, watched by the eyes of Hayden, who had sauntered past in time to catch a few words of the conversation.
Five minutes later Hayden excused himself and left the field in the wake of Spotty Davis, who was finally going away in a sullen and resentful frame of mind.
Stone went down into the village to purchase a pair of shoes for Jerry, whose footwear was almost wholly gone to the uppers. In his timidity the blind boy had remained all day long in that room at Mrs. Jones’, again beset by fear that the pursuers he dreaded might find him; and he was even unwilling to be seen in the village with his brother.
Ben spent some time selecting the shoes, for he wished to get a stout and serviceable pair at a moderate price, which was no easy matter. Having made the purchase at last, he was on the point of leaving when the shopkeeper said:
“There was a man here in town a while ago asking for a boy by your name, only the front part of his name was Jerry instead of Ben, and the man said he was blind.”
For a moment Ben’s heart ceased to beat. “How long ago was that?” he asked huskily.