Ben Stone at OakdaleŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
ďOh, less than an hour, I guess. Heíd just struck town, and heís gone over to the hotel for supper.Ē
Ben ran all the way back to Mrs. Jonesí house. At the door he met Spotty Davis, who had just come down the back stairs.
Davis seemed a trifle startled. ďHello, Ben!Ē he exclaimed. ďI just dropped round to see ye. Found your brother all alone. Saw you wasnít practiciní to-night, and sorter wondered what the matter was. You know, Eliot heís fired me. What do you think of that? I didnít believe heíd do it.Ē
ďI canít stop to talk with you, Spotty,Ē said Ben; ďIím in a great hurry. Excuse me, will you?Ē
ďSure,Ē said Davis, with great willingness, as he passed on.
At the gate Davis paused an instant to glance back; but Ben had disappeared, and Spotty scudded away into the gathering twilight.
Ben mounted the stairs in haste. ďHere, Jerry,Ē he said, ďlet me try these shoes on you. Letís see if they fit.Ē His hands trembled a bit as he removed the remnants of the shoes the blind boy had worn and tried the others upon Jerryís feet. ďHow do they feel?Ē he asked, as he hastened to lace them.
ďAll right,Ē was the answer. ďBut whatís the matter, Ben? Youíre panting and excited. Has anything happened?Ē
ďIíve been hurrying,Ē said Ben evasively.
But even the little yellow dog seemed to realize that something was wrong, for he moved about uneasily, eying the brothers and whining.
ďIíve decided we had better leave Oakdale at once Ė right away,Ē said Ben, as he rose to his feet. ďSit still, Jerry, while I gather up the things I must take.Ē
ďBen,Ē said the younger lad, with conviction, ďsomething has happened. Youíre nervous and alarmed; I know it by your voice. Why donít you tell me, Ben Ė why donít you tell me?Ē
At any rate, it would be necessary to tell him in a few moments, and so, seeking to frighten the blind boy as little as possible, Ben did so at once. The moment Jerry learned a man had appeared in Oakdale asking for him he became panic-stricken; his face grew pallid and he trembled in every limb.
ďThey will take me away from you, brother Ė they will separate us!Ē he exclaimed.
ďThey shall not!Ē cried the older lad fiercely. ďI had decided already to leave Oakdale to-morrow; weíll leave to-night Ė weíll slip away at once. Keep still, Jerry, and Iíll make all the preparations.Ē
ďBut what if that man should come Ė what if he should come before we can start?Ē
ďHeíll have to get here in a hurry to find us.Ē
Indeed, it did not take Ben Stone long to make a bundle of the few belongings he felt he must take. A great deal of his poor personal property he had resolved to abandon for the time being, confident that Mrs. Jones would take care of everything for him. Sometime when there was no longer danger he could recover it all.
ďWeíll get out of the house without saying a word to anybody,Ē said Ben. ďThatís the best way, although I hate to do it, for we seem to be running away like criminals.Ē
At the last moment, smitten by regret because fancied necessity seemed to compel him to leave without bidding the kind widow good-by, he seized a piece of brown paper and the stub of a pencil and sat down to write a few words of farewell Ė Jerry urging him to hasten even while he was scribbling.
This was what he wrote:
ďMy Dear Mrs. Jones: ó
ďIíll never be able to thank you enough for all your kindness to me and to my little blind brother. Iím forced to do what I am doing, though I regret it very much. I wish I might say good-by to you and to Jimmy, but I do not dare. I know I shall always be ashamed and sorry for this last thing I have done, but I couldnít help it. I hope youíll forgive me and always think as well of me as you can, no matter what you may hear about me.Ē
At this point Jerryís impatient pleading could be no longer resisted, and, hastily signing his name, Ben left the note of farewell where it could not be overlooked by Mrs. Jones. With all possible stealth they descended the stairs and got softly out of the house.
The night had come on overcast and dark, heavy clouds veiling the moon. A raw wind, chill and dank, came from the east, soughing fitfully through the bare limbs of the trees and sending fallen leaves scurrying along the ground. Just outside the gate Ben turned to look back at the lighted windows. Mamie, accompanying herself on the melodeon, was singing, and there was a choking sensation in Benís throat as he listened.
ďAn exile from home, splendor dazzles in vain;
O! give me my lowly thatch cottage again;
A charm from the skies seems to hallow us there,
Which, seek through the world, is neíer met with elsewhere.
Home, home, sweet, sweet home!
Be it ever so humble, thereís no
place like home.Ē
ďCome,Ē entreated Jerry; and they fled on past the silent academy, the gym and the athletic field Ė on into the bleak night. The blind boy had brought his violin, and it was swung by the cord over his back.
With the village behind them, Ben paused once more to look around. The lights of Oakdale twinkled far down the road. It was there he had dreamed pleasant dreams; it was there he had fought his fight until victory seemed within his grasp; but those dreams were over, and he had been conquered by cruel fate in the hour of his triumph. Fear, which frequently perverts the soundest judgment, had forced him, without reasoning or sober thought, into this flight by night.
They went on, and soon a barren shoulder of Turkey Hill shut out those lights and they were alone on the highway that led to the northwest.
ďWeíll be followed, Ben,Ē said Jerry apprehensively. ďWhat can we do?Ē
ďIf you, blind and alone, save for Pilot, could avoid pursuers so long, surely together we must find it a simpler matter. Trust me. This is not the first time I have been forced into running away.Ē
ďI know Ė I know; but they didnít try to catch you, Ben. They let you go and thought it good riddance. Now itís different.Ē
ďI donít understand why they should put themselves to so much trouble and expense to find you, Jerry, and shut you up in an institution. Perhaps theyíll give it up after a while.Ē
Hand in hand they went on through the black night. At times Pilot, having trotted a short distance ahead, would pause to peer at them through the blackness, and whine. The wind moaned across the open spaces and crashed the limbs of trees together while they were passing through strips of woods. The dampness in the atmosphere added to the penetration of the chill, and Jerryís teeth chattered.
They came to Barville, ten miles from Oakdale, and were in the outskirts of the dark and silent village before they were aware of it. They were tempted to try to circle round the place, fearing someone might see them, but only two or three dim lights gleamed faintly from windows, and not a soul did they encounter on the streets of the town. Once a dog barked in a house they were passing, but Jerry was swift enough in bidding Pilot be still to prevent the little animal from answering.
Beyond Barville they paused to rest, and Ben, hearing Jerryís teeth chatter, persisted in pulling off his coat and buttoning it about the blind ladís shoulders. In this manner the violin on Jerryís back was protected when, later, a fine, drizzling rain began.
ďBut youíll be wet through, Ben, and youíll catch cold,Ē said Jerry. ďI wish youíd take your coat.Ē
ďIím all right,Ē laughed the elder brother. ďIím tough, and thereís never anything the matter with me. Perhaps we can find shelter somewhere.Ē
The rain, driven in the teeth of the wind, soon drenched him through; and when at last he perceived near the road an old barn with no house at hand, even Ben was more than willing to stop.
ďI think the house must have burned down,Ē he said, ďfor there isnít any to be seen. Itís a good place, Jerry. We must be eighteen or twenty miles from Oakdale. We can stop here and keep out of sight all through the day, if necessary.Ē
So they tried the door of the barn and found it unfastened. In the black darkness they felt their way cautiously, at last climbing upon a haymow, where Jerry sank down exhausted.
ďPerhaps theyíll give it up when they find weíre gone, Ben,Ē said the blind boy, shivering. ďMaybe they wonít try to follow us.Ē
ďMaybe not. Weíll hope so, anyway. Bern Hayden will be glad when he finds out. Heíll rejoice over it.Ē
They burrowed into the hay and talked for a time of various plans, while gradually, in spite of their drenched condition, the heat of their bodies as they snuggled close together warmed them through. Pilot crept up against Jerry and contented himself. The wind swept against the old barn and moaned through cracks, while the rain beat unceasingly upon the roof.
Ben thought of Bern Haydenís fine home, and he had a wrestle with the bitter resentment against fate which sought to claim him. At first it seemed that everything in the world was wrong and that those who least deserved it, or did not deserve it at all, were most favored by fortune; but then he remembered Roger, to whose home he had been welcomed, and he knew that some who were worthy were privileged to bask in prosperityís sunshine.
Finally the mournful sweep of the wind and the fitful beating of rain lulled his senses, and he slept Ė slept to dream of Hayden leering triumphantly upon him. In his sleep he muttered:
ďWait Ė wait; my time will come!Ē
A lance of sunshine, piercing a crack in the old barn, struck squarely into Ben Stoneís eyes and awoke him. For a few moments he lay still without comprehending, the odor of the haymow in his nostrils; his head alone was uncovered by the hay into which the fugitives had burrowed. High up in the peak of the barn the morning light streamed in through a broken, dusty, cobwebby window; with the passing of the night the storm had passed also, and the new day was bright and fair.
Ben turned his head slowly, softly, and saw his brother sleeping beside him, which sight brought back with a rush the memories of recent events leading up to and including the flight by night from Oakdale. They were fugitives, he and Jerry Ė fugitives and wanderers upon the face of the earth.
Jerry awoke; the sightless eyes unclosed and a faint smile crept over his face. ďBen,Ē he called, moving a hand to touch the lad at his side Ė ďBen, is it you?Ē
ďYes, Jerry. Did I wake you up? I didnít mean to do so.Ē
ďOh, Iím glad you did; Iím glad to know weíre together again. It is morning.Ē
ďYes, it is morning; the sun is shining.Ē
ďIím warm and dry and comfortable now. I was so wet and cold when we found this place last night!Ē
ďIt was a mean old night. If it hadnít stormed, weíd got a much bigger start Ė weíd be lots further away from Oakdale now.Ē
ďWeíd better stay here all day long, Ben, for anyone wonít be likely to find us. Thatís the way I did at first Ė hid in the daytime and traveled at night.Ē
ďBut we brought no food, and we must have something to eat. Iím afraid youíre hungry now, Jerry.Ē
ďOh, not a bit,Ē was the assurance. ďIt ainít so hard for a feller to go all day without eating if he only tries; I know, for havenít I done it lots of times! Perhaps when night comes again weíll be able to find something to eat somehow.Ē
ďI have money,Ē said Ben. ďI can buy food.Ē
ďBut if you try it now somebody who sees you may send word back to Oakdale. Please donít try it now, Ben, for truly Iím not hungry. Whereís Pilot?Ē
For the first time they thought of the little dog, and, to their surprise and dismay, he was gone. Ben, however, was far more concerned than Jerry over this.
ďHeíll come back,Ē declared the blind boy. ďHeís gone to hunt for his breakfast, and I know heíll come back; he always does.Ē
They lay there for some time, talking of the past and planning for the future. The ray of sunshine that had aroused Ben crept on across the mow, leaving them in shadow, and presently Jerry once more betrayed tokens of drowsiness, slumber again claiming him at last.
ďPoor little chap!Ē murmured Ben with infinite tenderness. ďYouíve had a hard time of it, but Iím going to stick by you now and take care of you always. I can do it, and I will.Ē
The silence in the barn was so profound that he could hear crickets fiddling in the thickets of brown, rain-washed grass outside. With a clatter of hoofs and a rumble of wheels, a horse and carriage passed on the road near by. Ben listened till the sounds died out in the distance, and then after a time he likewise slept once more.
It was the barking of Pilot that next aroused the brothers, and the little dog came scrambling up onto the low mow and sniffed around them, whining strangely. He barked again, a short, sharp note, whereupon Jerry clutched his brother with both hands, whispering excitedly:
ďDanger, Ben Ė danger! Pilot is trying to tell us.Ē
Even as these words were uttered they heard the voices of men and the tramp of heavy feet. One of Jerryís hands found Pilotís collar, and beneath that touch the dog crouched upon the hay and was still.
There seemed to be two men. ďThe critter sartainly come right in here,Ē said one of them. ďMebbe ítainít the same dorg, but he answers the deescription the Widder Jones give; and itís mighty queer a dorg should be hookiní it round here, where there ainít no houses nigher than a quarter of a mile.Ē
ďWhereís the beast dodged to, sheriff?Ē questioned the other man. ďI heared him bark arter he skipped in through the open door.Ē
Sheriff! Ben Stoneís heart leaped into his throat at that word, and a shuddering sickness overcame him. He felt Jerry trembling violently at his side. Both lay perfectly still, scarcely breathing, but unable to repress the heavy beatings of their hearts. The men searched below, and after a time one of them climbed upon the mow. In a few moments he nearly trod upon them, halting to utter a shout:
ďHere they be!Ē
As the other man came scrambling to the mow, Ben threw aside the hay and sat up.
ďWhat do you want?Ē he asked huskily.
One man, tall and thin, with a bunch of tobacco-stained whiskers on his chin, answered immediately:
ďWe want you, and, by hokey, weíve got ye!Ē
ďOh, Ben!Ē sobbed Jerry, likewise sitting up. ďOh, Ben!Ē
In a moment Pilot bristled and barked savagely at the men, who, however, betrayed no shade of alarm over this demonstration.
ďIf I hadnít spied that yaller cur,Ē said the shorter man of the two, ďwe might never located them to-day. Nobody we questioned íround here had seen anything of íem. Youíve got to give me the credit, sheriff.Ē
ďThatís all right, Hubbard; youíll git all the credit thatís cominí to ye, donít worry.Ē
Ben had seen both men in Oakdale. The taller was William Pickle, a deputy sheriff; the other Abel Hubbard, a constable. The deputy stooped and fastened a strong hand on Benís shoulder.
ďCome on,Ē he ordered. ďYou took a long walk last night; weíll give ye a ride to-day.Ē
ďWhat are you going to do with me?Ē
ďGoiní to take ye back to Oakdale, of course.Ē
ďWhat for? What have I done?Ē
ďI ruther guess you know. Youíre a slippery rascal, and youíve left a record behind ye everywhere youíve been. Gimme the irons, Hubbard.Ē
There was a clanking, rattling sound as the constable brought forth a pair of handcuffs, at sight of which all the resentment in Ben Stoneís outraged soul rose.
ďDonít you put those things on me!Ē he shouted furiously. ďI havenít done anything.Ē
Both men held him, and, in spite of his struggles, the manacles were snapped upon his wrists; while Jerry, still sitting on the mow, pleaded and sobbed and wrung his hands, the little dog vainly seeking to soothe him by trying to lick his face.
ďHeís a despírate character, sheriff,Ē said the constable. ďíTwouldnít be safe not to iron him.Ē
ďI ainít takiní no chances,Ē declared William Pickle grimly. ďI had one prisoner break away once, and that learnt me a lesson. Now itís no use to raise sech a fuss, young feller; you might jest as well take your medicine quiet. You ought to know what alwus comes to them that plays the tricks youíve been up to.Ē
ďI havenít done anything to be arrested,Ē protested Ben wildly. ďI have a right to take care of my own brother, for heís blind and canít look out for himself.Ē
ďPurty good bluffer,Ē grinned Abel Hubbard.
ďThatís all right; ítwonít do him no good,Ē returned the deputy sheriff. ďCourse heís got sense enough to know anything he owns up to may be used as evidence against him.Ē
Again and again Ben protested that he knew not why he had been placed under arrest. ďWhy donít you tell me?Ē he cried. ďWhatís the charge?Ē
ďRobbery,Ē said Pickle; ďand thereís sartainly evidence enough to put ye behind the bars. You might jest as well come along quiet, for it wonít do ye no good resistiní. Weíd better be moviní, Hubbard.Ē
They dragged him down from the mow, Jerry following, dumb with anguish. At a distance from the barn a horse, attached to a carriage, was hitched beneath a roadside tree, and toward this conveyance the manacled prisoner was marched between the two officers. His brain was in a whirl, for he could not understand the meaning of this hideous accusation against him.
ďUnhitch the hoss, Hubbard,Ē directed the deputy sheriff. ďIíll put this feller inter the wagon.Ē
ďTake me with my brother!Ē pleaded Jerry, who had followed to the spot.
ďWe ainít got no orders to take only jest him,Ē said William Pickle. ďThe wagon ainít roomy enough to carry you, too, and so we canít bother with ye. Mebbe ítwas an oversight we waínít giveí orders to fetch ye, for you might serve as a witness against him; but, having neither authority nor room, we wonít cumber ourselves with ye.Ē
With the captive between himself and Hubbard, William Pickle took the reins and turned the horse toward Oakdale. Looking back, the manacled lad saw Jerry standing there, his face hidden in his hands, the yellow dog gazing up sympathetically at him, a spectacle never to be forgotten; and the frightful injustice of fate seemed to crush and smother the last spark of hope and strength in Benís soul.
THE DARKEST HOUR
The Oakdale lockup was beneath the Town Hall, and into that cage for culprits Stone was thrust. Curious and unfriendly eyes had seen him brought back into the village. As the post office was passed, one of a group of men lounging on the steps called out: ďI see you got the critter, Bill.Ē
ďYep,Ē answered the deputy sheriff, with a grin of triumph; ďwe ketched the rascal all right, Eben.Ē
The afternoon session had begun at the academy, and therefore Benís plight was not witnessed by any of the scholars, for which he was doubly thankful. When they were inside the lockup Pickle removed the handcuffs from the boyís wrists.
ďThere,Ē he said, ďI donít guess youíll break out of here. Thereís a chair and a bunk, and you better make yoírself as comfítable as ye can. Hubbard will have charge of ye now till youíre brought to trial.Ē The door closed heavily behind the departing officer, the bolt grating harshly in the lock.
On the journey back to Oakdale Ben had tried in vain to learn the particulars of the crime with which he was charged. While avoiding or refusing to answer his questions, the two men had craftily sought to lead him into compromising statements; failing in which, they disappointedly told each other that his attempt at ďslicknessĒ would do him no good.
The boy sat on the heavy, broken-backed chair, resting his elbows on his knees and bowing his face in his hands. There he sat motionless for a long time, trying to divine by what baleful freak of circumstances he had been brought to this wretched plight; but, without knowledge of the facts to work upon, he found himself floundering helplessly and blindly in a mire of uncertainty.
He was aroused by voices outside the door, above which an iron-barred window admitted light and air.
ďI say itís just inhuman to treat the poor boy in sech a fashion! You ainít fed him, yíu say; yíu ainít even found out if heís hongry aní starviní. Iíve brung him some vittles, aní the least yíu can do is feed him. I donít bílieve he ever stole nothiní, aní Iíll never bílieve it till itís proved agíiní him. Heís a good boy, aní a kindhearted boy. He was good to my little Jimmy, aní Iíll never forgit it as longís the Lord lets me live.Ē
Ben thrilled, for it was the voice of Mrs. Jones; and here was one, at least, who still had faith in him.
ďThatís all right, Misí Jones,Ē said Abel Hubbard. ďYour sympathetic heart sartainly does you credit, but in this case itís a dead sure thing youíre a-wastiní your sympathy on an undeserviní objecí. Why, there ainít no doubt in the world but heís the thief, for wasnít the watches and the rings and some of the money found hid under the straw tick of his bed right in your own house? Thatís proof enough, Misí Jones, and there ainít no gittiní round it.Ē
ďI donít bílieve he put them things there, Abel Hubbard Ė no, siree! I dunno how they come to be there, but that boy never stole íem.Ē
ďHeís been up to things wussín that, and his father before him was a jailbird. Blood will tell, Misí Jones Ė blood will tell. I sípose he orter have somethiní to eat, but weíve been so busy we ainít got íround to feed him yet. Iíll give him the grub youíve brung. Yes, Iíll give it to him now, Misí Jones; but you better stand back from the door, ícause heís a desperate critter, and thereís no telliní what he may try. Heíll never play no snigdums on me, though; heíll find me ready if he tries íem.ĒŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
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