Ben Stone at Oakdale
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When the heavy bolt was shot back and the door opened cautiously by the constable, Ben was seen standing at a distance, showing no disposition to attempt anything desperate. The widow was there, bearing in her hands a large dish covered by a napkin, snowy white, though somewhat frayed. Her broad, kindly face was softened with sympathy and sorrow.
“Oh, my poor boy!” she said. “I’ve brung y’u something to eat to keep y’u from starvin’, for these heathen ’round here don’t seem to have no thought about that. I’ve brung the best I had in the house, which, goodness knows, is poor enough – cold beans left over from Sunday, an’ bread an’ butter an’ doughnuts an’ a piece of blueb’ry pie. I’ll fetch y’u a warm supper by and by, for I bought a piece of lamb to stew a-purpose, an’ Sadie is tendin’ it. You must be awful hongry, an’ I know cold beans won’t hurt your deejeshun, though they alwus sot monstrous hard on Joel’s stummick. You jest keep up your pucker, Ben, an’ don’t lose courage; for you’ve got some friends left, an’ they’re goin’ to do everything they can for y’u. I wisht the constable would let me in to see y’u, but he says no, an’ so I can’t come.”
Ben had advanced slowly toward the door, closely watched by the suspicious eye of Abel Hubbard. He had fought back his emotions until once more he seemed to be the stolid, indifferent fellow who had won so little sympathy when he first appeared in Oakdale. Nevertheless, there was a catch in his voice as he took the dish and sought to express his gratitude. The door closed upon him, and he was again alone.
He had eaten some of the beans and one of the doughnuts when Hubbard reopened the door on a crack and thrust in a pitcher of water, which he left standing upon the floor.
The time passed with leaden feet. He had ceased trying to understand; he waited dumbly. Far away a bell clanged, sending a slight shudder through him; it was the academy bell, telling that mid-afternoon intermission was over. Doubtless his schoolmates knew all about it by this time; they had heard of his arrest and imprisonment in the lockup, and they had told one another what they thought of it. Hayden was rejoicing and his friends were satisfied, while probably still others had said they knew all along it would come to something like this. It was the darkest hour of Ben Stone’s life.
He did not think wholly of himself, however; indeed, his thoughts dwelt far more upon his helpless blind brother, whom he had promised to stand by and to protect, but from whom he had been ruthlessly and unfeelingly separated. His soul was heavy and faint with the weight laid upon it, when again there were voices at the door and again the lock grated harshly.
Roger Eliot entered, followed by a smooth-faced, middle-aged man; and the constable, stepping inside, relocked the door and stood grimly on guard.
Ben had risen. His eyes met those of Roger squarely, and in a moment the latter rushed forward with his hand outstretched.
“Stone, old fellow,” said Eliot, “this is tough luck.”
Their hands met, and there was strength and reassurance in the grip Roger gave.
“I didn’t hear what had happened to you until intermission time, Stone,” said the football captain apologetically; “if I had, you’d seen me before this.My father sent me word. He has engaged Lawyer Marsh to defend you. This is Mr. Marsh, Ben.”
The lawyer likewise took the hand of the accused boy, looking earnestly into his face. “Mr. Eliot,” he said, “seems to think there must be some mistake. He is unwilling to believe you are guilty, my lad.”
Ben’s face, which had been quite pale, flushed deeply; for, of a sudden, his heart sent the blood leaping through his body. So Urian Eliot did not believe him a thief! Roger had faith in him and was ready to stand by him! After a moment he spoke with strange calmness:
“I am not guilty.”
“I knew it!” cried Roger. “I would have staked my life on it.”
“As your counsel,” said the lawyer, “I have come to talk the matter over with you, that I may prepare to defend you when the trial is called at ten o’clock to-morrow. I shall ask you some questions, and you must answer them frankly, fully and truthfully.”
“You shall have a truthful answer to every question you ask, sir.”
“I suppose you know the circumstances which have led to your arrest?”
“I only know that I am charged with robbery. I have been told nothing more.”
“Then you may not be aware that two lockers at the gymnasium were broken open, that of Roger and of Bernard Hayden.”
“I know nothing about it, sir.”
“They were broken open and pilfered while football practice was in progress last night. Roger’s watch and some money belonging to him were taken; Hayden likewise lost a watch, two rings and some money. These watches, the rings and a part of the money were found after you had disappeared, concealed beneath the straw tick of the bed in your room. That is the evidence against you, and to most people it must seem decidedly convincing.”
“I never touched any of those stolen articles, sir. I did not hide them in my room. If I had stolen them why did I leave them there when I ran away?”
“That’s it!” cried Roger. “The very question I asked.”
“But why did you run away?” interrogated the lawyer, watching Ben intently.
Stone answered that question without hesitation. In doing so, he went back to the cause of Jerry’s flight from the home of his dead uncle, explaining how the blind lad had been pursued even to Oakdale, and how while purchasing that pair of shoes Ben had learned that a man had arrived in the town and made inquiries for the fugitive.
“They told me the man was at the hotel getting supper,” concluded Ben. “I knew he would have no trouble in finding Jerry after that, and so we lost not a minute in getting away.”
“This clears up that point, which I could not understand,” smiled Roger in great satisfaction. “I knew there must be some other explanation than that Ben had fled to escape arrest. The man arrived at Mrs. Jones’ house while Deputy Sheriff Pickle was searching Ben’s room. He was intensely disappointed when he found he had delayed just long enough to baffle himself.”
“Where is he now – where is he?” asked Stone eagerly.
“He left this morning, after doing a lot of telephoning. I think he fancied he had a clew to the course you had taken. I doubt if he has yet learned of your arrest.”
“He will catch Jerry!” said Ben dejectedly.
“Which doubtless will be the best thing that could happen,” was the lawyer’s opinion. “We must bring the man and your brother back to Oakdale. We’ll need them both at the trial to establish the motive for your flight. It’s really unfortunate that the officers who arrested you didn’t bring Jerry along also.”
“But we’ll find them both – we’ll find Jerry and the man,” declared Roger. “The telephone will do it, and my father’s car will bring them to Oakdale in a hurry.”
“My boy,” urged the lawyer, “tell me your exact movements on leaving the academy yesterday afternoon.”
“I went directly to my room, where I knew Jerry was waiting all alone. I hurried away from the academy without saying a word to anyone. We had a talk, Jerry and I, and I told him I had made up my mind at last to leave school and take him away to some place where I could find work; for what money I had was not enough to support us both while I finished the term at the academy. When we had talked it all over, I took some things Roger had loaned me and left them in the gymnasium, after which I crossed over to the field that I might let Roger know. From the field I came straight back into town and purchased a pair of shoes for Jerry at Mr. Doyle’s store. It was there I heard of the arrival in town of a man who had made inquiries about a blind boy and a little yellow dog. I knew what that meant, and I ran back to Mrs. Jones’, where as soon as possible I made up a bundle of things most needed, fearing every moment that the man would appear. We slipped out of the house and got away on the road to Barville. That’s all I can tell you, sir, and every word is true.”
He had spoken in a convincing manner, and the lawyer nodded his head slowly. “A straightforward statement, my lad; but how that stolen property came to be concealed in your bed is a staggering question.”
“Someone must have placed those things there – some enemy of mine. I have a bitter enemy.”
“He means Bern Hayden,” said Eliot; “but Hayden could not have done it – that’s out of the question. Nevertheless, Bern is determined to push this matter. I have refused to press it, for which Hayden has been pleased to sneer at me.”
“Oh, he thinks he’s got me now!” cried Stone. “He’s glad, and he’ll make me suffer, if he can.”
“We’ll do our best to get this business straightened out and cleared up,” promised the lawyer; “and, in order that we may make all possible haste, I’ll have to telephone right away and try to locate the man who gave his name as Henry Bailey – the man who was trying to catch your brother. Keep up your courage, my boy, and we’ll talk this matter over again when there’s more time to go into the minutest details. You have a loyal friend in Roger, and one in his father, who will stand behind you and fight it out to a finish. If you’re innocent – and since hearing your statement I myself believe you are – we’ll leave no stone unturned to establish that fact.”
“That’s right, old fellow,” assured Roger, his face lighted by that rare smile as he placed his hands on Stone’s shoulders. “A man is never down and out till he loses heart and gives up. I’ve seen you play football, and you’re a good fighter at that; be a good fighter at this, and you’ll win.”
Their hands met again, and once more Eliot’s firm, friendly grip imparted some of his own optimism and strength. They left Ben feeling greatly heartened and encouraged.
“Roger is right,” he said after a time; “the fellow who knows he’s right and quits isn’t worthy to come out on top.”
As night was coming on Mrs. Jones brought a huge steaming bowl of lamb stew, and with it more words of cheer. Ben ate the stew, every bit of it. The window above his prison door he left open to admit air when he finally lay down upon the hard bunk. Occasional sounds from the village drifted in upon him. Once he heard some of the boys calling to one another. He had uttered a prayer for Jerry, and the sleep that came to him at last was full and peaceful, unbroken by dreams.
Nevertheless, he awoke suddenly, fancying that he was dreaming; for to his ears floated the sound of a violin, on which someone was playing the tune that had so moved him as he was beginning his flight from Oakdale, “Home, Sweet Home.” For a few moments he lay listening like one in a trance. Then he leaped up, stumbled against his chair, seized it, felt his way in the darkness to the door, placed the chair and mounted it, till, grasping the iron bars above, he could peer out through the grating.
A thin, pale moon was in the sky, and by its light he saw beneath his door the little lad who was drawing that plaintive melody from the old fiddle. At the feet of the player sat a small dog.
“Oh, Jerry,” cried Ben – “Jerry, Jerry!”