Morgan Scott.

Ben Stone at Oakdale





Jimmy sat quite still, watching the little captive vainly nosing at the wires in search of an opening by which he might get out. As he watched, the squirrel faced him and sat up straight, its beautiful tail erect, its tiny forefeet held limp.

Oh, see, Ben see! whispered the lame lad. Hes beggin jest like a dog; hes askin me to let him go. I couldnt keep him after that. I shant want no cage fr him, Ben; Im goin to let him go back to the woods to find the other squirrels he uster play with.

Together they carried the cage out into the old grove back of the house, where Jimmy himself opened the door. For a moment or two the captive shrank back in doubt, but suddenly he whisked through the door and darted up a tree. Perched on a limb, he uttered a joyful, chittering cry.

Hes laughing! cried the lame boy, clapping his hands. See how happy he is, Ben! Im awful glad I didnt keep him.

The first bell was ringing as Ben turned toward the academy.

Why, you aint had no dinner! called Jimmy, suddenly aware of that fact.

I didnt want any, truthfully declared Ben, as he vaulted a fence. So long, Jimmy. He waved his hand and hurried on.

He did not return to the academy, however. As the second bell began ringing, he paused on the edge of the deep, dark woods, which lay to the north of Turkey Hill. Looking back, he could see the academy, the lake and the village. The sound of the bell, mellowed by the distance, seemed full of sadness and disappointment. When it ceased, he turned and strode on, and the shadowy woods swallowed him.

CHAPTER VII.
A DESPERATE ENCOUNTER

All that long, silent afternoon, he wandered through the woods, the fields and the meadows. The cool shadows of the forest enfolded him, and the balsamic fragrance of spruce and pine and juniper soothed his troubled spirit. He sat on a decaying log, listening to the chatter of a squirrel, and hearing the occasional soft pat of the first-falling acorns. He noted the spots where Jack Frost had thus early begun his work of painting the leaves pink and crimson and gold. In a thicket he saw the scarlet gleam of hawthorne berries.

Beside Silver Brook, which ran down through the border of the woods, he paused to listen to the tinkle and gurgle of the water. There the blackberried moonseed clambered over the underbrush. When he crossed the brook and pushed on through this undergrowth, his feet and ankles were wet by water spilled from many hooded pitcher plants. Near the edge of the woods, with a sudden booming whir of wings that made his heart jump, a partridge flew up and went diving away into the deeper forest.

At the border of the woods, where meadow and marshland began, he discovered clusters of pale-blue asters mingling with masses of rose-purple blazing star. Before him he sent scurrying a flight of robins, driven from their feast of pigeon berries amid the wine-stained pokeweed leaves.

The sun leaned low to the west and the day drew toward a peaceful close.

He seemed to forget for brief periods his misfortune and wretchedness, but he could not put his bitter thoughts aside for long, and whenever he tried to do so, they simply slunk in the background, to come swarming upon him again at the first opportunity. At best, it was a wretched afternoon he spent with them.

He had escaped facing disgrace and expulsion by declining to return to the academy that afternoon; but his trunk and clothes were at Mrs. Jones and he must get them, which led him, as night approached, to turn back toward the village.

On the southern slope of Turkey Hill he lingered, with the valley and the village below him. The sunshine gilded a church spire amid the oaks, and in its yard of maples he could see the roof and belfry of the academy.

The afternoon session was over by this time, and from that elevation Ben could look down on the fenced football field, where he beheld the boys already at practice. Once the still air brought their voices to him even from that distance. His heart swelled with a sense of injustice and wrong, until it seemed to fill his chest in a stifling manner.

Of course Bern Hayden was there with the boys who had so joyously hailed his return to Oakdale. But for Hayden he might also be there taking part in the practice, enjoying that for which his heart hungered, the friendly companionship of other lads.

The shadows were thickening and night was at hand as he crossed the fields and reached the road to the north of the academy. He hoped to avoid observation and reach Mrs. Jones house without encountering any one who knew him.

As he quickened his steps, he suddenly realized that he must pass the wretched little tumble-down home of Tige Fletcher, a dirty, crabbed, old recluse, who hated boys because he had been taunted and tormented by them, and who kept two fierce dogs, which were regarded as vicious and dangerous. Beyond Fletchers house there was a footpath from High street to the academy yard, and this was the course Ben wished to follow.

Knowing he might be set upon by the dogs, he looked about for a weapon of defense, finally discovering a thick, heavy, hardwood cudgel, about three feet in length. With this in his hand, he strode on, grimly determined to give the dogs more than they were looking for if they attacked him.

He was quite near the house when, on the opposite side, there suddenly burst forth a great uproar of barking, with which there immediately mingled a shrill scream of terror.

Unhesitatingly, Ben dashed forward, instinctively gripping his stout cudgel and holding it ready for use. The barking and the cry of fear had told him some one was in danger from Old Tiges dogs.

Immediately on passing the corner of the house, he saw what was happening, and the spectacle brought his heart into his mouth. The dogs had rushed at a little girl, who, driven up against the fence, faced them with her blue eyes full of terror, and tried to drive them back by striking at them with her helpless hands.

Giving a shout to check the dogs and distract their attention from the girl, Ben rushed straight on. He saw one of the dogs leap against the child and knock her down. Then he was within reach, and he gave the animal a fearful blow with the club as it was snapping at the girls throat.

A moment later Ben found he had his hands full in defending himself, for the second dog, a huge brindle mastiff, having a protruding under-jaw and reddish eyes, leaped at his throat, his teeth gleaming. By a quick, side-stepping movement, the boy escaped, and with all his strength he struck the dog, knocking it down, and sending it rolling for a moment on the ground.

The first dog was a mongrel, but it was scarcely less ferocious and dangerous than the mastiff. Although Ben had seemed to strike hard enough to break the creatures ribs, it recovered, and came at him, even as the mastiff was sent rolling. The yellow hair on the back of the dogs neck bristled, and its eyes were filled with a fearful glare of rage.

The boy was not given time to swing his club for another telling blow, but was compelled to dodge as the dog sprang from the ground. His foot slipped a little, and he flung up his left arm as a shield. The teeth of the dog barely missed his elbow.

Quickly though Ben recovered and whirled, he was none too soon. This time, however, the mongrel was met by a well-directed blow on the nose, and the terrible pain of it took all the fight out of him and sent him slinking and howling away, with his tail curled between his legs.

The mastiff was not disposed of so quickly; for, although it had been knocked down by the first blow it received, it uttered a snarling roar, and again flung itself at the boy the moment it could regain its feet.

Against the fence the white-faced little girl crouched, uttering wild cries of fear, as, with terror-filled eyes, she watched the desperate encounter.

Knowing he would be torn, mangled, perhaps killed, if the teeth of the great dog ever fastened upon him, Ben fought for his very life. Three times he beat the creature down with his club, but for all this punishment the rage and fury of the animal increased, and it continued to return to the attack with vicious recklessness.

The boy set his teeth and did his best to make every blow count. Had his courage and nerve failed him for a moment, he must have been seized and dragged down by the frothing dog. He kept his wits about him, and his brain at work. Repeatedly he tried to hit the mastiff on the nose in the same manner as he had struck the mongrel, but for some moments, which seemed like hours, every attempt failed.

Once Bens heart leaped into his mouth, as his foot slipped again, but he recovered himself on the instant and was fully prepared for the big dogs next charge.

At last he succeeded in delivering the blow on which he believed everything depended. Hit fairly on the nose by that club, which was wielded by a muscular young arm, the raging beast was checked and paralyzed for a moment.

Seizing the opportunity, Ben advanced and struck again, throwing into the effort every particle of strength and energy he could command. The dog dropped to the ground and lay still, its muscles twitching and its limbs stiffening; for that final blow had broken its neck.

Quivering and panting with the excitement and exertion of the struggle, Ben stood looking down at the body of the dog, giving no heed for the moment to the hoarse cries of rage which issued from the lips of Old Tige Fletcher, who was hobbling toward him with his stiff leg. Nor did he observe three boys who were coming along the path from the academy at a run, having been led to quicken their steps by the cries of the girl and the barking of the dogs.

Of the trio Roger Eliot was in the lead, and he was running fast, the sound of the frightened girls screams having filled him with the greatest alarm. He was followed closely by Chipper Cooper, while Chub Tuttle brought up the rear, panting like a porpoise, and scattering peanuts from his pockets at every jump.

These boys came in sight soon enough to witness the end of the encounter between Stone and the huge mastiff. They saw the dog beaten back several times, and Roger uttered a husky exclamation of satisfaction when Ben finally finished the fierce brute with a blow that left it quivering on the ground.

By that time Eliots eyes had discovered the girl as she crouched and cowered against the fence, and he knew instantly that it was in defense of her that Ben had faced and fought Fletchers dreaded dogs.

Even before reaching that point Rogers heart had been filled with the greatest alarm and anxiety by the sounds coming to his ears; for he believed he recognized the voice of the child whose terrified cries mingled with the savage barking and snarling of the dogs. His little sister had a habit of meeting him on his way home after football practice, and he had warned her not to come too far on account of the danger of being attacked by Fletchers dogs. That his fear had been well-founded he saw the moment he discovered the child huddled against the fence, as it was, indeed, his sister.

Amy! he chokingly cried.

Reaching her, he caught her up and held her sobbing on his breast, while she clung to his neck with her trembling arms.

Drat ye! snarled Tige Fletcher, his face contorted with rage as he stumped forward, shaking his crooked cane at Ben Stone. What hev ye done to my dorg? Youve killed him!

I think I have, was the undaunted answer; at any rate, I meant to kill him.

Ill hey ye rested! shrilled the recluse. That dorg was wuth a hundrud dollars, an Ill make ye pay fer him, ur Ill put ye in jail.

Roger Eliot turned indignantly on the irate man.

Youll be lucky, Mr. Fletcher, if you escape being arrested and fined yourself, he declared. You knew your dogs were vicious, and you have been notified by the authorities to chain them up and never to let them loose unless they were muzzled. Youll be fortunate to get off simply with the loss of a dog; my father is pretty sure to take this matter up when he hears what has happened. If your wretched dogs had bitten my sister Roger stopped, unable to find words to express himself.

The old man continued to splutter and snarl and flourish his cane, upon which Tuttle and Cooper made a pretense of skurrying around in great haste for rocks to pelt him with, and he beat a hasty retreat toward his wretched hovel.

Dont stone him, fellows, advised Roger. Lets not give him a chance to say truthfully that we did that.

We oughter soak him, said Chub, his round face expressive of the greatest indignation. A man who keeps such ugly curs around him deserves to be soaked. Anyhow, he added, poking the limp body of the mastiff, theres one dog gone.

Aint it a dog-gone shame! chuckled Chipper, seizing the opportunity to make a pun.

Roger turned to Ben.

Stone, he said, in his kindly yet unemotional way, I cant thank you enough for your brave defense of my sister. How did it happen?

Ben explained, telling how he had heard the barking of the dogs and the screams of Amy Eliot as chance led him to be passing Fletchers hut, whereupon he ran as quickly as possible to her assistance.

It was a nervy thing to do, nodded Roger, and you may be sure I wont forget it. I saw some of it, and the way you beat that big dog off and finished him was splendid.

Say, wasnt it great! chimed in Chub, actual admiration in his eyes as he surveyed Ben. By jolly! youre a dandy, Stone! Aint many fellers could have done it.

I wont forget it, repeated Roger, holding out his hand.

Ben flushed, hesitated, then accepted the proffered hand, receiving a hearty, thankful grip from Eliot.

CHAPTER VIII.
A RIFT

Ben came down quietly through the grove behind the house, slipped round to the ell door and ascended to his bare room without being observed by any one about the place. It did not take him long again to draw out his battered trunk and pack it with his few possessions.

He then found before him an unpleasant duty from which he shrank; Mrs. Jones must again be told that he was going away.

It is not remarkable that he hesitated over this, or that as the shadows once more thickened in that room he sat for a long time on his trunk, his elbows on his knees and his chin on his hands, gazing blankly at the one leaden window.

To his ears came the sound of wheels, which seemed to stop before the house. A few minutes later Jimmys voice called from the foot of the stairs:

Ben, Ben, you up there?

He opened the door. Whats wanted, Jimmy?

I didnt know you was home, said the lame boy, in some surprise. I didnt see yu come, an I was watchin. Theys somebody down here wants to see yu.

Wants to see me? he exclaimed, unable to repress a feeling of apprehension. Who is it?

Its Roger Eliot, answered the boy below, an hes jest got a dandy hoss an carriage. He said you must be here, but I didnt think yu was.

Roger Eliot! muttered Ben, descending at once. What can he want?

I dunno, admitted Jimmy, limping after him as he left the house. He jest tole me to tell yu to come out.

Hello, Stone! called Roger from the carriage in front of the gate. Come, get in here and take a little drive with me.

Greatly surprised by this invitation, Ben hesitated until the boy in the carriage repeated his words urgently, but with a touch of that command which had made him a leader among the boys of the village and captain of the football team.

I I havent much time, faltered Stone; but he wonderingly took his place at Rogers side and was whirled away, regretfully watched by Jimmy, who hung on the sagging gate and stared after the carriage until it turned the corner under the street-light opposite the post office.

In front of the post office Chub Tuttle was munching peanuts and telling Sile Crane and Sleuth Piper of the wonderful manner in which Stone had defended Amy Eliot from Tige Fletchers dogs. He had reached the most thrilling portion of the tale when the carriage containing Roger and Ben turned the corner.

Jinks! exclaimed Crane. There he is naow with Roger. Where dyou spose theyre going?

The mystery is easily solved, declared Piper at once. My deduction of the case is as follows: Eliot has a sister; this sister is attacked by the vicious dogs of one Fletcher; Stone rushes to her defense; he beats off the said dogs and kills one of them; the before-mentioned Eliot takes his before-mentioned sister home; he relates to his folks how she was rescued from dire peril and a fearful fate by the before-mentioned Stone; at once her parents wish to see and thank the said Stone; Roger is dispatched post haste for the hero of the thrilling and deadly struggle; said hero is carried off in triumph to the palatial residence of the before-mentioned parents. Ill stake my professional reputation on the correctness of the deduction.

Guess youre right, Sleuth, said Chub. Roger thinks an awful lot of his sister, and he choked and couldnt seem to find words to say when he tried to thank Stone.

Say, drawled Crane, perhaps this Stone aint such an awful bad feller after all. Jack Walker tol me he pitched into Hunk Rollins hammer an tongs cause Hunk was plaguing Jimmy Jones, and he said he was a-going to tell the professor the whole business. Bern Hayden is pretty top-lofty, and hes down on Stone for somethin, so he wants to drive Stone outer the school. I tell you fellers right here that I hope, by Jinks! that Stone dont go.

Sh! hissed Sleuth mysteriously, glancing all around, as if fearful of being overheard. Draw back from this bright glare of light, where we may be spied upon by watchful and suspicious eyes.

When they had followed him into the shadow at the corner of the building and he had peered and listened some moments, he drew them close together and, in a low, hoarse voice, declared:

It is perfectly apparent to my trained observation that there is more in this case than appears on the surface. I have struck a scent, which I am working up. I pledge you both to secrecy; betray me at your peril. Between Hayden and Stone there is a deadly and terrible feud. Sometime in the dark and hidden past a great wrong was committed. I feel it my duty to solve the problem and right the wrong. I shall know neither rest nor sleep until my task is accomplished and justice is done.

Well, said Sile, in his quaint, drawling way, you may git allfired tired an sleepy, Sleuth; but I agree with Chub in thinkin it pritty likely Roger is a-takin Stone up to his haouse.

The boys were right in this conviction, although Ben did not suspect whither he was being carried until they were passing the Methodist church and approaching Rogers home.

I am taking you to dinner, said Roger, in answer to Bens questioning. Mother asked me to bring you in order that she may thank you for your brave defense of Amy against old Fletchers dogs; and father wishes to see you, too.

Ben was filled with sudden consternation.

Oh, say, Eliot, he exclaimed, I cant go there!

Why not, old man? My mother is an invalid, you know, and she cant come to you. It will be a pleasure to her to meet you, and she has few enough pleasures in life.

But but, stammered Ben, remembering that Urian Eliot was known to be Oakdales richest man and lived in the finest house in the village, I am not prepared my clothes

Nonsense! heartily returned Roger. You will find us plain people who do not go in for ceremony and style. Your clothes are all right. Just you be easy and make yourself at home.

Little did Roger know of his companions inward quaking and apprehension, but it seemed too late to get out of it then, and Stone was compelled to face the ordeal.

A stableman took charge of the horse and carriage, and they were met at the door by Amy Eliot, who had been watching for them.

Here he is, Sis, said Roger. I captured him and brought him off without letting him know what was up, or Id never got him here.

Amy shyly, yet impulsively, took Bens hand.

You were so good to come and save me from those dreadful dogs! she said. I was nearly frightened to death. I know they would have eaten me up.

As Bens chained tongue was seeking to free itself a stout, square, bald-headed, florid man, with a square-trimmed tuft of iron-gray whiskers on his chin, appeared in the doorway of a lighted room off the hall, and a healthy, hearty voice cried:

So this is the hero! Well, well, my boy, give me your hand! Ive heard all about it from Roger and Amy. And you actually killed old Fletchers big dog with a club! Remarkable! Amazing! For that alone you deserve a vote of thanks from every respectable, peaceable citizen of this town. But we owe you the heaviest debt. Our Amy would have been mangled by those miserable beasts but for your promptness and courage. Lots of boys would have hesitated about facing those dogs.

This is my father, Stone, said Roger, as Urian Eliot was earnestly shaking the confused lads hand.





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