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Title: A Tale of the Tow-Path
Author: Greene, Homer
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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[Illustration: “WHERE’D YOU GET THAT HORSE?”]



                              _A Tale of
                             the Tow-Path_

                           _By Homer Greene_


                            [Illustration]


                              _NEW YORK_
                        _THOMAS Y. CROWELL CO._
                             _PUBLISHERS_



                          _Copyright, 1892_,
                         BY PERRY MASON & CO.

                          _Copyright, 1892_,
                        BY T. Y. CROWELL & CO.



CONTENTS.


 CHAPTER                                PAGE
      I. THE RESULT OF A WHIPPING          1
     II. WHO TOOK OLD CHARLIE?            19
    III. ON THE CANAL                     37
     IV. CAPTAIN BILL BUYS A HORSE        56
      V. HOMEWARD BOUND                   74
     VI. OLD CHARLIE BRINGS BACK JOE      92



A TALE OF THE TOW-PATH.



CHAPTER I.

THE RESULT OF A WHIPPING.


Hoeing corn is not very hard work for one who is accustomed to it,
but the circumstances of the hoeing may make the task an exceedingly
laborious one. They did so in Joe Gaston’s case. Joe Gaston thought he
had never in his life before been put to such hard and disagreeable
work.

In the first place, the ground had been broken up only that spring, and
it was very rough and stony. Next, the field was on a western slope,
and the rays of the afternoon sun shone squarely on it. It was an
unusually oppressive day, too, for the last of June.

Finally, and chiefly: Joe was a fourteen-year-old boy, fond of sport
and of companionship, and he was working there alone.

Leaning heavily on the handle of his hoe, Joe gazed pensively away to
the west. At the foot of the slope lay a small lake, its unruffled
surface reflecting with startling distinctness the foliage that lined
its shores, and the two white clouds that hung above in the blue sky.

Through a rift in the hills could be seen, far away, the line of purple
mountains that lay beyond the west shore of the Hudson River.

“It aint fair!” said Joe, talking aloud to himself, as he sometimes
did. “I don’t have time to do anything but just work, work, work. Right
in the middle of summer, too, when you can have the most fun of any
time in the year, if you only had a chance to get it! There’s berrying
and bee-hunting and swimming and fishing and--and lots of things.”

The look of pensiveness on Joe’s face changed into one of longing.

“Fishing’s awful good now,” he continued; “but I don’t get a chance to
go, unless I go without asking, and even then I dassent carry home the
fish.”

After another minute of reflection he turned his face toward the
upland, where, in the distance, the white porch and gables of a
farmhouse were visible through an opening between two rows of orchard
trees.

“I guess I’ll just run down to the pond a few minutes, and see if
there’s any fish there. It aint more’n three o’clock; Father’s gone up
to Morgan’s with that load of hay, and he won’t be home before five
o’clock. I can get back and hoe a lot of corn by that time.”

He cast his eyes critically toward the sun, hesitated for another
minute, and then, shouldering his hoe, started down the hill toward the
lake; but before he had gone half-way to the water’s edge he stopped
and stood still, nervously chewing a spear of June-grass, and glancing
alternately back at the cornfield and forward to the tempting waters of
the lake.

“I don’t care!” he said at last. “I can’t help it if it aint right. If
Father’d only _let_ me go a-fishing once in a while, I wouldn’t want
to sneak off. It’s his fault; ’cause I’ve got to fish, and that’s all
there is about it.”

In a swampy place near by he dug some angle-worms for bait. Then,
taking a pole and line from the long grass behind a log, he skirted the
shore for a short distance, climbed out on the body of a fallen tree
that lay partly in the water, and flung off his line.

Joe had not long to wait. The lazy motion of the brightly painted float
on the smooth surface of the lake gave place to a sudden swinging
movement. Then the small end dipped till only the round red top was
visible. In the next instant that too disappeared, and the pole curved
till the tip of it almost touched the water.

For a second only Joe played with his victim. Then, with a quick,
steady pull, he drew the darting, curving, shining fish from its home,
and landed it among the weeds on the shore.

Flushed with delight, he hastened to cast his line again into the pool.
Scarcely a minute later he pulled out another fish. It seemed to be an
excellent day for the sport.

Indeed, he had never before known the fish to bite so well. They kept
him busy baiting his hook and drawing them in.

He was in the high tide of enjoyment. The cornfield was forgotten.

Suddenly he became aware that some one was standing behind him among
the low bushes on the shore. He turned to see who it was. There,
confronting him, a frown on his face, stood Joe’s father.

The pole in the boy’s hands dropped till the tip of it splashed into
the water; his face turned red and then pale, and there was a strange
weakness in his knees.

He drew his line in slowly, wound it about the pole, and stepped from
the log to the shore. As yet no word had been said by either father or
son, but Joe had a vague sense that it was for him to speak first.

“I thought,” he stammered, “that I’d come down and see--and see if--if
the fish was biting to-day--”

“Well,” said his father, grimly, “are they biting?”

“They’ve bit first-rate,” responded the boy, quickly. “I’ve got
fourteen in this little puddle here.”

“Throw them back into the pond,” commanded Mr. Gaston.

Joe bent over, and taking the fish one by one from the little pool of
water where he had placed them, he tossed them lightly into the lake.
He came to one that, badly wounded, was floating on its side.

“’Taint any use throwing that one back,” he said. “It’s--”

“Throw it back!” was the stern command.

Joe threw it back. When this task was completed, Mr. Gaston said,--

“Have you got your knife in your pocket, Joseph?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Cut me a whip, then,--a beech one; you’ll find a good one on that
sapling.”

Joe took his knife and cut from the sapling indicated a long, slender
branch. He trimmed it and gave it to his father. He well knew the use
to which it was to be put; and although his spirit rebelled, though he
felt that he did not really deserve the punishment, he obeyed without a
word.

“Joseph,” said his father, “do you remember my warning you last week
not to go fishing again without my permission, and my telling you that
if you did, I should whip you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I suppose you expect me to keep my word?”

Joe said nothing.

Mr. Gaston stood for another moment in anxious thought. He did not wish
to whip the boy, surely. Though he was outwardly a cold man, he had all
a father’s affection for Joe; but would he not fail of his duty if he
did not punish him for his disobedience?

“Joseph,” he said, “can you think of any better remedy than whipping?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What is it?”

“Well, if you’d just _let_ me go fishing once in a while,--say Saturday
afternoons,--I’d never think of running away to go,--never.”

“That is, if I allow you to do what you choose, you won’t be disobeying
me when you do it? Is that the idea?”

“Yes, sir, something like that.”

Joe felt that there was a difference, however, but he could not at that
moment explain it. Besides, he wished to take the opportunity to air
other grievances, of which heretofore he had never ventured to speak.

“I don’t have privileges like other boys, anyway,” he continued. “Tom
Brown don’t have to work every day in the week, and he can go to town
every Saturday if he wants to, and go to fairs, and have pocket-money
to spend; and I don’t have anything, not even when I earn it. And Mr.
Dolliver lets his Jim take his horse and go riding whenever he feels
like it; but I aint allowed to go anywhere, nor do anything that other
boys do!”

Joe paused, breathless and in much excitement.

Mr. Gaston said, “It’s your duty to obey your parents, no matter if
they can’t give you all the pleasures that some other boys have. You
are not yet old enough to set up your judgment against ours. We must
govern you as we think best.”

Again there was a minute’s silence. Then the father said, “Joseph, I
had intended to whip you; but it’s a hard and unpleasant duty, and I’m
inclined to try you once more without it, if you’ll apologize and make
a new promise not to go fishing again without my permission.”

“I’ll apologize,” replied Joe, “but I won’t promise.”

“Why not?”

“’Cause you wouldn’t give me your permission, and then I’d break the
promise. That’s the way it always goes.”

“Very well; you may take your choice,--either the promise or the
whipping. I can’t argue with you about it.”

Joe was excited and angry. He did not take time to think, but answered
hotly that his father could whip him if he wished. Mr. Gaston tested
the whip, cutting the air with it once or twice. It made a cruel sound.

“I want you to remember, after it is over,” he said slowly, “that it
was your choice, and not my pleasure. Stand out here, and turn your
back to me.”

Joe’s chastisement followed. It was a severe one. The pain was greater
than Joe had expected. The shock of the first blow was still fresh when
the second one came, and this was followed up by half-a-dozen more in
rapid succession.

“Now,” said the father, when it was over, throwing the whip aside, “you
may go back to the cornfield and go to work.”

Without a word, and indeed with mind and heart too full for utterance,
the boy shouldered his hoe and started back up the hill. Mr. Gaston,
taking a path which skirted the field, walked slowly toward home. His
mind too was filled with conflicting emotions.

He felt that he was striving to do his duty by the boy, to bring him
up to honest, sober manhood. Yet for the first time he began to wonder
whether the course he was pursuing with him was just the right one to
lead to that end.

He paused, and looked across the field to where Joe, who had reached
his old place, was bending over a long row of corn; and his heart
filled with fatherly sympathy for the lad in spite of his waywardness
and obstinacy. The father felt that he would like to reason with Joe
again more gently, and started to cross the field for that purpose. But
fearing that Joe might think that he had repented of his severity, he
turned back and made his way, with a heavy heart, toward home.

As for Joe, his anger settled before an hour had passed into a feeling
of strong and stubborn resentment. That his punishment had been too
severe and humiliating he had no doubt. That he had long been treated
unfairly by his father and had been governed with undue strictness he
fully believed.

Slowly, as he pondered over it, there came into his mind a plan to
put an end to it all,--a plan which, without further consideration,
he resolved to adopt. This, he was determined, should be the last
whipping he would receive at his father’s hands.

He was interrupted in his brooding and his plans by a young girl, who
came down toward him between the rows of springing corn. It was his
sister Jennie, who was two years younger than he.

She looked up at him, as she advanced, with mingled curiosity and
sympathy in her expressive eyes and face.

“Joe,” she said, in an awe-stricken voice, “did Father whip you?”

“What makes you think he whipped me?” asked Joe.

“Because, I--I heard him tell Mother so.”

“What did Mother say?”

“Oh, she cried, and she said she was sorry it had to be done. Did he
whip you hard, Joe?”

“Pretty hard, but it’s the last time. He’ll never whip me again,
Jennie.”

“Are you going to be a better boy?”

“No, a worse one.”

Jennie stood for a moment silent and wondering at this paradoxical
statement. Then an idea flashed into her mind.

“Joe!” she cried, “you--you’re not going to run away?”

“That’s just what I am going to do. I’ve stood it here as long as I
can.”

“O Joe! what’ll Father say?”

“It don’t make much difference what he says. I’m goin’ to--say, Jennie!
don’t you go and tell now, ’fore I get started. You wouldn’t do as mean
a thing as that, would you, Jen? Promise now!”

“I--I--maybe if Father knew you’d made up your mind to go, he’d treat
you better.”

“No, he wouldn’t. Look here, Jen! if you say anything about it
I’ll--say now, you won’t, will you?”

“N--no, not if you don’t want me to, but I’m awful scared about
it. What’ll Mother say?” asked the girl, wiping from her eyes the
fast-falling tears.

“That’s where the trouble is, Jen,” replied the boy, leaning on the
handle of his hoe, and gazing reflectively off to the hills. “I hate
to leave Mother, she’s good to me; but Father and I can’t get along
together after what’s happened to-day, that’s plain.”

“And won’t you ever come back again?” asked Jennie, plaintively.

“Not for seven years,” answered Joe; “then I’ll be twenty-one, an’ my
own boss, and I can go fishing whenever I feel like it.”

“O Joe!” Jennie’s tears fell still faster. “Joe! I’m afraid--what--made
you--tell me?”

“You asked me!”

“But I didn’t--didn’t want you to tell me anything--anything so
dreadful!”

From the direction of the house came the sound of the supper-bell. Joe
shouldered his hoe again; Jennie rose from her seat on a rock, and
together they walked slowly home. On the way Joe exacted from Jennie a
faithful promise that she would tell nothing about his plan.

At the supper-table Joe was silent and moody, and ate little. After
doing the portion of the chores that fell to his lot, he went at once
to his room. His back still smarted and ached from the whipping; his
mind was still troubled, and indignation and rebellion still ruled in
his breast.

Before he slept, his mother came to see that he was safely in bed, and
to tuck him in for the night. She knew that this had been a very bitter
day for him, and although she feared he had deserved his punishment,
she grieved for him, and suffered with him from the bottom of her heart.

It was with more than the customary tenderness that she tucked the
bed-clothing around him, and kissed him good-night.

“Good-night, Mother!” he said, looking up through the dim light of the
room into her face; “good-night!”

He did not let go of her hand; and when he tried to say something more,
he broke down and burst into tears.

So she knelt down by the side of the bed, and smoothing his hair back
from his forehead, talked gently to him for a long time. After more
good-night kisses she left him, and went back to her never-ending work.

This, for Joe, was the hardest part of leaving home; for he was very
fond of his mother, and knew that his going would almost break her
heart. Still, now that he had resolved to go, he would not change his
mind, even for his mother’s sake.

It was long before Joe fell asleep, and even then he was beset by
unpleasant dreams, so that his rest availed him but little.

Before daybreak he arose, dressed himself, gathered into a bundle a few
articles of clothing, a few of his choicest treasures, and a little
money that he had earned and saved, and then on tiptoe left his room.

At the end of the hall a door was opened, and a little white-robed
figure glided out and into his arms. It was Jennie.

“O Joe!” she whispered, “are you really going?”

“’Sh! Jen, don’t make any noise. Yes, I’m going. There, don’t
cry--good-by!”

He bent down and kissed her, but she could not speak for the sobs that
choked her. After holding her arms around his neck for a moment, she
vanished into her room.

Joe went softly down the stairs, and out at the kitchen door. It was
cool and refreshing in the open air. In the east the sky was beginning
to put on the gray of morning.

Jennie, looking down through the dusk from the window of her room, saw
Joe walk down the path to the road gate, then turn, as if some new
thought had struck him, and cross the yard to the barn, entering it by
the stable door.

“Oh!” exclaimed the child to herself, in a frightened whisper, “oh!
he’s going to take the horse; he’s going to take Charlie!”

She sank down on the floor, and covered her face with her hands. She
did not want to see so dreadful a thing happen. But curiosity finally
got the better of her fear, and she looked out again just in time to
see some one lead the gray horse from the stable, mount him, and ride
away into the dusk.

“O Joe!” she murmured. “O Charlie! Oh, what will Father say now! Isn’t
it dreadful, dreadful!”

But though she did not know it, the person whom Jennie saw riding away
into the dusk on old Charlie’s back was not Joe.



CHAPTER II.

WHO TOOK OLD CHARLIE?


Joe’s errand to the stable on the morning when he went away was not
what his sister Jennie supposed. He went there only to say farewell to
the horse that had been his friend and companion since he was a little
child. He loved “Old Charlie,” and could not go away without caressing
him and saying good-by.

The great gray horse, wakened by the opening of the stable door, rose
clumsily to his feet, and stared, a little frightened, across his
manger toward the visitor who came so early.

“Hello, Charlie!” said Joe, softly, feeling his way forward in the
darkness of the stable, and laying his hand on the horse’s forehead.
“I’m going away, Charlie; I thought I’d come and say good-by to you.”

He had talked to the horse in this way, as to a human being, ever since
he could remember. To him there was nothing absurd in it. Charlie,
recognizing his young master, pushed his nose forward and rubbed it
against Joe’s breast.

“I’m going away,” repeated the boy, “an’ it isn’t likely we’ll ever see
each other again.”

He leaned over the manger, pulled the horse’s head down to his breast,
and laid his cheek against it for a moment. Then he went out at the
stable door, shut and latched it, hurried across the barnyard and out
upon the grassy expanse at the side of the highway.

At the turn in the road Joe looked back. He could see the white front
of the old homestead showing dimly against the dark shadows where night
lingered. It looked so serene, so quiet, so comfortable!

He brushed away the tears that started to his eyes, choked down the
sob that rose in his throat, and turning once more, walked rapidly
away toward the east. Almost before Joe had turned into the road from
the bars, a man crept cautiously from the shadows behind the barn, and
advanced to the stable door. He was short and thickly built, and very
bow-legged.

“Close call for me, that there was,” he said to himself. “Another
minute, an’ I’d ’a’ been inside o’ that there stable door, an’ ’e’d ’a’
come plump onto me; that’s w’at ’e’d ’a’ done. Queer thing, anyway. W’y
didn’t ’e take the ’oss, I want to know, an’ not be scarin’ honest folk
out o’ their seving senses that way for nothink?”

The man unlatched the stable door, opened it noiselessly, and went in.

It was not many minutes before he came out again, leading Old Charlie,
and stroking him in order to keep him quiet.

The horse was bridled, and a blanket was strapped over his back in lieu
of a saddle. The animal was evidently suspicious and frightened, and
moved about nervously, snorting a little, and with ears pricked up and
eyes wide open. Once he snorted so loudly that the bow-legged man,
glancing uneasily toward the farmhouse, made haste to close the stable
door and lead the horse to the bars, where he could more readily mount
him.

“Nothing venture, nothing ’ave,” he said, as he leaped clumsily to the
beast’s back. Then, having walked the horse for a few rods, he struck
Charlie with his hand, and rode away rapidly in the direction which Joe
had taken.

Very soon, however, he turned the horse’s head into a grassy cart-road
leading into the woods which he had carefully explored the previous
day. This he followed--Old Charlie’s smooth-shod feet leaving no track
on the turf--until it brought him out upon a little-travelled highway
about a mile distant.

Here the thief cut a sharp little stick from a tree, and urging Old
Charlie to a rapid gait, galloped on ten miles or more, until daylight
had fully broken. Then he took refuge once more in the woods, and
breakfasted out of a little bag of plunder which he had brought from
the Gaston farm.

“A good start, Callipers, me boy,” he said to himself. “You mind your
bloomin’ eye an’ you’re all right. It don’t do to lose your ’ead an’ go
too fast, or go too fast an’ lose your ’ead.”

In the mean time, back at the farm the cattle had begun to stir about
in the barnyard with the lifting of the night shadows. It was broad
daylight before the hired man went up through the gate with two
gleaming tin pails in his hands. Smoke rose from the chimney of the
farmhouse kitchen; the household was astir.

Every one was about but Joe. His mother had not yet called him. She
thought to let him sleep a little later than usual. Yesterday had been
such a bitter day for him!

“Where’s Joe?” asked Mr. Gaston, coming into the kitchen. “Isn’t he up
yet?”

“No,” replied the mother. “He wasn’t feeling very well last night, and
I thought I wouldn’t call him till breakfast was all ready.”

“Mother,” said the farmer, “I’m afraid you’re indulging the boy in
lazy habits. He oughtn’t to be left in bed later just because he
misbehaved yesterday.”

“Well,” she said, “he was really feeling almost sick last night.”

Little Jennie, whose eyes were red from weeping, and whose face was
pale with anxiety, listened timidly to the conversation, and then stole
softly from the room.

What would happen when it was found that Joe had gone? What would
happen when it was found that he had taken Old Charlie? This was the
burden of her thought and fear.

Whatever it might be, she knew she had not the courage to face it, so
she crept away to hide herself and to weep out her grief.

“If Joe was sick last night,” the farmer went on, “it was just because
he was disobedient and had to be whipped. I hope he’s in a better frame
of mind this morning. It is very painful for me to punish him. I wish I
might--”

The outside door opened, and the hired man entered, interrupting Mr.
Gaston’s speech. He seemed to be troubled and excited.

“Have you had Charlie out this morning, Mr. Gaston?” he asked.

“Charlie? What Charlie?”

“Why, Charlie the horse. He isn’t in the stable.”

“Not in the stable?”

“No, sir. An’ I can’t find him nowheres. The bridle’s gone, too, an’
the blanket an’ the surcingle.”

“Oh, dear me!” exclaimed Mrs. Gaston, dropping the toast on the hearth
in her excitement.

“Who put him up last night?” asked the farmer.

“I did,” replied the hired man.

“Did you tie him fast?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And shut the stable door?”

“Yes, sir; but I asked Joe to water him after he’d had his feed. Joe
often does that, you know.”

“Call Joe!” the farmer said sharply to his wife.

Mrs. Gaston hurried upstairs to the door of Joe’s room.

She knocked, but there was no answer. She called, but no one responded.
Then she opened the door and entered.

The bed was vacant. She looked into the closet, behind the trunk, under
the bed; but no boy was to be found.

The truth suddenly forced itself into Mrs. Gaston’s mind. Joe had
gone--run away!--left his home and her! She grew suddenly weak, and sat
down upon the bed till her strength should return to her.

Joe gone? She could hardly believe it. How could her only boy leave
her? How could she live without him?

It occurred to her that he could not yet have gone far, and that he
might be found and brought back before it was too late. She hurried
from the room, flew down the stairs, and burst into the dining-room.

“Go after him!” she exclaimed. “Send for him quick, before any harm
comes to him! He’s gone--he’s run away, he’s--”

“Who’s gone?” questioned Mr. Gaston, dazed by his wife’s words and
manner. “What is the matter with everybody this morning?”

“Joe! Joe’s gone! Follow him, Father, do, and bring him back! Take
Charlie and follow him at once. He can’t be far! Take Charlie and--Oh!
Charlie’s gone, too--they’ve gone, they’ve gone--”

“Together!” said Mr. Gaston, sinking into a chair, and staring across
the table at his wife, who was already seated and silent, dumb with the
revelation of what appeared to be both mystery and crime.

The hired man, after witnessing for a moment the agony apparent on the
faces of both father and mother, opened the door softly and went out.

Mrs. Gaston was the first to recover her voice.

“Father,” she said, “do you think Joe took the horse?”

“It looks very much like it,” he said. “They’re both gone.”

“Yes; but they may not have gone together, after all. Or if they have
gone together, perhaps Joe had some errand that we don’t know about,
and will come back soon. Maybe he hasn’t gone at all, but is somewhere
about the place now. Don’t let’s accuse him before we know!”

“You are right; we’ll find the proof first.”

Mr. Gaston went to the door and called the hired man.

“Ralph,” he said, “don’t say anything for the present about this. We
think some mistake has been made. But you may just make a quiet search
for the horse around the farm and the neighborhood, and let me know if
you find any trace of him.

“Now,” he continued, turning back into the house, “we will search for
evidence. Let us go first to Joe’s room and see what we can find there.”

Together the father and mother mounted the stairs to the little east
room, and looked about.

On a stand in the corner Mrs. Gaston discovered something that, in her
former hurried search, had escaped her notice. It was a note in Joe’s
handwriting, written carefully in pencil, and it read as follows:

    DEAR MOTHER,--I am going away. Father is too hard on me. I
    will come back to see you when I am twenty-one if Father will
    let me. Forgive me for making you feel bad, and for being an
    ungrateful boy. Good-by,

    JOE.

She read the note, handed it to her husband, and, sinking into a chair,
burst into tears.

When Mr. Gaston had read it he went to the open window and stood for
many minutes, looking away, thoughtfully and sternly, to the distant
hills.

“Father,” sobbed his wife, “you will go after Joe, won’t you? You’ll
find him, and bring him back, won’t you?”

It seemed to her a long time before he answered her.

“I believe,” he said at last, “that when a boy runs away from a good
home, it is better, as a rule, to let him go, and find out his mistake;
he’s sure to find it out in a very short time. If he is followed and
threatened and forced, he will come back sullen and angry, and will
make up his mind to go again at the first chance.”

“But if he’s followed and reasoned with and persuaded?” said the
mother, appealingly.

“If he is followed and reasoned with and persuaded,” answered the
father, “he will get a great notion of his own importance. He will
believe that he has gained his point, and will come back impudent and
overbearing.”

“But think what harm may come to him,--what suffering!”

“Probably he will suffer. There’s no easy way to learn the lesson he
must learn. If I could save him from the suffering that his folly is
sure to bring on him, and at the same time feel sure that he has really
repented and is bound to do better, I would go to the end of the earth
to find him. But we’ll talk about that later. There’s no doubt now that
Joe’s gone. Let us see if we can find out anything about the horse. It
will make a difference if he has taken him.”

But the good woman could not yet give up her appeal in behalf of her
boy.

“You won’t be too harsh with him, Father? You won’t allow him to suffer
too much? If he don’t come back soon, you’ll go and find him, won’t
you,--if he don’t come back by the end of next week? He isn’t strong,
you know, and he’s so sensitive. And I can’t think he intended to do
anything wrong; I can’t think it! I will not believe it!”

They were passing through the upper hall to the head of the staircase.
When they came near to the dark closet that opened on the landing,
they were startled by the strange noise that proceeded from behind the
door,--a noise as of some one sobbing.

Mr. Gaston threw open the closet door and peered into the darkness,
while his wife stood behind him, half-frightened, looking over his
shoulder.

“Why!” he exclaimed, when his eyes had adapted themselves to the inner
gloom, “it’s Jennie!”

“Oh, dear me!” exclaimed Mrs. Gaston, in another fright.

“Jennie,” said Mr. Gaston, sternly, “come right out. What does this
mean?”

Poor Jennie, her eyes red with weeping and with anguish written all
over her tear-marked face, rose from her seat on an old chest, and came
into the light of the hall.

She began to sob again as though her heart would break.

“What does this mean?” repeated her father.

“N--nothing,” sobbed Jennie, “only I--I--”

“See here!” exclaimed her father, “did you know that Joe had gone away?”

“I--I was afraid he had.”

“Did you know he intended to go?” asked her father, sternly.

“Why, he--he told me yesterday that he--was--”

“Going to run away?”

“Ye--yes.”

“O Jennie!” exclaimed her mother, “why didn’t you tell us as soon as
you knew it, so that we might stop him?”

“He made--made me promise not to! I couldn’t help it.”

Little by little, in answer to repeated questions, the narration broken
by many sobs, the child gave the story of the previous day’s interview
with Joe.

“Jennie,” said Mr. Gaston, finally, “have you seen Joe this morning?
Answer me truly.”

“Ye--yes, Father.”

“Where?”

“Here, in the hall.”

“At what hour?”

“I don’t--don’t know. It was before daylight. He was just starting.
I bade him good-by, and went back into my room, and he went on
downstairs.”

Jennie was lavish of her information this time. The questions were
getting dangerously near a point she dreaded, and she hoped there would
be no more of them.

Alas! The very next question shook the foundation of her guilty
knowledge of Joe’s apparent crime.

“Jennie,” asked her father, “did you see Joe this morning after he left
the house?”

“Yes, Father; I looked out o’ the window, an’ saw him go down the
path.”

“Which way did he go when he got to the road?” asked her mother,
eagerly.

“He--he went off that way,” replied Jennie, faintly, “east.”

“He went east, Father!” exclaimed Mrs. Gaston,--“east toward the
mountains, not west toward the river. It will be easier to find him,
you know. And he didn’t take the horse; you see he didn’t take Charlie!”

“Wait,” said Mr. Gaston, sternly. “Jennie, tell us the whole story. Do
you mean to say that you saw Joe go down the path and out at the gate,
and walk away toward the east?”

Half-unconsciously she made a final attempt to save Joe.

“No, Father, he turned around and came back up the path toward the
house.”

The mother asked no more questions. She instinctively felt that her
worst fears were about to be realized.

“Did he come back into the house?” asked the father, mercilessly.

“N--no.”

“Where did he go?”

There was no way out of it. Jennie must tell what she had seen.

“O Father!” she cried, “he came back--and then--he went into the
stable.”

“Did you see him come out?”

“No, oh, no! But I saw him ride out through the bars on Old Charlie,
and away up the road. I did, I saw him. O Joe! Oh, dear me! Oh, I
wish--I wish--I was dead!”

The little girl fell to wringing her hands and sobbing again with
great violence, convinced that she had been the victim of unhappy
circumstances, and that she had been a traitor to Joe, whom she loved
dearly.

Mrs. Gaston, drawing the child to her, sat on the stair-landing and
said nothing; but sorrow and sympathy, struggling for the mastery in
her heart, sent the bitter tears afresh to her eyes.

Over the face of Joe’s father came a look that had not been there
before.

“I shall not follow him, Mother,” he said. “He may have the horse, but
he must not come back here until he comes in sackcloth and ashes. I am
sorry that I have lived to see the day when a son of mine has come to
be little better than a common thief.”

The father had passed down the stairs and out at the door, while mother
and daughter sat long together, mingling their tears over the unhappy
fate of the boy whom both had idolized, and whose strange folly had
made him, to all intents and purposes, an exile from his home.



CHAPTER III.

ON THE CANAL.


It is at Rondout that the Delaware and Hudson Canal, reaching across
from the anthracite-coal regions of Pennsylvania, touches tide-water on
the Hudson. It is here that the bulky canal-boats, having discharged
their cargoes of coal, turn their bows again to the westward. From the
low-lying lands at the river’s edge the mouth of Rondout Creek curves
back into the hills, forming for miles a safe, broad harbor.

On the northerly shore of the creek is the wharf. On the left side
of this wharf long lines of canal-boats are tied to the wharf posts,
and fastened one to another. On the right, canal stores, blacksmith’s
shops, and stables extend as far as the eye can reach.

In the early morning, before the activities of the day have begun, this
wharf is a deserted and forbidding place, and on one such early morning
in September, with chill air and cloudy skies, and not even a rose tint
in the dull east, there was no one to be seen throughout the whole
length of the wharf save one slowly moving boy.

This boy was so dull and miserable in appearance as to be hardly
noticeable against the general dulness around him. His clothing was
ragged and dusty, his shoes were out at both heel and toe. The battered
hat, pulled well down over his eyes, shaded a haggard and a hungry
face. His mother herself would scarcely have recognized this scarecrow
as Joe Gaston.

What his hardships and sufferings had been since that June morning when
he angrily left his home, his appearance told more eloquently than
words can describe them. Many and many a day he had longed for the good
and wholesome food he knew was on his father’s table. Many and many a
night, as he lay under some unwelcoming roof, or still oftener with
the open sky above him, he had dreamed of that gentle mother who used
always to fold the soft covering over him, and give him the good-night
kiss.

But a few days before our meeting with him here on the canal Joe had
met, on the public road, a roving wood-sawyer who recognized him. They
walked together a long way.

The man, who had sawed wood for Joe’s father several times, had been at
the homestead since Joe’s departure. He seemed surprised not to find
the horse with Joe, and he finally asked the boy what he had done with
him.

He was still more surprised when he learned that Joe had not had Old
Charlie, and knew nothing about the theft. But poor Joe! It touched him
to the quick to learn, as he did, that at home he was regarded as a
horse-thief.

It was this that he brooded over now, day and night. To think that they
should accuse him of stealing Old Charlie!

Joe had, in his wanderings, followed a sort of circle, which had now
brought him within a comparatively short distance of home; but if,
before this, he had thought of returning there, the thought was now
driven from his mind. He felt that he could not go back to face this
charge against him, for who would believe him? It was time to turn his
face to the westward.

Besides, he had said that he would not return until he was twenty-one
years old. His pride had not yet been enough chastened by misery to
cause him to abandon his foolish boast.

So here he was, on the wharf at Rondout this raw September morning,
seeking not so much independence and fortune as bread and shelter.

Joe walked slowly along close to the buildings, for the wind that swept
down the creek was disagreeably cold. An occasional raindrop struck his
face. He was very thinly clad, too, and he could not help shivering now
and then as he pushed his hands deeper into his pockets and turned his
back for a moment to the wind.

He stopped to look at a few loaves of bread and a string of sausages
that were displayed in the window of a cheap store. He wondered whether
it would be wiser to spend his last few pennies for his breakfast, or
save them for his dinner.

He had about decided to buy a piece of bread, and was waiting for the
store to be opened for the day, when some one accosted him from behind:
“Say, you boy!”

Joe turned and looked at the speaker. He was a rather stout, low-browed
man, with a very red nose and a shaven face, upon which a rough stubble
of beard had begun to grow.

His pantaloons were supported from below by the tops of his rubber
boots, and suspended from above by a single brace, which ran diagonally
across the breast of his red flannel shirt.

“Do you want a job, young fellow?” continued the man.

“What kind of a job?” asked Joe.

“Drivin’.”

“Drivin’ what?”

“Hosses on the canal. My boy got sick las’ night, an’ I’ve got to git
another one. Do ye know anything about hosses?”

“Yes,” replied Joe. “I’ve driven ’em a good deal, and always taken care
of ’em.”

“Well, my boat’s unloaded, an’ I’m ready to pull right out. Wha’ do ye
say? Go?”

“What wages do you pay?” asked the boy, hesitatingly.

“Well, you’re big an’ smart-lookin’ an’ know how to handle hosses, an’
I’ll give you extra big pay.”

Joe’s spirits rose. True, the man looked forbidding, and undesirable as
a master; but if he paid good wages, the rest might be endured.

“Well, what will you pay?” persisted the boy.

“I’ll give ye four dollars for the round trip, an’ board an’ lodge ye.”

Joe’s spirits fell.

“How long does the trip take?” he asked.

“Two weeks.”

“An’ when do I get my money?”

“Half at Honesdale, an’ half when you git back here.”

“Well, I don’t know; I--”

“Make up your mind quick. If you don’t want the job, I’ll be lookin’
for another boy.”

Joe thought of his penniless condition. It might not be long, indeed,
before he would be starving. Here was a chance to obtain at least food
and shelter, and probably enough to buy an overcoat.

“Well,” he said, “I’ll go.”

“All right. Have you had any breakfast?”

“No.”

“Come along with me, an’ I’ll give you some.”

Joe’s spirits rose again at the thought of breakfast. He followed the
man down the dock a short distance, then from the dock to a canal-boat
lying close by, and from this boat to another, and still another.

When the last boat was reached, they went down into the cabin, where a
colored man was cooking food.

A leaf projecting from the wall was already propped to a horizontal
position, and on it were a few plates, knives and forks, a dish of
warmed-up potatoes, a slice or two of fried ham, and some bread and
butter.

The negro was preparing coffee also. The odor of it all was very
pleasant to Joe as he climbed down the steep cabin stairs, and he did
not wait long after being told to help himself.

“I’ve hired this boy for the trip,” the man explained to his cook.
“What’s your name, young feller, anyhow?” he continued, turning to the
boy.

“Joe.”

“What else?”

“That’s all,--for the present, anyway.”

“Oh, I see! Run away, did ye? Well, I won’t be so partic’ler. My name’s
Rosencamp,--Bill Rosencamp. Cap’n Bill, for short. An’ this gentleman’s
name,” turning to the negro, “is Blixey. He’s like you; he’s only got
one name; but he can’t help it,--he never had no other.”

Blixey laughed immoderately at this, and poured the coffee with an
unsteady hand. He seemed to be so weak and wavering in all his
movements, his eyes were so bloodshot, and his utterance so thick, that
Joe thought he must have been drinking; but he had not been,--at any
rate, not that morning.

Joe enjoyed his breakfast greatly. Though it was a coarse meal, it was
the best he had eaten for many days, and when he was done with it he
was ready to go to work, and said so.

Accordingly he was sent to scrub the deck, while Blixey washed the
dishes, and the captain looked after the tow. A bustling little
tug-boat had already made fast to a fleet of empty canal-boats,
Rosencamp’s among the number, and was hauling them up the stream.

Rondout was now awake. The island in the bay was a scene of great
activity. The clang of heavy machinery and the rasping noise of coal
sliding on iron surfaces filled the air. Boats were moving in all
directions. There were a hundred people on the wharf, and twice a
hundred, many of them women and little children on the decks of the
moored canal-boats.

Up the stream the scene became picturesque. On each side were
precipitous hills, wooded to the river’s edge, their green heights
reflected in the still water at their feet. There were cement mines to
be seen, and old white-faced mansions; and half-way up the boat passed
under a lofty iron bridge across which dashed a railway train.

Notwithstanding the dulness of the sky and the occasional falling of
raindrops, Joe enjoyed the ride very much. At Eddyville the first lock,
a tide-lock, bars the way, and here the horses and mules are kept.

“Do you see that stable over there?” said the captain to Joe. “My
hosses is there. You go an’ git ’em. Ask for Cap’n Bill’s hosses.”

Joe did as he was told. After some good-natured chaffing on the part of
the stable-keeper, the raw-boned worn-out horses were turned over to
him, and the boy appeared on the tow-path leading them.

Joe was told that these animals were named Jack and Jill. Jack had
fallen down the bank from the tow-path to the river one day, and Jill
had come tumbling after. Whatever their names had been before, this
incident had definitely renamed them.

The horses were fastened to the tow-line, and the tow-line was attached
to the timber-head of the boat. Joe was duly installed as driver.

His duties were not at all light. He had to walk all the way, and to
keep the horses going at a good pace, which in itself was no easy task.
He must keep on the inside of the tow-path, so that his boat should
pass over the tow-lines of the loaded boats they met, and must pull up
sharply when a lock was reached.

Sometimes, in the vicinity of locks, great confusion arose from the
crowding of boats and the intertangling of tow-lines. Then Joe became
practically helpless. But Captain Bill, after much pushing and angry
shouting, always managed to straighten out matters and get the boat
under way again.

At Rosendale there was a long delay. Something had gone wrong with the
gates at the lock.

Joe was not sorry for this, for it was now late in the forenoon, and he
was very tired from his long tramp.

Captain Bill had gone off up the wharf to a canal store, Blixey was
busy in the cabin, and the horses were drowsily munching oats from
baskets tied under their noses.

A drizzling rain was falling, and Joe took shelter under a shed a
little back from the tow-path while he waited.

He had not been long there when a big, uncouth-looking boy came
shambling in and sat down on a box near by.

“Hello!” said the boy.

“Hello!” responded Joe.

“Drivin’ for Bill Rosey?”

“Yes.”

“Better look out for ’im.”

“Why?”

“He’s _bad_.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, an’ ugly.”

“Is he?”

“Yes, an’ works you to death. He’s used up three boys a’ready; one went
home yisterday all stove to pieces. I wouldn’t work for ’im; I quit.”

Joe was naturally very much startled, but he soon found breath to ask,--

“Did you work for him once?”

“Did I? Well, I should say so.”

“What did he do to you?”

“Not much; licked me, an’ kicked me, an’ robbed me,--that’s all. Say,
what’s he goin’ to pay you?”

“Four dollars for the round trip.”

“The thief!”

“Why, isn’t that enough?”

“Enough! W’y, five dollars was my wages for the roun’ trip, an’ another
feller I knew was to have six; only we didn’t neither of us git no
money. Oh, he’s a bad man, he is; you better look out fer ’im.”

The boy rose awkwardly, as if to go.

“Well,” said Joe, anxiously, “I’ve hired out to him now, you know. What
would you do about it if you was in my place?”

The big boy sat down again more awkwardly, if possible, than he had
risen.

“I’ll tell ye jest what I would do,” he began earnestly.

But he never told what it was, and Joe never had the benefit of his
advice; for at that moment the bony figure of Captain Bill appeared at
the corner of the shed.

The jaw of the large boy dropped suddenly, and jumping up from the box
he made his escape to the tow-path.

“You’d better git!” shouted the man angrily after him. “What’d he say
to ye?” he demanded, turning to Joe.

“He said,” stammered Joe, “he said that he used to work for you.”

“Did ’e say I used to lick ’im an’ kick ’im, an’ try to knock some
sense into ’im?”

“Why, yes; something like that.”

“Well, I did, an’ I’ll do the same to you ef ye don’t ’ten’ closer
to business. Come! Git out there to them horses! See w’ere they’re
a-goin’! Jest look at that tow-line!”

The man’s look and manner were so fierce that Joe dared not even reply.

He hurried out to his disagreeable task with a sinking heart, and began
to draw up the tow-line, which had slipped under the boat, and which,
after much scolding on Captain Bill’s part, was straightened out.

The boat was “locked through” at last, and not long after Blixey called
up that dinner was ready. The captain ate first, while Blixey minded
the tiller. Then Blixey ate, and afterward relieved Joe on the tow-path.

There was not much left when the boy reached the table,--not nearly
enough to satisfy his hunger. But Captain Bill stood at the rudder-post
looking fiercely down the hatchway at him, and when he had eaten what
was on the table he dared not ask for more.

“Wash them dishes!” ordered the captain.

Joe washed the dishes, put them away on the shelves, and then went
up on deck. The light rain of the morning had settled into a steady
downpour, and the boat was drenched.

“Here!” said Captain Bill, “you come here. Now take a-holt o’ this
tiller, an’ push it as I tell ye to.”

Joe grasped the tiller, and the man went back and began to pump water
from the hold.

“Pull it to ye!” shouted the captain, as the boy, wondering how it
worked, allowed the tiller to swing slowly from him.

“Pull it to ye, I say! Can’t ye see where the boat’s a-goin’?”

Joe pulled; but it was no easy matter to check the impetus of the
rudder in the opposite direction, and the boat still swung stern away.

“Pull!” shouted the man. “Don’t stand there like a stick o’ wood. Pull!”

The boy was pulling with all his might, but as yet without avail.

Captain Bill dropped the pump-rod and sprang to the tiller. Seizing
it on the opposite side from where Joe stood, he thrust it violently
outward, pushing Joe with it, backing him across the deck, backing him
relentlessly till the edge of the boat was reached.

The boy to save himself from the water was obliged to turn and leap
toward shore.

Fortunately the boat was near the bank, and Joe was able to scramble up
the tow-path, more frightened than either hurt or wet.

Captain Bill shook his fist at him angrily.

“You go ahead to them hosses,” he shouted; “and you, Blixey,” raising
his voice still higher, “you come back here an’ pump out this boat!”

Blixey, who had seen Joe’s mishap, laughed hoarsely. His trembling
knock-knees, as he walked toward the boat, seemed each moment likely to
give way.

Joe was very far from being in a laughing mood. Never in his life had
he been treated like this. Still, violently angry as he was, he feared
to disobey this ruffian; he was even afraid to remonstrate with him.

He went forward meekly, took the gad that Blixey handed to him, and
resumed the monotonous task of urging on the tired and miserable
horses. He was already drenched to the skin, sore in mind and body, and
sick at heart.

Once as he walked, he chanced to remember how he and his sister Jennie
used to play on the haymow in the big barn on rainy afternoons. Somehow
the memory brought tears to his eyes; but he brushed them away and
trudged on.

Many loaded boats were met coming down, and many locks were passed. It
was always a relief to the monotony to come to a lock, and take the
horses around it, and wait while the boat was being locked through.
Often there were little villages at the locks, too, and small stores
fronting on the tow-path, and people looking out from behind the store
windows.

The rain came down as steadily as ever. The tow-path grew muddier and
more slippery with every passing moment, and the long hours wore on.

By and by it grew dark, but the boats in the canal kept moving. Lights
shone from the cabin windows, and red lamps gleamed from the bows of
the boats; but the tow-path, where Joe walked, was wrapped in the
deepest gloom.



CHAPTER IV.

CAPTAIN BILL BUYS A HORSE.


It was a cold, rainy, and impenetrably dark night on the tow-path. Here
and there was a lantern, which, when passed, seemed only to deepen the
darkness.

Now and then the swish of a tow-line in the water was heard, or the
harsh scraping of a boat against another boat or against the timbers of
the wharf. Men shouted hoarsely to one another or to their beasts.

Along the muddy tow-path a pair of drenched and miserable horses were
urged by a drenched and miserable boy. To this boy, who was Joe Gaston,
it was all like some hideous dream.

He moved under a constant strain of fear upon nerves already
overwrought, and with incessant physical effort on the part of a body
already worn to the verge of exhaustion.

He found relief for a few moments while he ate his supper. The boat was
waiting below a lock. The captain, who had already eaten, went out on
the tow-path, and Joe’s only companion at the table was Blixey.

When the two had eaten all that was before them, Blixey said: “Well,
young un, had enough, eh?”

“No,” replied Joe, “I haven’t. I’m hungry yet.”

Blixey rose, and climbed far enough up the cabin stairs to put his head
out and make sure that Captain Bill was not on deck. Then he came back,
and opening a little cupboard under the dish shelves, took out half a
loaf of bread and some cold ham, and set it before the boy.

“Mum’s the word,” he whispered. “Don’t say nothin’, but jes’ git around
it’s quick’s ye can.”

Joe followed the advice without further delay.

“Blixey,” he said, between his mouthfuls, “you’re very good.”

As he ate, the captain’s hoarse voice was heard from the tow-path:
“Blixey!”

“What is it, boss?” asked the negro, stumbling up the cabin stairs.

“Send that young rascal out here!”

The negro crawled back part of the way down the stairs. There was a
certain compassion in his voice as he said,--

“You’ll hef to go, honey, an’ right smart, too. I know him.”

So Joe went, and took up again in the blackness of night his dreary,
cruel task on the tow-path. He thought it would never end; that the sun
would soon rise at his back, and that he should be kept right on at his
work through another day.

But when Port Jackson was reached, at ten o’clock, the boat was tied up
for the night. The horses were put under shelter in a stable near by,
and fed. Then the two men and the boy went down into the cabin of the
boat to go to bed.

Under the stern-deck there were two bunks, and no more. These were
occupied by the two men, so that Joe must sleep on the cabin floor.

He was given an old quilt, and an overcoat for a pillow. Removing part
of his wet clothing, he rolled himself in the quilt and tried to sleep;
but sleep would not come to him. His physical and his nervous system
had undergone so great a strain and fatigue that he could not at once
relapse into slumber.

The cabin was shut tight to keep out the storm, but the water found its
way in nevertheless. Little rills ran across the floor, and soaked the
old quilt in which Joe was wrapped. The air of the room, which seemed
little more than a box, became foul and oppressive.

Visions of his own room at home floated into Joe’s mind as he lay
there. He saw the spotless floor, the pictures on the walls, the pretty
curtains at the windows, the warm, soft, tidy bed. He thought of the
dear mother at his side, soothing him, with loving touch and gentle
words, to sweet sleep and pleasant dreams.

That he wept, then, tears of homesickness, of sorrow, of deep and
bitter shame, until he had sobbed himself to sleep, was but evidence of
the gentle and manly spirit that lay beneath his boy’s foolish pride
and impetuous will.

The next morning Captain Bill awakened Joe by pushing him rudely with
his foot.

“Come, get up here,” he shouted, “an’ go an’ feed them hosses!”

Joe rose. He was stiff and sore from exposure and exertion. His damp
clothing, as he put it on, sent a chill through his whole body.

He fed the horses, as he was told. After the crew had breakfasted in
the cabin of the boat, the same monotonous round of duty was taken up
that had occupied the day before.

Rain was still falling, and the cold had increased. The water of the
canal was muddy, and the stream that ran along below it was very high.

The tow-path was softer and more slippery than it had been the previous
day, and walking upon it was more difficult. The boy who drove the
weary and wretched horses through the mud and rain was far more tired
and miserable than they were.

Late in the forenoon the boat reached Ellenville.

For more than a mile Captain Bill had apparently been on the lookout
for some one. As they passed under the iron bridge and in toward the
lock without meeting any one, the captain uttered a sort of grunt of
disappointment.

Just then, however, a man came down the tow-path, leading a gray horse.

The man was short and stout, with legs that were so bowed that it was
a marvel that they held him up at all. Captain Bill’s face lighted up
as he caught sight of him. He leaped from the boat to the tow-path, and
went ahead to meet the stranger.

“Well, Callipers,” he inquired, “got a hoss for me?”

“You bet,” replied the man, “an’ a powerful good un, too.”

Captain Bill went close to the bow-legged man, bent down to him, and
said something in an undertone. The man listened and nodded.

Then followed a conversation which no one could hear, except the
persons engaged in it. It ended with Captain Bill’s counting out some
money from a black and greasy leather wallet, and handing the money to
Callipers.

Then one of the captain’s horses was unfastened, and placed in
possession of the bow-legged man. The gray took its harness, and its
place at the tow-line.

All this time Joe had been busy at the feed-box at the bow of the boat.
At this moment he came up and discovered what was going on.

The gray horse first attracted his attention. There was something about
the animal that reminded him strongly of Old Charlie.

He looked again, and more closely. The horse threw up his head and
neighed. It was Old Charlie!

Joe gave a leap to the side of the boat, another to the tow-path, and
in the next instant he was at the horse’s head.

“Charlie!” he cried. “Charlie! Why, Old Charlie, is this you?”

The beast whinnied, and putting his nose down against Joe’s breast,
began to rub him in the old way.

Captain Bill and Callipers looked at each other in open-eyed
astonishment.

“Knows ’im!” exclaimed the bow-legged man.

“Seems to,” replied the captain.

“Who is ’e?”

“Don’t know ’im. He’s a runaway.”

The bow-legged man advanced and looked at the boy more closely.

“Bless my eyes an’ ears!” he exclaimed, drawing hastily back.

He recognized Joe as the boy who had visited the stable the morning on
which the horse was stolen.

“Good-by, Bill!” he said to the captain. “I’m goin’!”

But at that moment Joe, running quickly, intercepted him.

“Where’d you get that horse?” he demanded, panting with excitement.
“Where’d you get him?”

“I got ’im where ’e grew, sonny, but they aint no more like ’im, so you
needn’t go lookin’ for one.”

“But I want to know--”

“You don’t want to know nothin’. You go ten’ to them hosses,”
interrupted Captain Bill. “See where the boat’s gittin’ to. Mind your
business and stop asking questions.”

“But that horse--”

“Never mind that hoss. You ten’ to business. He’s my hoss now!”

“No, he’s not your horse! He’s my father’s horse. He was stolen from my
father’s barn. He--”

The captain took one step toward the boy, fastened his hand in Joe’s
collar, and dragged and pushed him to his post.

Joe was frightened and cowed. His lips turned white. He dared no longer
disobey.

He went ahead and resumed his monotonous duties, but in his brain was a
whirlpool of rage.

The rain fell harder than ever; the wind blew in fierce gusts; the
tow-path was muddy beyond description. It was a day on which neither
man nor beast should have labored except under shelter.

Joe walked as much as possible at Old Charlie’s head, urging him gently
at times, putting his arm caressingly over the beast’s drooping neck,
or twining his hand in the long, wet mane.

He talked to the horse, too, in the old familiar way; telling him of
his troubles, pitying him for his own hard lot, sympathizing with him,
until he fancied that tears stood in the horse’s eyes. He knew they
were rolling down his own face.

It was evident that the horse had been on a long journey, though the
distance was not great from the place from which he had been stolen.

The thief was a crafty and skilful one, and had kept the animal out
of the channels of travel, where search would be most likely. What
adventures he had had, and what other operations he had carried on
meanwhile, no one knew.

Late in the afternoon, when both boy and horse should have been
relieved from further work, Old Charlie began to indulge in a habit
which he had acquired on the farm.

Whenever he had thought his work too hard, or his hours too long, or
the weather too inclement for further labor, he would stop in his
tracks and turn his head around to his driver, and stand gazing in mute
appeal, until he was urged forward.

Charlie had never been punished for this. It was not really balkiness,
for the horse went on stoutly after a moment’s rest. But for that
matter, Old Charlie had been indulged at home in all sorts of queer
ways.

Now, however, the case was quite different. Joe tried to make these
interruptions as short as possible, so that they should not interfere
seriously with the passage of the boat; but the horse’s conduct soon
attracted Captain Bill’s attention.

“Tryin’ to loaf, eh? Well, I’ll cure the lazy old beast o’ that,” he
said.

He took a whip from the cabin and tossed it out to Joe.

“Next time that hoss does that,” he said, “whip ’im! Don’t let him do
it again.”

“No, sir! I--I’ll try not to.”

Even as Joe spoke Old Charlie stopped, turned, and looked back at him
with melancholy eyes.

“Go on, Charlie!” entreated Joe; “that’s a good fellow, go on!”

But Charlie stood still, half-turned in his tracks, in mute remonstrance.
It was new business to him, and he had not a favorable opinion regarding
it. The leading horse, nothing loath, had also stopped.

“Whip ’im!” shouted Captain Bill from the boat, which, with its
impetus, was bearing rapidly down on horse and boy. “Thrash ’im!”

Joe lifted the whip and let it fall lightly on the horse’s back.

“Get up, Charlie!” he cried; “get up now, quick!”

“Oh, whip ’im!” cried the captain. “Give ’im a good un!”

Again the whip descended lightly on Old Charlie’s back; but the horse
did not move. This, too, was new treatment, which he did not seem in
the least to understand.

By this time Captain Bill was very angry. He seized the tiller, and
swept it back till the stern of the boat touched the bank. “Whip that
hoss!” he cried, leaping to the tow-path, “or I’ll whip you!”

For an instant Joe stood irresolute; then, with sudden determination,
he passed the handle of the whip to the angry man who faced him.

“I won’t,” he said slowly, with set teeth; “I won’t whip Old Charlie.
I’ll die first!”

Infuriated beyond measure, Captain Bill seized the whip and raised it
swiftly in the air. Just as it was about to descend on Joe’s head and
shoulders, the frightened horse, swinging his body around nervously,
caught the full force of the blow.

But it mattered little to Captain Bill. The beast was as much an
object of his wrath as was the boy.

Again the whip cut the air and curled cruelly about the horse’s body.
Again and again it fell, while Old Charlie, frightened and tortured,
leaped and struggled for release.

Poor Joe, who was trying alternately to soothe the horse and to entreat
the man who was beating him, felt every stroke of the cruel whip almost
as sharply as if it had been inflicted on his own back.

At last the captain stopped.

“It’ll be your turn next!” he said savagely, throwing the whip toward
Joe, and leaping to the deck of his boat.

The tow-line was pulled taut, and the boat moved on again. The poor
beast, still quivering with excitement and pain, and allowing himself
now to be led quietly along, showed by the occasional touch of his
nose to the boy’s breast or shoulder that he wanted his sympathy and
friendship.

So they trudged on together, boy and horse, each helping and comforting
the other,--on in distress and despair, through cold and rain and mud,
into the darkness, the dreariness, the frightfulness of another night!

How they got through that evening until ten o’clock, Joe could never
quite recollect. His memory recalled only a confusion of lights and
noises, of splashing mud and roaring water, of tangled tow-lines and
interfering boats.

It was only when the horses had been put up for the night, and he was
once more lying on the wet cabin-floor, listening to the beating of the
rain on the deck above his head, that he was able to think clearly.
How everything that he had done, and all his woes and troubles, rushed
before him!

With his prejudice and passion all swept away, he went over in his
mind the events of the last three months. His follies and sins became
as plain to him as if they had been committed by another. Slowly but
surely, as he pondered, there came into his mind the irresistible
conviction that he must go home.

The old and beautiful story of the Prodigal Son came up from the depths
of memory and glowed before him. He would go back, as did the child of
the parable; but he would go in such repentance and humility as the
Prodigal Son had never dreamed of.

He could not wait. He resolved to start at once,--now, in the night, in
the storm, if he could but escape his keepers.

But there was Charlie,--poor Old Charlie!--who deserved, far more than
did he himself, to escape from the sufferings of the present. How could
he leave the old horse?

A thought came into his mind so suddenly that it brought him up on his
elbow. Charlie should help him to escape! He would take the horse home
where he belonged. They would go back to the old home together.

Joe lay back for a moment, almost breathless with his scheme. Then,
cautiously laying his quilt aside, he rose, put on his jacket, hat, and
shoes, and climbed softly up the steep cabin-stairs to the deck.

The rain had ceased at last, and low in the west a half-moon was
struggling through the mist of clouds.

For a moment Joe listened. No sound came from the sleepers in the
cabin. Then he leaped lightly to the tow-path. It was not far to the
stable where the horses and mules were kept, and he lost no time in
going there.

As he opened the door and peered into the darkness of the stable, the
heavy breathing of the sleeping animals came strangely on his ears.

In a near stall, a dim, white shape struggled up and was still. It was
Old Charlie. He recognized his young master with a subdued neigh, and
tossed his head impatiently.

The next moment Joe had untied him, and led him out into the night.

“We’ve got a long ride before us, Charlie,” he said, standing for a
moment at the stable door to transform the halter strap into driving
reins. “It’s a long ride; but then, you know, we’re going--we’re going
home!”

Again the horse tossed his head, as if he understood. Joe, catching
hold by the mane, leaped to Charlie’s back, as he had done many times
in the dear old days.

He rode slowly down the little hill to the tow-path, turned in the
direction from which they had come,--the direction in which home
lay,--and galloped away.

Away they went toward the east, with lighter hearts and higher spirits
than either had known before for many a day. To Joe it seemed that he
was doing no more than his duty in riding away with Old Charlie. He was
too inexperienced to know that he had no right to seize the horse in
this way, even though the animal was his father’s lawful property. He
was too much confused by his sufferings and excitement, moreover, to
have a nice sense of propriety in such a matter.

As he passed the boat he had just left, Joe noticed that there was
a light in the cabin window. He heard a noise there as of something
falling. To his ears came distinctly the sound of angry words from
Captain Bill.



CHAPTER V.

HOMEWARD BOUND.


The window of the telegraph office on the canal at Ellenville faces
the tow-path. Although day was breaking and the sky was cloudless, the
telegraph operator was still working by the light of an oil lamp.

He was taking a message, which, when it was reduced to writing, read as
follows:--

    Stop boy on gray horse going east. Horse stolen from me. Coming
    at once to claim property.

    WILLIAM ROSENCAMP.

The operator, with the telegram in his hand, went out at the door and
looked up the canal. As he did so he saw bearing down upon him a gray
horse ridden by a boy. It was Joe with Old Charlie.

Both boy and horse were splashed with mud, and bore evidence of having
come far and fast through the night.

The operator stepped quickly out upon the tow-path, and threw up his
hand, with the telegram still fluttering in it.

“Stop!” he shouted. “Hold up, there!”

Joe reined in Old Charlie, and the young man seized the improvised
bridle.

“Where are you going with this horse?” he asked.

“Home,” replied Joe, promptly.

“Isn’t this Bill Rosencamp’s horse?”

“No, sir,” said the boy, stoutly; “he isn’t. He’s my father’s horse! He
was stolen, and I’m takin’ him back home.”

“Didn’t Captain Bill have him?”

“Yes, but he hadn’t any right to him, and he abused him, too.”

“Didn’t you take him without Captain Bill’s knowledge?”

“Of course I did! I couldn’t have got ’im at all if I hadn’t.”

“Well, I guess you’d better get off and let me take charge of the
horse, and we’ll investigate this matter a little. Come,” he called,
as Joe hesitated, “get down! Get down, I say!”

The boy let himself wearily to the ground.

Several men and boys who were standing near the offices and on the
tow-path came crowding about.

“The superintendent is due here soon,” said the operator. “He’s coming
up with the paymaster, and he’ll settle it.”

On the canal the superintendent’s authority was almost absolute. Local
authorities deferred to him in all matters pertaining to the canal and
its employes, unless the law were formally invoked.

The crowd stood about impatiently. The operator still held the horse,
and Joe stood near, looking confident and very earnest. Presently a
steam-launch came puffing up the canal, gave two shrill whistles, and
was quickly made fast to the dock.

A heavy, well-built man, with a closely cropped beard and a kindly
face, stepped from the deck to the tow-path. He was followed by a man
who carried a heavy valise, and by one or two other men.

They were the canal superintendent and the paymaster and their
assistants.

“What’s the matter here, Matthew?” asked the superintendent,
approaching the group.

“This boy is charged with stealing this horse,” replied the operator.
“Here’s the message.”

The superintendent took the telegram and read it.

“Is this Bill Rosencamp’s horse?” he asked, turning to Joe.

“No, sir!” repeated Joe. “He isn’t. He’s my father’s horse.”

“But he acknowledges having taken him from Rosencamp,” the operator
explained.

“Well,” said the superintendent, “Rosencamp is coming. When he gets
here we shall find out whose horse it is.”

“But I don’t want to stay here till he comes,” said Joe.

“Probably not,” remarked the operator, sarcastically.

The superintendent, who seemed to perceive that this was not an
ordinary case of horse-stealing, now looked more closely at Joe, and
noticed the boy’s haggard, hungry look.

“He won’t hurt you,” he said. “Rosencamp’s a rough fellow, but he won’t
hurt any one around here; and if it turns out that the horse is yours
or your father’s, you will get possession of him, of course. Meantime
we shall have to find out the exact truth of the matter. Have you had
any breakfast?”

“No, sir,” replied Joe, “I haven’t had any, nor Old Charlie either.”

The superintendent smiled. “Matthew,” he said, “tell the stable-man to
take this horse up to the barn and feed him and rub him down. And you,”
turning to the boy, who was not a little bewildered by the invitation,
“come with me.”

He led the way across the street into a large boarding-house. There,
in a warm and pleasant dining-room, Joe ate the first good meal he had
taken in several weeks.

Under its cheering influence his heart warmed, his tongue was loosened,
and to Mrs. Jones, the kind landlady, who sat by and served him, he
told the story of his folly, his suffering, and his desire.

When he had finished his breakfast, Mrs. Jones went with him to the
office, and calling the superintendent aside, said,--

“This boy is no thief. He is honest and right in what he has done.”

“We shall soon find out about it,” was the reply. “Here comes
Rosencamp.”

Captain Bill rode up to the office door, dismounted, and tied his
horse. To the group of men and boys who quickly surrounded him he told,
with many threats and much rough language, the story of his night ride,
and denounced the wickedness of Joe.

“Ef I once git my hands on ’im,” he muttered, “he’ll never want to see
another hoss agin as long as _he_ lives!”

Tired with his journey, splashed with mud, his face red with anger, he
entered the office and demanded the gray horse.

“Was it your horse that the boy took?” inquired the superintendent.

“Course it was,” replied Captain Bill, with a fine pretence of
indignation.

“Where did you get the horse?” was the next question.

“Bought ’im.”

“Where?”

“Right here in Ellenville.”

“From whom?”

Rosencamp hesitated a little. “I don’t rightly know the man’s name,” he
said. “A feller ’at had ’im to sell.”

“I know!” piped out a shrill voice from the crowd that had gathered
in the room. “It was Callipers, the man that’s been in prison for
horse-stealing. I see ’em strike the bargain here on the tow-path
yisterday.”

Rosencamp lost something of his bravado. The kindly look disappeared
from the face of the superintendent.

“Did you get this horse from Callipers?” he asked severely.

“Well, yes, if that’s what ’is name is,” replied Captain Bill,
doggedly.

“Don’t you know that Callipers has been convicted of horse-stealing?”

“I don’t know’s I do.”

“And didn’t you know that this horse had been stolen?”

“If I had ’a’ knowed it, do you s’pose I’d ’a’ took ’im? Who says it
was a stolen hoss, anyhow?” added Captain Bill, looking the crowd over
savagely.

“I say so,” said a man who had just entered the room. “I saw Callipers
arrested last night for stealing the horse he traded to Bill Rosencamp.
The constable has the irons on him now, and the sheriff has gone across
to Port Jervis to head off the horse.”

“Well, Rosencamp,” said the superintendent, “what have you to say to
that?”

“If the hoss was stole,” said Rosencamp, “how was I to know it? Nobody
told me it was stolen.”

“Yes, somebody did tell you!” exclaimed Joe. “I told you the horse was
stolen, and the man you got him of stood right there an’ didn’t deny
it, either! I said it was my father’s horse, an’ it is!”

The superintendent turned to Joe. “Who is your father?” he asked.

Joe hesitated a moment. Then he replied, “His name is Gaston.”

“What Gaston? Do you mean Leonard Gaston, of Laymanville?”

“Yes, sir, that’s his name. That’s where he lives.”

“And you--look here! Are you the boy who ran away from home last June?
I know your father, if you are Joseph Gaston, and I know that he has
been breaking his heart about you for three months.”

Joe turned his face from the crowd, and looked down at the floor. There
was perfect stillness in the room. Joe was the first to break the
silence. He held up his head, and looked the superintendent squarely in
the face.

“I did run away from home,” he said, “and it was foolish and it was
wicked. I didn’t know it then, but I do now, and I want to go back,
especially since I found the horse. I think maybe if I take Old Charlie
back with me they--they won’t be so hard on me; they--they’ll be
gladder to--to--”

The boy burst into tears, and broke down completely. The superintendent
rose from his chair, and opened the door into a private office.

“Here,” he said to Joe; “come in here. I want to talk with you.”

On the threshold the superintendent turned to look at Captain Bill.

“Are you going to institute proceedings against this boy? If you are,
he will be placed under bonds, and I shall become his bondsman. If you
are not going to prosecute him, you may go straight back to your boat,”
he said sharply. “And if I hear of your dealing in stolen horses again,
or abusing any more boys, this canal company will dispense with your
services on very short notice.”

Rosencamp, disappointed, cowed, more angry than ever, knowing that
he could not prosecute Joe, made his way to the door and out to the
tow-path amid the jeers of the waiting crowd. He mounted his horse, and
rode away.

Fifteen minutes later Joe and the superintendent came out from the
private office. It was evident that the boy had been weeping; but in
his eyes there was a look of gladness and firmness that expressed, more
plainly than words could have done, the condition of his mind.

“Matthew,” said the superintendent, “tell the stable-man to get this
boy’s horse, put a saddle and bridle on him, and bring him here. Have
him get out a horse for you, for I want you to go with the boy as far
as Darbytown. From there he knows the way home, and can go alone.”

That afternoon, while the sun was still high, Joe and Old Charlie
were on the highway not far from their home. Matthew had left them at
Darbytown, after getting a good dinner for all of them, and now they
were travelling homeward alone.

The old horse jogged on, trotting or walking as he liked, stopping at
the roadside now and then to nibble at a tempting bunch of grass or a
bit of fresh foliage, or to plunge his nose into the cooling waters of
a wayside stream.

Even now, however, they were not making very slow time on the whole;
and earlier in the day they had gone faster. It had seemed to Joe that
he could not wait till the white front of the old farmhouse should come
into sight from the top of Hickory Hill.

The eager anticipation of his return to the dear old home had
heightened his spirits, and brightened his eyes.

But after Matthew left him he began to think; and the more deeply he
thought, the slower became his progress. Many suspicions and misgivings
had come into his mind.

He no longer paid heed to the beauty of the day, the splendor of the
sun, or the rich luxuriance of the early autumn foliage. He was looking
only into his own heart. He was thinking only of his inexcusable folly
and wickedness in leaving so good a home. He was wondering what his
father would say to him; how his mother would receive him; whether his
little sister would ever again care to play with him as of old.

He was wondering, indeed, if his parents would wish to have him come
home at all, disgraced as he was; if the door of his father’s house
would not be shut and barred against him forever.

“Hello, ther! W’at’s the matter wi’ ye?”

The exclamation, coming so suddenly and unexpectedly, so startled Joe
that he almost fell from his horse. He had been so deeply engrossed in
thought that he had not seen any one approaching. He looked down now
and discovered a little old man standing near the horse’s head.

The man was shrunken, knock-kneed, eccentric in dress and manner,
and leaned heavily on his cane. Joe recognized him at once as a
neighborhood character, whom every one knew by the name of Uncle Billy.

“W’y, I thought ye was asleep,” said the old man. “I was fearful ye’d
tumble off the hoss.”

“I wasn’t asleep,” replied Joe. “I was thinkin’.”

“A-thinkin’!” exclaimed Uncle Billy; “w’at right’s a boy like you got
to be a-thinkin’, I’d like to know?” He advanced a step and laid his
hand on Old Charlie’s neck. “Ben a good hoss in ’is day,” he commented;
“looks like the hoss Leonard Gaston use to hev,--the one ’at was stole.”

“It is,” replied Joe; “it’s the same horse.”

The old man started back so quickly that he tripped and almost fell
over his cane.

“Who be you?” he exclaimed, shading his eyes with his hand, and looking
up intently at Joe. “You aint Joe Gaston, be ye?”

“Yes, I am; I’m Joe Gaston,” responded the boy, sadly.

Uncle Billy retreated still farther. “Well, I’m dumflustered!” he
exclaimed. After a minute he added, “W’ere ye goin’?”

“Home!” replied Joe.

The old man shook his head solemnly. “Ye won’t git much of a welcome
ther,” he said.

“Why? Is my father set against me?” asked Joe, anxiously.

“Set aginst ye? That’s puttin’ it too mild. He’s cast ye off. He’s
unherited ye. He won’t speak of ye to nobody, an’ he won’t let nobody
so much as mention yer name in his presience. Now what ye think o’
that?”

The old man seemed to take delight in giving his unwelcome information.
He looked up at Joe with a quizzical smile on his thin face, and waited
for an answer.

Joe did not reply to the question, but after a minute he asked,--

“Do--do you know whether my mother feels the--the same way?”

“Of course she doos! First along she purty near cried ’er eyes out over
ye. She went around makin’ out’t ye never stole that hoss; said ye’d
be back in a day or two an’ clear it all up. But she’s give ye up now.
They don’t none on ’em ever expect to see ye agin; an’ w’at’s more, I
guess they don’t none on ’em want to. What ye think o’ that? Hey?”

Again the old man smiled grimly at Joe, and again Joe left his question
unanswered. He was struggling now with a great lump in his throat that
was growing larger and more uncontrollable each moment.

“What--what does my little sister--what does Jennie think?” he asked,
choking sadly over the question.

“Well there now!” was the reply; “that gal--I didn’t think o’ her. She
don’t da’s’t talk about ye to hum, ye know, but w’en she’s away she
kind o’ finds opportetunities to discuss the subjec’. ’Twa’n’t but last
week she says to me over to Williams’s place, says she, ‘It’s awful
lonesome without Joe,’ she says. ‘I wisht he’d come back an’ be a good
boy,’ says she. ‘Aint it sad about his goin’ away so?’ she says. ‘Do
you think he’ll come back agin soon, Uncle Billy?’ says she. An’ I
says, ‘No, he won’t never come back agin. He’s gone too fur,’ says I,
‘in more ways ’an one,’ says I. What ye think o’ that? Hey?”

But this time Joe could not have answered the question if he had
tried. The lump in his throat seemed to have dissolved into tears; they
filled his eyes, and ran freely down his face.

The old man saw that the boy was crying, and for a moment seemed to
repent his hardness of heart.

“I’m sorry for ye, sonny,” said Uncle Billy, after an awkward pause;
“but I tell ye they aint no use o’ yer goin’ hum; they don’t ixpect ye,
an’ they don’t want ye.”

Still Joe sat, weeping and speechless.

“Well,” the old man added, “I must be joggin’ on. Somebody might come
along an’ see us two together, an’--well, I’ve got a reppytation to
lose, ye know.”

He burst into a shrill cackling laugh, grasped his twisted cane more
firmly, and hobbled on around a bend in the road and out of sight.

Old Charlie, unheeded by his young master, started on.

The sun sank till the light it threw on the green September foliage was
mellow and golden. From somewhere in the distance came the ting-a-ling
of a cow-bell, as the herd wandered slowly home. The sound and the
memories it brought started fresh tears into Joe’s eyes, and when the
mist they occasioned had cleared away he found himself on the summit of
Hickory Hill.

Down in the valley, half-hidden by trees, he saw the white front of his
home. Behind it rose the gray roofs of the barns; before it stretched
the yellow road; on it fell the soft light of the dying day.

He had drawn the reins and sat looking down on it, while Old Charlie,
pricking up his ears in glad recognition of the familiar sight, pawed
the ground impatiently.

“No,” Joe said, at last, “we won’t go on. It’s no use. I’m sorry,
but--it’s no use.”

He turned the horse’s head, and Joe and Charlie started back.



CHAPTER VI.

OLD CHARLIE BRINGS BACK JOE.


On the day Joe left home his mother put his room in order for him
as usual, and placed on the table a little bouquet of red and white
geraniums and verbenas. She could not believe that he would be gone
over night, and she knew that when he came he would be tired, broken,
repentant, and grateful for the least mark of tenderness.

She delayed supper beyond the hour, in the hope that he might come.
Even after the others had forced themselves to eat, she set aside
enough for Joe.

She went many times to the east window to look down the road for him,
and sent Jennie to the top of the hill to see if she could discover in
the distance a boy riding toward her on a gray horse.

But Jennie, whose eyes had been full of tears all day, came back at
dusk to say that she had seen nothing. Then she went weeping to bed.

The next day came, and many days thereafter; but Joe’s room was still
vacant, and Old Charlie’s stall was still empty.

Farmer Gaston’s grief was less touching than his wife’s perhaps, but
it was really as deep as hers. The habitual sternness of his face was
tempered with the lines of sorrow.

He had made no effort to find the horse. There was no doubt in his
mind that Joe had taken him; but he did not care to bring the boy into
deeper disgrace by making public search.

Mr. Gaston sometimes wondered if he had taken the right course with
Joe. His theory had been that the more strictly a boy was held to his
work and duty as a boy, the more earnestly would he follow both as a
man.

But he began now to think that possibly he had been too strict with
Joe. Had he not left too little room for independence of thought and
action? Had he tried to smother those boyish instincts of freedom and
fair play that go, no less than other qualities, to make up the man?

His grief was mingled thus with a degree of remorse; but he still
believed that it would not be wise to go out in search of Joe, offering
terms of forgiveness. The boy’s offence had been too great for that.
His own salvation depended on his coming back voluntarily in repentance
and humiliation, with a full confession of his fault.

The hot days of July went by, and the hotter days of August. The summer
tasks went on as of old about the farm, but the old place had never
before been so silent and lonely.

The lines on Mr. Gaston’s face grew deeper. He went about with
shoulders bent, as if bearing some heavy burden.

Joe’s mother, pitifully silent and anxious-eyed, not venturing to
question the wisdom or oppose the will of her husband, went every day
to place fresh flowers in Joe’s room. Every night she sat and looked up
the long road to the east till darkness came and swallowed it, hoping,
waiting, and yearning for the sight of her returning boy.

Meantime there had been, after a long delay, a movement in the
community to look a little more deeply into the matter of the
disappearance of Joe and the horse. Squire Bidwell, who happened to be
at once the local justice of the peace and a good friend of Joe Gaston,
found it hard to believe that the boy who had been an apt and receptive
pupil in his Sunday school had proved to be a common thief.

The squire, moreover, had been Farmer Gaston’s friend from boyhood, and
he saw with great pain the havoc which Joe’s disappearance, and his
father’s belief in his guilt, was making in the family. He resolved to
do what he could to probe the matter to the bottom.

He called together three or four of his most prudent townsmen, and
set them at work making inquiries and doing a sort of detective work.
Presently it was found that a farmer in an adjoining town had, on the
evening of the day after Joe’s disappearance, while driving a cow from
pasture, seen a rough-looking man ride a gray horse out of a wood-lot,
and had found the place where the man and the horse had apparently
passed several hours, and eaten a meal or two.

This clew was followed up. Still farther on other traces of the real
thief were found. He had now passed quite beyond any jurisdiction of
Squire Bidwell, but the authorities were notified of what had been
learned, and were on the alert.

Callipers was well known through previous misdeeds. The man who had
been seen answered his description. For a long time he evaded pursuit;
but at last, as we have seen, he was apprehended, the very day after he
had turned Old Charlie over to Rosencamp on the canal.

       *       *       *       *       *

Late one September afternoon, after a day of sunshine and blue skies,
Joe’s father sat on the westerly porch of the farmhouse, looking away
toward the lake, on which the shadows were now falling deeply, and
thinking of what had occurred on its shores on a memorable day in June.

On the steps at his feet, her chin in her hands, thinking also of poor
Joe, sat his daughter Jennie. Mrs. Gaston, busy with some household
task, moved about in the rooms near by.

Suddenly through the lane around the corner of the house came Squire
Bidwell. He declined Mrs. Gaston’s invitation to enter the house, and
Mr. Gaston’s invitation to take a chair on the porch. Then with some
embarrassment, as though he were treading on delicate ground, the
squire said,--

“Neighbor, you remember that gray horse you used to have?”

“Yes,” replied Mr. Gaston, coldly. “I remember him.”

“Well, some of us were talking about that horse the other day, and--and
we kind of thought we’d look him up. We haven’t found him yet--”

“No, I presume not.”

“But we found out who took him.”

“I suppose we know who took him,” said Mr. Gaston, uneasily.

“I don’t think you do, Gaston,” said the squire. “It wasn’t Joe.”

“What!” exclaimed the farmer.

Mrs. Gaston had approached, and called out eagerly, “Mr. Bidwell!”

“O Joe! Oh, goody!” screamed Jennie.

“No,” repeated the squire, “it wasn’t your boy. It was a common
horse-thief,--a bow-legged, stumpy fellow by the nickname of Callipers.”

“Are you sure about this?” questioned Mr. Gaston. “What evidence have
you got?”

“You won’t deceive us?” exclaimed Joe’s mother.

“No, Mrs. Gaston, I wouldn’t,” said the squire, who had now found his
tongue,--“not for anything. What I’m telling you is truth, every word
of it. Joe didn’t take that horse. He didn’t know any more about the
taking of that horse than you did,--not a bit. But we’ve run down the
man who did it, from one clew to another, and the deputy sheriff’s got
him in a wagon out here in the road in front of the house now. Will you
go out and see him? I guess maybe he can tell you something about Joe.
He seems inclined to make a clean breast of it. I’d have brought him
around here with me, but the sheriff’s got handcuffs on him, and it’s
hard to get him out and in the wagon.”

The next minute all four were on their way to the front gate. Callipers
sat there in the wagon, under the eye of the deputy sheriff, with
stoical indifference on his face.

“Good evenin’, ladies!” he said briskly, as the party approached him.
“Good evenin’, Mr. Gaston, sir. I’m sorry to ’ave put you to the
trouble of comin’ out ’ere, sir, but circumstances over which, as I may
say, I have no control has made it inconwenient for me to meet you in
your ’ouse.”

“Never mind that,” answered Mr. Gaston, sharply. “I’ll talk to you
here.”

“Thank you, sir! I’m glad to meet you an’ your hinteresting family,
sir. I ’ad the pleasure o’ visitin’ your ’andsome place once before,
sir. It was in lovely June, in the early mornin’, sir. I may say it was
so early that I ’adn’t the ’eart to disturb your slumbers. But as the
result o’ that ’ere visit, be’old me now!”

The man held up his hands to show the steel bands firmly clasped about
his wrists, and joined by a few short links.

“Do you know anything about my son?” asked Mr. Gaston, abruptly.

“Yes, sir. I will proceed with my tale. You see I was jest about to
enter the stable door that mornin’ w’en that young feller appeared
a-comin’ down the path, and as ’e appeared I disappeared be’ind the
corner o’ the barn. He went in w’ere the ’oss was, an’ talked some
sort o’ rubbish to ’im about ’is goin’ away an’ all that, you know.
I couldn’t quite make out the drift of it. But ’e bid good-by to the
’oss, an’ went out a-wipin’ of ’is eyes, an’ struck into the road ’ere,
an’ walked away in that direction.”

The man was about to indicate the direction referred to; but finding
his right hand securely clasped to the other, he abandoned the attempt,
begging to be excused from pointing out the direction.

“Seein’ that the ’oss was up an’ awake,” he continued, “an’ probably
wouldn’t sleep no more that mornin’ anyhow, I took ’im with me into the
country.”

“But about Joe, the boy?” asked Mr. Gaston, eagerly. “Have you seen him
since?”

“Well, yes, sir, I ’ave. But now, look ’ere; you expects me to
criminate myself, do you?”

“It will probably go less hard with you,” said Squire Bidwell, “if you
tell the whole story of your performances, and reveal what you know
about this boy that you’ve put under such a grave suspicion.”

“All right, all right,” said the horse-thief. “You’ve got me, ’ard and
tight, that’s sure, an’ I don’t see no way out o’ it, now. I can give
Mr. Gaston information that will lead him to the boy and the ’oss, sir.”

Then the man told how he had seen Joe on the canal, driving the
tow-horses.

“How do you know it was our son you saw?” inquired Mr. Gaston, sternly.

“Well, it was the same lad that went into the barn an’ came out of
it again that lovely mornin’ in June. Besides, this ’ere gray ’oss
was there, you know, and the ’oss knowed ’im, an’ ’e knowed the ’oss.
W’y, w’en they see each other on the canal, they was that tickled they
rubbed noses an’ cried,--both of ’em.”

“Papa,” exclaimed Jennie, “that was Joe! I know it was! It was Joe and
Old Charlie!”

“To tell the truth,” said Callipers, “the lad didn’t look just to say
swell. ’Is clothes, if I must remark on ’em, seemed to be summat the
worse for wear. His jacket an’ trousers was jest about so-so. ’Is shoes
’ad give out in places too numerous to mention. An’ there was ’ardly
enough left of the ’at ’e ’ad on to make it proper to speak of it.”

“Father,” exclaimed Mrs. Gaston, “we must get him at once. He is in
want; he is suffering! He is honest, too. He has been foolish and
headstrong, but he is honest, and we have wronged him in our thought
every day for three months. Now he must come home!”

It had been many years since Mrs. Gaston had expressed herself in so
positive a manner as this to her husband. But now it was not necessary.
He was as impatient for Joe’s return as she.

“I shall go to-morrow morning,” he said firmly, “and find him and bring
him home.”

For the last two or three minutes Squire Bidwell had been gazing
intently at something that had attracted his notice off on the hillside
in the distance.

“Well, I declare!” he exclaimed, finally, “that _is_ curious. Look!”

He pointed to the place where the open country road wound up the long
slope of Hickory Hill. The sun had so far descended that the valley
was in shadow, but it was still flooding the hilltops with its yellow
light; and in its glow the figure of a boy on a horse, almost a mile
away, was distinctly outlined.

“Do you see them,” asked the squire,--“up there in the road? They’ve
done it twice or three times already. Now they’re going to do it again;
watch ’em!”

What “they” had done was this: The boy was apparently laboring under
some indecision, as if wishing to remain on the top of the hill. The
horse, however, was plainly bent upon rushing down the hill toward
the house. After a plunge down the road, the rider would succeed in
turning the animal’s head up again; but he would no sooner have got a
fair start in that direction, than the horse, swinging suddenly around,
would begin to gallop furiously down the road once more toward the
Gaston farm.

Now, again, in sight of them all, the boy succeeded in stopping the
horse, in turning his head, and forcing him to reascend the hill; and
once more the horse whirled about and plunged down the road toward the
house.

This time, however, he received no check. The boy, as if in weariness
and despair, allowed the reins to droop. The animal sped on, and the
next moment both were hidden behind the trees at the bend of the road.

Mr. Gaston, shading his eyes with his hand, still stood gazing
intently at the place where horse and rider had disappeared.

Mrs. Gaston’s white face and eager eyes, fixed on the point where the
road came out of the grove, showed that she divined the truth.

“It is Joe!” she said, with forced calmness. “He is coming home!”

Then Old Charlie, with his young master on his back, bounded into
sight, and presently boy and horse were in the midst of the group.

The next moment Joe was kneeling in the road, with his father’s hand
clasped in both his.

“Father!” he said, “will you please forgive me and let me come home?”

Before the father could reply, the arms of Joe’s mother were around
him, and Jennie was laughing and crying and clinging to his neck.

Then the good old horse, pushing his nose in among the four faces that
he loved, met with a welcome that was no less sincere.

“He made me come,” explained Joe, a minute later. “I got to the top of
the hill, and my courage gave out, and I didn’t dare come down, and I
thought I would ride back on the road a piece farther, and then turn
the horse loose and let him come home, while I went on afoot; but Old
Charlie would come, whether or no, and--”

Joe’s voice gave out. Every one cried a little. Even Squire Bidwell and
the deputy sheriff and Callipers had tears in their eyes. Mr. Gaston’s
face, even with the tear-marks on it, was radiant.

Soon the squire and the deputy sheriff, with their prisoner, Callipers,
drove off toward the county seat. Then the whole Gaston family went
with Old Charlie to the stable, and gave him his supper and his bed
before seeking their own.

Joe’s father and mother and sister were happy people that night.


THE END.



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 Transcriber’s Notes:

 --Text in italics is enclosed by underscores (_italics_).

 --Punctuation and spelling inaccuracies were silently corrected.

 --Archaic and variable spelling has been preserved.

 --Variations in hyphenation and compound words have been preserved.





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