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Title: Billy To-morrow Stands the Test
Author: Carr, Sarah Pratt
Language: English
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BILLY TO-MORROW STANDS THE TEST


------------------------------------------------------------------------

                 _By the Same Author_

                       -------

    BILLY TO-MORROW.

        First volume of “Billy To-morrow Series.”
        Illustrated by Charles M. Relyea.
        12mo $1.25

    BILLY TO-MORROW IN CAMP.

        Illustrated by H. S. DeLay.
        12mo $1.25

                       -------

                 A. C. McCLURG & CO.
                     PUBLISHERS

------------------------------------------------------------------------


[Illustration: “Oh, Billy, it’s no use!” Erminie sobbed, as the boat
grew smaller and smaller on the gray water]


“Billy To-morrow” Series

BILLY TO-MORROW STANDS THE TEST

by

SARAH PRATT CARR

Author of “The Iron Way,” “Billy To-morrow,” etc.

Illustrated by H. S. Delay



[Illustration: Decoration]

Chicago
A. C. McClurg & Co.
1911

Copyright
A. C. Mcclurg & Co.
1911

Published November, 1911

The Publishers’ Press
Chicago


------------------------------------------------------------------------



                             _To Katherine_



------------------------------------------------------------------------

                                CONTENTS

                                -------

                 CHAPTER

                       I EXCITEMENT IN THE FIFTH AVENUE HIGH

                      II BILLY PUTS HIMSELF ON RECORD

                     III “POP” STREETER’S PROPOSITION

                      IV ERMINIE, THE UNCERTAIN

                       V ERMINIE FUMBLES THE GAME

                      VI THE REVEALING NIGHT

                     VII DO YOUR BEST AND THEN—WHISTLE

                    VIII THE POTATO ROAST

                      IX FACE TO THE SKY

                       X THE SCOUT

                      XI “WHOSE GLORY WAS REDRESSING HUMAN
                         WRONG”

                     XII THE FIGHT

                    XIII ERMINIE TIES ANOTHER KNOT

                     XIV THE BLACK HAND

                      XV A GLEAM OF LIGHT

                     XVI A NIGHT OF DISASTER

                    XVII BILLY WINS

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                         LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

                                -------

    “Oh, Billy, it’s no use!” Erminie sobbed, as the boat grew smaller
        and smaller on the gray water (_Frontispiece_)

    Billy gazed down on her with tender eyes, his heart beating faster
        with a manly, protecting feeling new to him

    “Weren’t you afraid?” Redtop asked when the first, busy part of the
        meal was over

    “Stay where you are till I speak”

    “What do you mean, Billy Boy, by refusing to speak to me?”

    “Give her to me; I am fresh,” he said, attempting to take Mrs. Smith
        from Billy’s arms



------------------------------------------------------------------------



                    BILLY TO-MORROW STANDS THE TEST


                               CHAPTER I

                  EXCITEMENT IN THE FIFTH AVENUE HIGH


IT was a gray afternoon, late in April and cold enough for March, when
Billy Bennett, going out of the building to the school grounds, detected
a new note in the usual hubbub. There were a hundred or more boys
gathered in one corner and listening to some one who was speaking.

Feeling in the school was intense. For the first time in its history
there was an attempt to unite the student body under one head, thus
depriving the class presidents of some of their power. The project was
led by some of the best spirits, in the hope of gaining a better name
for the school, and many of the teachers were, without precedent, taking
a quiet part.

As Billy neared, he could hear above other angry voices the raucous,
high-pitched tones of the _cultus_[1] Kid, otherwise Jim Barney. He was
a stickler for the “Jim.” “Just plain Jim; no handles to my name,” he
would say if offered the courtesy of “Mr. Barney.” He had been for years
the bully of his class, and now he aspired to be the boss of the school.
He was entreating and menacing by turns, a master of the baser sort of
eloquence.

Footnote 1:

  _Cultus_ is a Chinook word, signifying _of little worth_, _bad_.

“You cheap skates! Call yourselves men, do you? There’s not one of you
with enough backbone to bolster a twine string! Why, you chew gum
because you dass’n’t touch tobacco; and one soda pop ’ll make the whole
bunch of you dippy!”

“Oh, cut it out!” mildly objected one of his own crowd.

“Yes. And trot out your grouch, whatever it is,” another demanded.

“It’s _our_ grouch! I put it up to you,” the speaker shouted above the
noise. “Has a bunch of teachers, or even the principal or
superintendent, a right to meddle with us, to say who we shall have for
presidents of our classes or of the whole student body, if this thing of
having a school president goes?”

“Yes! Yes!” “They have!” “They ought to!” came from different quarters.

“I’d like to know why,” the Kid blustered.

“When students of this school, your own candidate even, follows girls
and women on stilts—” “Sis” Jones began.

“Girls on stilts!” jeered some loud voice from the crowd, and the
speaker laughed and nodded.

But Reginald Steele’s clear tones rose above the clamor. “You know what
Jones means, Jim Barney. Last week your man, Buckman, and two of his
fellows followed some ladies and girls for nearly a block, using
language that is a disgrace to any school.”

“Rot! I suppose you think girls ought to run this high school. And
that’s what they’ll do if Hec Price gets elected.” He glared around on
them, and let his eyes rest on Reginald an instant before continuing. “I
put it up to you fellows, what sort of a president will that grandmother
prig make, that’s in with the girls and mollycoddles, in with the
teachers, in with everybody that’s for style, and against a square deal
for all. What sort of a fellow is Hec Price for president?”

“A good one!” Billy called cheerily, coming forward from the rear of the
crowd, where he had been listening.

Billy was good to look at these days. His freckles were gone; and his
skin, free from the blemish that mars so many growing boys, was
girlishly fair. His cheeks had the red of full health, and his form was
well knit and firm from plenty of work in the “gym”; and although the
dimple, much to his disgust still adorned his chin, it had broadened and
squared to match his strong shoulders.

Since entering school he had been allied with those opposing “the Kid’s
crowd,” yet he had been able through sheer good-nature to avoid a clash
with the bully. But lately that had seemed inevitable, though Billy
himself could not understand why.

The speaker sighted Billy and challenged him. “You, Billy To-morrow, or
Yesterday, or Billy Next Week, whatever you call yourself, what have you
got to say about the teachers butting into student affairs?” He looked
around over the boys, an angry gleam in his red-rimmed eyes. He was
stocky, red of hair and skin, red of hose and tie, blustering, blowsy,
yet powerful. The strong, uncontrolled passions of generations of
ancestors culminated in him in conscious power, plus a tenacity and
stratagem that were his own. His silent presence in the room would
attract any eye. A reader of men was likely to turn away with regret, as
when one sees a mighty stream capable of producing wealth and happiness
for mankind, instead tearing through the smiling valley, leaving
destruction in its way.

He continued. “Have we, or have we not, a right to run our student
business ourselves? to elect our officers, whether class president or
school president, without interference? Answer me that. Are we all
sissies, to let the girls butt in, to let the high-brows whip us into
knuckling to the teachers like kindergarten kids? You, Bill Bennett,
what do you say to that?”

“What’s the matter with the Kid?” asked Charley Harper, called “Redtop”
because of his hair. “I thought he rather liked Billy.”

“Don’t you know? Billy’s copped his girl.” Sis Jones winked knowingly.

“Gee! Not the Fish?”

“Yep. Kid wouldn’t have cared if it had been Sally or Belle, they’re
both dead gone on him; but Fishie’s different.”

“So that’s—”

“Go on, Billy! Answer him!” cried several of Jim’s opponents.

Billy stepped in front of the crowd, which shifted restlessly, and
waited a moment looking them over, trying to arrange his thoughts so
that they might carry weight. He had no liking for the fight his mates
were forcing on him. He knew the Kid’s “line-up” was against the best of
the school, including the girls; knew that his methods were, to say the
least, unpleasant, and important enough to cause anxiety to the
Principal.

Yet Billy was no shirk. He could think on foot better than most of the
students; and when his enthusiasm was aroused no one better loved a
“scrap” of wits.

He began slowly: “There are several questions we must each put up
squarely to ourselves before we can rightly answer Mr. Barney. First,
what’s a school for?”

“Come off!” growled Jim. “Stick to—”

“Shut up, you!” shouted Redtop, who had grown in size and muscle till he
was a force Jim respected. “Billy didn’t interrupt you. Be game!”

The Kid subsided. He prided himself on allowing fair play to all.

“Second, why do we hire superintendents and principals, to say nothing
of teachers, if they are to have no authority over us that we should
respect? And—”

“We don’t hire ’em; our fathers do,” objected one of Jim’s admirers.

“That brings me to my third question: Who pays for the schools?” Billy
stopped an instant to think out his argument, and the pause was more
effective than he knew. Some of the boys were considering a phase of the
school question not often presented to them.

“Nobody’s talking about the cost of schools; it’s us—ourselves we’re
talking about. We want—”

Redtop promptly “chucked” the turbulent one.

Billy went on. “At least we don’t pay for them, nor hire the teachers.
But they are responsible to those who do hire them for the good name of
the schools. If students are lazy or lawless the teachers are called to
account.”

“Well, what’s the matter with us? Aren’t we all right?” Jim loomed
formidably in front of Billy.

“No! We’re not all right, Jim Barney. If you and your crowd, and the
sort of manners toward women and girls you stand for,—if that’s to be
the standard for this school, I’m ashamed of it, and ashamed of any
principal that will stand for it,—when he knows it.” Billy’s eyes
flashed and he shook his hand at Jim.

“You’ll be the tell-tale, I suppose.” Barney lunged forward and reached
his long arm for Billy’s leg; but half a dozen hands pulled him back;
and more hisses than he had believed possible warned him that he was on
the wrong tack.

“It’s because each year Jim Barney has put in his man for class
president, and each year his class has made a worse name for itself; and
now he wants to boss the whole school and run his man for the new
office,—it’s because of this condition that the teachers think it time
to interfere.” Billy leaned forward and looked fearlessly into the face
of the Kid. “If you’ve any remarks coming, you can make them later to me
personally.”

“Gee!” Redtop whispered to Sis Jones; “I wish Hec Price was here to see
that! Billy’s called the Kid’s bluff.”

“As to the last proposition,” Billy continued, “who does pay for the
schools? Do we kids put up the money or the brains or the anxiety,
or—the any other things it takes to put through a system? Did we build
this great institution of the city schools? It is mighty easy to knock
it, but I don’t see any school kids offering anything better. Do you? I
think as long as the State,—but it’s the fathers and mothers really,—as
long as they hand us a chance to get an education it’s up to us to
accept it decently or—” he glared at Jim defiantly; “or quit!”

A burst of noisy applause warned Barney that his leadership was
imperilled. He looked angrily around and was about to speak, when Billy,
with a power new to his mates and startling to the bully, launched a
threat that electrified them all. “Kid Barney, your man for president is
a rowdy, and you know it. We are going to expose him and defeat him.”

“Not on your life, you won’t!” Barney hurled back with a wicked gesture;
and his followers broke out noisily.

But Billy’s voice rose above the din, the more impressive for dominating
it. “We’re going to have a man in this new office that represents the
whole school,—a man that’s honest and capable, and a gentleman besides.”

“A kid-glove sneak—”

“And if by any chance your man gets in, Jim Barney, all of us who stand
for the decent thing will cut the student body as an organization.”

This threat met an instant’s silence. It was Billy’s own idea, born that
moment; but when its great import filtered through those surprised
brains, a storm broke that neither Billy nor Jim could master.

“Rats! What good would that do?” Jim at last made himself heard.

“It will be blazoned in every paper in the State,” Billy replied
quickly. “The names of the students that follow your man will be
published, as well as the names of those standing with the teachers for
decency. And you’ll find, Jim Barney, when it comes to a show-down,
there won’t be many fathers and mothers patting you on the back, even
among those who don’t wear kid gloves.”

A roar drowned Billy, but at last they saw that he had more to say and
subsided into an expectant hush.

“I propose we form a Good Citizens’ Club under Mr. Streeter’s system,
ask the girls to join, and help the Playground Progressives carry their
campaign for a clean playground, no improper language, and a larger
respect for the teachers and law.”

“Well, I’ll be lead-dog to a blind man if that isn’t a little the rawest
dose yet!” Even that bit of choice English did not relieve the Kid, for
he stared silently around at the boys, evidently trying to grasp the
situation.

“We got fool clubs enough, except for fun. I’m in for that any time, but
not for more work,” an overgrown, bulgy-looking boy yawned.

“_More_ work?” jeered Sis Jones; “did you ever do any work, Lazyleg?”

“Cut it! School’s rotten anyway,” the yawner returned; “a kid don’t need
it like the old folks let on.”

“Any slob that goes to school after he’s out of the grades, if he don’t
have to, is dippy,” drawled another.

Mumps stepped forward and faced them. Someway, when Sydney Bremmer, the
ex-newsboy,—called “Mumps” from his heavy jaw,—when he said anything,
people always listened in spite of his style of speech.

“I lay you’re mistaken, you wise kids. Thirty years ago a kid could get
along in the world without much schooling; but now, if a man expects to
do more than dig some other man’s ditches, he’s got to kick in for
things he can’t learn in any grammar school. The chap that don’t know
enough to go to school to-day is the one that’s dippy.”

“Hooray for Mumps!” Redtop bellowed with a grin of contempt at the bulgy
one. Then to Billy, “What’s your scheme, anyway?”

“It’s Mr. Streeter’s idea, a corking good one. He’ll come up and tell us
about it if we ask him.”

“We’ll do it!” shouted several at once.

“No! We don’t want any swells running things here,” Jim struck in; but
even his partial ear heard fresh warning in the conflicting cries. Some
suspicion of a force beneath the surface that was growing in strength
angered him, but he did not reckon it at its full strength, and he
displayed an ill temper that he would better have controlled. “And say,
any kid that kicks in on this frame-up has to cut my crowd from this
on.” He started off, but at the edge of the crowd turned and called,
“Come on, kids!”

There was a breathless moment. The dullest one there knew that this was
a crisis, knew that the smouldering rebellion against Jim Barney’s
tyranny had at last broken into open war.

None understood the situation better than Billy. “Fellows, think before
you follow Jim Barney. His game is as _cultus_ as his name; and this
hour starts the open fight between rowdyism and decency. All that want
to line up for things we shall not be ashamed of, stay!”

For a second no one stirred.

“Come on!” Jim shouted, paused a second, then waved his hand toward
Billy. “Or stand in with lily-necked Bill and his Fish!”

With this parting gibe that set Billy’s face blazing, he wheeled and
walked off the grounds with no backward glance.

Slowly, one by one at first, then in groups as their courage rose, about
thirty boys followed him off. Down on the street they sent back one or
two loud shouts, and were soon out of hearing.

“This is better than I thought it would be,” Billy said to those
remaining; “but Jim Barney can divide the school a good deal nearer even
than some of you think. How many here are in for an active fight for the
good name of the Fifth Avenue High?”

Nearly every one shouted “I!”

“How many like the idea of a Good Citizens’ Club?”

Again the vote was largely in favor.

“How many will stand for the girls joining?”

Groans and objections warned him he was on thin ice.

“Well, they can have their clubs separately, then, as they do in the
playground campaign. How many favor a preliminary talk from Mr.
Streeter?”

This carried.

“All right. I’ll put it up to the Principal, set a day, and post it on
the bulletin board.”

“All the committee for the Price campaign meet at his house to-night,”
Redtop yelled.

In the midst of the noise that followed, Mumps went up and slipped his
arm into Billy’s higher one. “Billy, you’re up against a tough job, and
I’ve got some pointers for you. Any time for me?”

“Sure! Come up to dinner, can you?”

“All right.”

The two walked off together.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                               CHAPTER II

                      BILLY PUTS HIMSELF ON RECORD


NO student of the Fifth Avenue High was more a credit to it than Sydney
Bremmer. A motherless boy wholly orphaned by the great fire in San
Francisco, he had lived, tramp-like, as a newsboy, till adventuring into
the newer opportunities of the City of Green Hills. He had been Billy’s
fellow-traveller on the steamer that brought them both from California;
and his efforts to make good at each turn of his fortune’s wheel
enlisted every one in his favor.

It was Mr. Streeter who, after watching the boy at Camp Going Some the
summer before, advised the lad as to night-school work, helped him with
his studies, and at length found a good home for him with a woman who
lived alone and wished a boy for errands. Here Sydney went, studied
early and late, and passed the examinations admitting him to the high
school at the beginning of the winter semester. He was a general
favorite with his class, and on account of his friendship with Billy and
Hector, was well known to the juniors.

As the two boys walked along in the gray evening, an unusual silence
fell between them, caused on Billy’s part by a rush of plans for the
coming campaign. But Sydney was occupied with Billy’s personal affairs,
and puzzled to know how to say certain things he feared Billy would
resent.

“Lost your buzzer?” At last Billy waked to the fact that they had walked
many blocks without speaking.

“No; but you won’t like my buzz.”

“Try it and see. You’ve a right to say what you please to me, Mumps.
Hand it over.”

“It’s about Miss Fisher.”

Billy turned and slapped him on the shoulder. “Good for you! I’m sick of
hearing her called ‘the Fish.’ It’s a positive disgrace, that nickname.”

Sydney’s reply was halting, as if he were feeling his way. “Did you ever
reckon it might be partly her own fault?”

“No. Why?”

“Well, they call Miss Carter ‘the Queen’; does that make you sick?”

“That’s different. I began that myself. We always called her that in
California,—the Queen of Sheba. But Fish—” He made a gesture of disgust.

“Yet, if the boys called Miss Carter ‘the Cart’ would you feel the same
about it?”

“Search me. I don’t get you.”

“It’s this way: Miss Carter is the style of girl that makes any name you
give her—well, kind of fine and all right. But with Miss Fisher—”

“Well?”

“It’s up to the girl herself. She’s been in the school nearly four
years. She’s two years older than you, and—”

“Two years is nothing,” Billy growled. He was sensitive on that point.

“It’s a lot, Billy. She’s twice as old as you are in knowing
things,—some of ’em it would be a whole lot better if she didn’t know.
And others she knows—well, she knows ’em just because she’s a girl; and
you—you’re only a kid, Billy; not as old as I am in some ways.”

Billy stopped and wheeled. “Say! You’re down on her too. Every one has a
black eye for her, it seems.” He walked on, his face averted.

“No, I’m not; but I don’t want to see her get you in trouble, Billy; and
that’s what she will, without meaning it, too; because the Kid’s
hankering that way, and mighty mad at you.”

“Oh!” With a rush Billy understood some things that had before been
enigmatic. “She never cared for Jim,” he said presently.

“Maybe not, but she made him think so. See?”

“I see that we have no business to be talking over any girl in this
way.” Billy spoke coldly, and Sydney felt it.

“Billy Bennett, you know I ain’t the kind to harm any girl kid. I
wouldn’t talk this over with any living kid but you. But you’re the best
friend I got—except Mr. Streeter—and I’m not going to see you—her
too—get stung if I can help it. My advice is, go slow there; and you’ll
be sorry if you don’t take it.”

They had arrived at the Wright home, where Billy’s sister and
brother-in-law, Hal, as well as Mrs. Bennett, always had a warm welcome
for Sydney.

There was no time for further confidential speech, for as soon as the
new baby, Billy’s nephew, had been duly exhibited, dinner was served;
and afterwards both boys had appointments.

Billy went out of his way to accompany Sydney, who was to attend a
meeting of his troop down town, the Chetwoots (black bears), the
newsboys’ troop of the Boy Scouts. Billy did not wish it known that he
was to call on Erminie Fisher, especially after their conversation
concerning her.

Ever since a day in early winter when she had caught her foot in a car
track and fallen, and Billy that moment passing, had helped her up and
back to her home, his calls had grown more and more frequent.

Conditions in his own home made these calls doubly pleasant. The advent
of his small nephew had robbed him largely of both his mother and his
freedom, for he was rather a noisy boy around the house, and the
youngster resented noise. And in place of his mother’s good-night talks,
now rare, Billy found a luring substitute in the flattering chatter of
the attractive young woman at 745 East Street.

Erminie was beautiful and subtle; beautiful, because she could not help
being so; subtle, partly by nature and partly because all her life, by
means of wheedling and cajolery, she had adroitly managed—or evaded—her
coarse, drinking, but clever father. There were times, however, when no
art prevailed against his tyranny. Still she was not bad, but rather the
victim of her parentage and environment. She was brilliant, generous,
energetic; and when aroused to its need, sincere and faithful.

Her mother was not wise. Her hopes for Erminie were all matrimonial; and
her oftenest repeated advice was, “Keep your eye peeled for the chap in
the automobile, Sis. It’s money that makes the woman go; and your face
is your fortune only when you’re young.”

Into this girl’s sordid life came Billy, clean, young, with high
ambitions. Little he dreamed that Erminie’s foot, purposely stuck
between the tracks, was as well able as the other to bear her weight
during that limping walk home; and not for any bribe would she have
confessed; for if the acquaintance began merely as an escapade, it had
grown into a friendship which she cherished as the most beautiful thing
in her life.

She was looking for him this evening and saw him when he entered the
block. Before he could ring she was at the door. “Let’s walk in the
park,” she said breathily, closing the door behind her. “Dad—dad and ma
are quarrelling, and I can’t bear you to hear them.” She sighed and
walked on rapidly, leaving Billy with no alternative but to follow.

He noticed a tone of weariness he had never heard before, for she was
the embodiment of high spirits. Also he thought it strange that she
should not even greet him. “Is it—is it anything you could tell me
about?”

“I ought not, Billy, but I’m going to—I can’t keep it to myself any
longer.” She looked up at him, and he saw both anger and defiance in her
dark, restless eyes. “My father wants me to quit school and marry an old
fellow—a man nearly forty, who’s got the goods—money—and is crazy about
me.”

Billy gasped. “Gee!” For a minute he could say no more, and they stood
looking at each other till a passer jostled them into moving on.

“But you don’t have to! Girls aren’t like—they aren’t property any
more.”

“No; but some fathers think they are.”

“Does your father?”

“Dad wouldn’t put it that way; but you see, Billy, this man who—who
wants to marry me—is awfully strong with the city ring, and in some way
he has dad cinched. Dad thinks he could make it square by getting him
into the family.” Her little half-smile was quite without conceit.

Billy looked at her a moment before replying. Any one seeing her then
could have forgiven her a little vanity. The low sun, piercing the
clouds for a good-night glance, brought out the rusty reds in her softly
waving dark hair, hair that at the roots melted into her creamy skin
through a lighter shading that was neither red nor brown, but seemed to
have been mixed on Nature’s palette for no other face than hers. Her
eyes, usually too shallow and brightly brown, were now deep and misty
with an emotion Billy could only guess; while all the loveliness of her
gracious face and figure was enhanced by a womanly dignity new to Billy,
new to herself, and unrealized.

“I guess ’most any man’d like to get into your family that way.” All the
man in him had risen to her beauty; but he was not thinking of
himself—not seeing himself in that relation to her. His remark was
entirely impersonal.

She smiled, but instantly it changed to a look of pain. She had no
measure but that of personality—herself. “Billy! Don’t! Don’t! That’s
the sort of thing they all say, and they don’t mean it. I’ve—I’ve liked
you awfully just because you never handed out that stuff. If I can’t
trust you, there’s—there’s nobody.” There was a little catch in her
voice, and she hastened on.

Billy was astonished, puzzled. In their early acquaintance he had felt
and resented her coquetry, and very soon interested her in other ways;
had established the same sort of comradeship that existed in his earlier
boy and girl friendships; but as their acquaintance progressed he found
it rich with new experiences.

This girl was no frank child, but a woman, full-grown, delightfully
attractive in her wonderful knowledge of things he had not even
considered; and alluring in her teasing, half tender, half patronizing
manner toward him.

Billy’s own feeling was as perplexing to him. His mother had warned him
against the usual “puppy love,” so frank, so ludicrous, that, did not
most fathers and mothers have a blushing yet happy remembrance of
first-love affairs, they would promptly lock up the younger culprits
till the spell wore off.

But Billy’s case was different. Erminie, preeminently the beauty of the
school, knew well how to steer an affair safely and in propriety, as
when she chose she knew how to make a fellow look “the silliest sort,”
in this last art making her largest success with the Kid.

In the park they chose a seat slightly back from the main paths that
they might talk freely. Billy had intended to heed Sydney’s warning so
far as not to be seen out with Erminie for a few weeks. He knew that
turbulent days were coming, and if Jim really cared for her, Billy had
no desire to inflame him unnecessarily.

Yet here and now that very thing happened. They were barely seated when
he passed them, halted a second, lifted his hat, but was not recognized
by Erminie, and passed on with a scowl that Billy understood.

“How was it you didn’t bow to him?”

“I never will, after what he said about you. I heard what happened this
afternoon.”

Billy was uneasy. “It doesn’t matter about me, but he’ll get back at you
some way. I wish you’d speak to him next time, square it with him.”

“No, I won’t. He can’t speak falsely of my best—of my friends and expect
to keep in with me.”

“But—”

“Billy, _don’t_ waste time on him. I’m up against the worst ever, and I
want your advice.”

“My advice!” He laughed. Yet what boy is not flattered by such a request
from a lovely girl older than himself? “Are you banking on my wisdom?
Yours is much greater.”

“Not for what I wish to know, Billy. Tell me about Mr. Alvin Short.”

He faced her quickly. “Alvin Short! I don’t _know_ anything exactly,
except that his reputation is as bad as a man’s can be. I get it from my
brother Hal.”

“A grafter?”

“Yes, and worse.”

“Worse?”

“Yes. For one thing, he grafts within the law; but those he cinches get
it—” Billy lifted an eloquent finger to his neck.

“I was afraid so. That’s where he’s got dad, I’m afraid.”

“Gee! Then he’s—” Billy paused, a great disgust for the man rising, but
to be routed by a hot sympathy for the girl. “By gracious! You won’t
have anything to do with him, will you?”

“No.” She looked at him earnestly for a moment. “No,” she said again
with a hint of fatality in her voice; “but that means that I must run
away from home.”

“Run—away—from home?”

“Yes.” She was touched to wistfulness by the thought of what his home
must be if no such possible contingent had occurred in his life. “If I
don’t, I’ll have to marry Alvin Short; daddy will make me.”

“How can he?”

“Oh, Billy, don’t ask me. Fathers have ways. If Cousin Will were here he
could help me.”

“You never told me about him. Did I ever see him?”

“No. He’s not a cousin really. Uncle Henry’s wife was married before,
and Will is her son. We were great chums till they moved to Oregon a few
years ago.”

Billy looked at her, speculating on the reminiscent light that came into
her eyes as she gazed absently off into the west.

“Will was as good as a brother,—better,—he didn’t tease. If he was here
he’d not let them make me marry if I didn’t want to.”

“You aren’t old enough to marry!” Billy burst out vehemently.

She smiled faintly. “I’m more than two years older than ma was, and she
thinks it would be fine because Alvin—Mr. Short—has so much money.”

“Still she won’t—surely she won’t—” He hesitated, unable to picture a
mother who would sacrifice her daughter to such a man. He had seldom
seen the tired, frowzy woman who kept out of sight when Erminie had
callers.

“Ma always does as dad says. It’s the easiest way to keep peace in the
family. Sometimes she spunks up a little, as to-day. Daddy’s generally
good to her, though; to me, too, if I do as he wants. But lately he
won’t stand for anything from us.”

“What can you do for a living?”

She sighed and drew in her lip. “Nothing well, Billy; but I can learn
housework, I suppose.”

“Don’t you know that already?” He thought of his capable mother, of his
sister, who was a good housekeeper as well as an accomplished musician.

“No. Ma has always made me save my hands and complexion, study, take
music, go to dancing school, and all that, because she was sure I’d
marry rich.”

Billy thought hard. Wild notions of succoring this girl, of taking her
to his own home, of leaving school and going to work that he might
support her, of doing _something_, anything worthy of a man on whom
womanhood calls for help. A dozen equally impossible plans surged
through his excited brain; but he could not think of anything definite,
practical enough.

“Don’t look so hurt—so angry, Billy. Something will turn up. You’ve told
me what I wanted to be sure about, the sort of man Alvin Short is, and—”

“Perhaps some of it isn’t true. I’ll find out exactly.”

“Enough is true to decide me. The man I marry must have a good name, if
he hasn’t a dollar.”

“You won’t think about run—about any change right away?”

“No. I guess I can coax dad off—and Mr. Short—till school closes. I want
my diploma.”

“Couldn’t you teach?”

“No, Billy, I’m not built that way; but I can scrub if necessary; and I
will, before I’ll marry Alvin Short.”

Billy looked at her pretty hands, remembering what melodies they had
drawn from the piano on the many evenings he and Erminie had sung
together; and his anger rose again.

“We must go back. If dad knows I’ve been out with any one but Mr. Short,
he’ll be mad.”

“But I’m just a boy.”

The bitterness in his tone did not escape her. “Don’t fret. You’re
plenty big enough and old enough to make dad mad, and Alvin Short
jealous.”

She rose and looked into his face as he stood beside her, head and
shoulders taller. She could no more help saying and looking the
pleasant, flattering thing to those she cared for than she could help
breathing. It was part of her charm. She was always looking more than
she meant, too, and having to use all her art to escape the results.

Billy gazed down on her with tender eyes, his heart beating faster with
a manly, protecting feeling new to him. “Anyway I’m big enough and old
enough to do just my level best to make things easy for you. Let me know
how I can, won’t you?”

“Yes, Billy, I will. Oh, you’re such a comfort!” And because she was
worn out by a stormy interview with her father that she was too proud to
repeat, she could not restrain the sob that came with the last word.

That was too much for impressionable Billy. He put his arms around her
and kissed her.

Often in fun and frolic he had kissed girls more to tease them than to
please himself; but this was very different,—his first man’s kiss; and
with its sweetness mingled a quick-born sense of responsibility and the
acceptance of a man’s part. He had put himself on record with her; the
kiss was the compact.

They walked for blocks in silence, and separated at the end of her
street with but a word of good-bye; speech seemed superfluous.

That night Billy went to bed having a secret his mother could not share,
for it was Erminie’s rather than his own. Life seemed very portentous,
big with duties and prospects that belonged to a new world. All his past
was but a flash, a gleam of childish nonsense. Now he was a man!

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                              CHAPTER III

                      “POP” STREETER’S PROPOSITION


FOR the first time he could remember, Billy was sleepless till the sun
rose. All night long he thought and thought. He had considered his life
rather complex—he was leader of one of the patrols of his troop, the
Olympics; he had a part in the school drama which he had believed very
important. And on waking came the sudden remembrance of the talk Mr.
Streeter was to give soon on the matter of Good Citizens’ Clubs. Billy
was sponsor for that, and must see it through. Also it looked still more
as if he would not be able to avoid the clash with the bully.

But all this was trivial now, childish. He could no longer think of
himself alone,—there would be two. That kiss—that kiss was his pledge, a
consecration of his life to Erminie’s happiness.

By the time the sun had struck through the window into his large attic
room he had mapped out his course. He would have to continue school till
vacation—his mother would insist on that; but by that time he would have
secured work of some sort. He regretted having sold the “ha’nt” in
California and invested his money with his mother’s—by Mr. Smith’s
advice—in the City of Green Hills; but it was too late to change that.
Yet he would work hard, attend night school, and prepare himself for his
real life-business, which was to be Journalism. He spelled it with a
capital, for he would be no small truckling reporter, but a faithful,
inspiring leader of the people.

Resolutely he put aside the thought of marriage although it lay, coiled
and conscious like fate, at the back of all his plans. Other men married
young, why not one more? The conventions were ridiculous; a man was a
man when he was grown! He drew himself up and measured again before his
mirror. Almost six feet!

Yet he must not subject Erminie to ridicule. The world must see that she
was marrying a man who could support and protect her. He would not have
to wait very long,—he looked twenty-one,—and his mother would consent
when she saw he was well prepared, saw how pitiful was Erminie’s
situation. Shyly—though there was none to see—he rubbed his rough chin
and wondered how he would look with mustache and imperial.

The elation of the night still lifted him. His body was strangely light;
he felt as if he could move a mountain. The need for secrecy increased
the stimulation, and he looked on forest, lake, and Sound with new
vision. The yellow rose of sunrise touched Cascades and Olympics alike
with a splendor he had not before recognized, and lighted the vast
reaches between ranges with a clear thin radiance not seen in southern
lands.

Billy’s heart ached with this new fulness of life. Visions undreamed
before opened his eyes to his own manhood; and the impulse came to put
this experience into rhythm,—the impulse that touches every normal young
creature. Some may not have the wit to fix it on paper, but all sing the
song.

Billy sang it,—sang in a lilting, rather difficult metre, beginning
ambitiously with an apostrophe to his love,

                   “Ermine-white soul of my Erminie,”

and leaping immediately to the next rhyme which should be “burn in
me”—he was not acquainted with the exactions of prosody. However, his
Muse proceeded for a couple of verses; and if she limped at times, it
was no more than appears in the work of some real poets when they push
the lady too hard.

He read the lines several times, softly whispering the passioned words.
They sounded rather good, though not by a tithe were they adequate. What
miserable, foolish little things were written words! Still he marvelled
that he could write even these. He would copy them on a typewriter and
gave them to Erminie. No one could then guess their authorship, not even
her father should he chance upon them.

At breakfast he was silent, preoccupied; but his mother, being tired
from a night of watching with the baby, who had been fretful, did not
notice Billy, nor object when he said he would not be home at noon.

[Illustration: Billy gazed down on her with tender eyes, his heart
beating faster with a manly, protecting feeling new to him]

He hurried off, hoping to meet Erminie in the halls before she went to
her class-room; but she was barely prompt, passing him as the bell rang,
with a hasty nod. Billy thought it cool, till he saw that Walter Buckman
was right behind her.

The hours droned by, seemingly interminable. Automatically he went from
class to class. Twice he had to be reminded that the bell had tapped. In
the midst of defining the powers of the Constitution of the United
States of America, he saw a picture of a little house with a vine over
it, and Erminie sitting in the tiny living-room. And while walking down
the hall to his German Class he built still other castles, followed
impossible adventures that involved Erminie, himself, and two other men
who wanted her; and vanquished them both just at the moment his teacher
said, “Guten Morgen, Herr Bennett.”

Yet as the day proceeded, he had to wake to his many duties. At the noon
recess he was besieged by boys asking of the meeting to be addressed in
the assembly-room by Mr. Streeter, its importance, and if they could not
go would he tell them all about it later? And the girls appealed to him
to know if they were _really_ invited. A delayed English exercise _had_
to be copied; and at the moment—hoped for, watched for—when Erminie went
down the main hall on her way back from luncheon, a teacher was
explaining to Billy some stubbornly hidden point in his geometry.

Two o’clock came finally, and Billy, waiting till the last moment,
hoping vainly to see Erminie, went to the assembly-room, where a crowd
of noisy boys waited for Mr. Streeter’s coming.

“Who is he, anyway?” asked a boy new to the city and the school.

“He’s the best, jolliest ever,” Billy answered. “They say he’s never
grown up and never will. But the boys like him that way, and the fathers
and mothers trust him to the limit.”

“What does he do?”

“For a living? Nothing now. He’s had a fortune come to him, ten times as
much a year as he used to earn.”

“That must beat the old game for fun.”

“He gets his fun with the boys,—spends his time and money that way. You
see he’s had the university, Europe, and all that.”

When Mr. Streeter tapped for order, it was instant, for he always had
some message the boys were eager to hear, though they knew as little of
the scope of his work as did their busy fathers.

He had a round, jolly face; and near each end of his brown mustache a
dimple that was the envy of every girl who knew him. But in spite of
dimples, and kind eyes that grew dark and tender at a tale of suffering,
those eyes could compel, the dimples could disappear in a look that few
disregarded.

After his greeting, and one of the funny stories that he told well, he
said, “I have a message more serious than usual for you to-day, a plan
that touches not only you but your city of the future, for which in five
years nearly every one of you before me will be responsible.

“I wonder if you know, boys and girls, how different this city of ours
is from the older, Eastern cities? It has risen almost by magic. Your
fathers and mothers are still busy with their hard fight with nature,
cutting down trees and washing mountains into the sea, filling deep
valleys or making land where water was. They don’t have time to think of
the future.

“But it’s coming, and it will have as hard nuts to crack as any we have
now. I wonder if you wish to learn a little about them now, before they
are dropped down on you?

“Don’t we want a beautiful city? Want our city to look as well on post
cards as Paris looks, or any city on earth? No city in the world has
more beauty from nature; if we should do as well with our building as
Paris has with hers, all the people on earth would sell all their goods
and travel here to see us,—come any way they could, on foot if they
couldn’t fly,—to see the beautiful City of Green Hills.

“Do you know how we could have it that way? By making out of every boy
and girl living here a good citizen, a patriotic citizen, who would no
more be wasteful of her wealth or beauty than he would strike himself.
You are beginning here in the right way. Your playground politics, your
attempt to make it a clean place, beautiful and pleasant for ear as well
as eye,—that is fine. But nothing of that sort amounts to much unless it
reaches out to all: that’s it, to _all_. No city is fine or lasting, or
ought to last, if the set of people that are making fine avenues and
boulevards let its poor folk live in holes and sow tin cans instead of
roses in the alleys.”

He stopped a moment to get the temper of the meeting. They knew that his
hobby was hunting boys, to help them. He hunted them as other men hunt
game, or business opportunities. Only the recording angel knew how many
waifs he “rounded in for rations.” The street boys adored him for his
power as well as for his goodness. He was the champion all-round amateur
athlete of the town, and though slow to anger, in the language of the
“newsies,” when “he does let go his bunch o’ fives, skidoo the bunch!”

There were plenty of cheers, and cries of, “Go on!”

“Scouts and Sunday schools and school politics are all good; but we need
something that includes all in one larger work, as the schools and the
city include all. I have thought of a chain of Young Citizens’ Clubs
that should reach all. How many of you know about your city, her
population, income, resources, officers? Would you like to know? I am
willing to lead such a movement if you’d like it.

“There isn’t time to tell you in detail all the different schemes I have
thought out! Bands—I will see that every boy that will learn is taught
to play some instrument; drills, scouting parties in the city to spy out
what we’d like to do to make it better; the best speakers in the city
and State, to tell us just what sort of a pie the politicians cook for
us each year; picnics and camping, to learn how much fun there is out
under the sky, and how a man can jolly along without much but a blanket
and a frying pan, and have the time of his life; and each year some
great celebration the young citizens would themselves manage that would
really mean things—all these ideas, our history, our future,—do you get
this, young people? Would it be great? Or am I just dreaming?”

They caught the bigness of his idea and responded as heartily as boys
and girls always will when they are enlisted.

Jim Barney and his followers were there in force, because it was
necessary for them to be in touch with all that was going on. They saw,
or their leader did, that this Good Citizens’ Club meant the end of
their influence and of his rule.

“Of course you don’t mean girls,” Jim drawled in a slow, confident tone.

“Can girls be loyal to the city? Isn’t your mother as good a citizen as
your father?”

It was an unfortunate question. Jim’s mother had run off with a man his
father despised; while the father, a successful saloon-keeper, and good
to Jim according to his light, was the boy’s idol.

“You bet she ain’t. Women and girls don’t count in politics.”

The girls scowled, some boys hissed, but too many cheered.

“If they don’t count, America is a lie,” Mr. Streeter said when the
noise had ceased. “Yet even that aspect of the case is futile. The
amendment to enfranchise the women of Washington will surely carry; your
mothers and sisters will be citizens whether you like it or not. What
will you do about it?”

Cheering and laughing, good-natured jeers and one or two faint hisses
followed. But the majority were interested, and an organization on Mr.
Streeter’s basis followed, with Reginald Steele and Cicero Jones as
president and vice-president, Bess Carter secretary, and Billy
treasurer. As these four were of the strongest opposers of Jim Barney,
it was not surprising that he rose and rather boisterously led his gang
out.

Mr. Streeter did not quite understand, but said rivalry was sometimes
wholesome, and perhaps Mr. Barney would organize something himself.

“You may think it strange that I come with this proposition so near the
end of the school year. I wonder if you will like my further plans? How
do you think we can make this most effective? I had thought we could
have every member of this club, and those that are forming in the other
schools, start a little feeder in his own neighborhood. The Scouts are
already enthusiastic. And my biggest notion of all is to have a band in
each club; and when these bands are studying and playing about the city,
we’ll select the very best of them, and the ten best citizens,—that is,
those who, on the vote of all the rest have done most in this work,—and
we’ll go abroad with them. East, all over our own States, and then to
Europe. Well, it’s a pretty big jump, that is; I won’t propose Mars till
next time.”

“But that would take a heap of money; we couldn’t—” The “doubting
Thomas” hesitated and subsided.

“There is a city on this coast where they are doing just that thing. And
when, after a tour of six months, those thirty boys came home, having
earned their way by their splendid music, and won the applause and
goodwill of all the countries they visited, what do you suppose their
own city did? Gave them the freedom of the city, made one of them mayor
of the town for a week, and the entire city feted them.”

“Well, what do you think of that?” one astonished person upspoke in
meeting.

“That may be far away, but I have one idea coming that isn’t,—a flag for
the city. Do you like that idea? Would it be a good thing for a city to
have its own banner floating with the Stars and Stripes on every school
house, shop, ship, and home?”

“Has any other city a flag?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Gee! Then we’ll be the first! Let’s have it!”

They cheered this to the satisfaction of even Mr. Streeter.

“I shall offer a prize of fifty dollars for the best design, to be
competed for by the members of the Good Citizens’ Clubs. The Chamber of
Commerce likes the idea, and will add another fifty. We’ll begin our
annual historic pageants this year, in September, and award the prize
then. How does that strike you?”

It struck them happily, and they despatched a few more details of the
organization, arranged for the meeting hour, and for immediate
cooperation with the playground campaign,—for that was good citizens’
work,—and adjourned.

Billy had to remain with Bess after the rest to receive, and receipt
for, the money paid in for dues. A teacher gave them a drawer in one of
the desks in the library, and Billy had a key to it. On passing out of
the larger room he had managed to sign to Erminie, who had attended the
meeting, to wait for him. He and Bess finished their work together,
Billy remaining on some invented pretext till after she had gone; though
he had to follow her immediately, for the teacher was anxious to lock up
and get away.

Very casually, Billy thought, he sauntered along to where Erminie was
standing, looking nowhere in particular as he came up, and, under
pretence of showing her his club accounts, handed her a folded paper.
But even a pair of thoughtless boys passing read his beaming face; and a
teacher going by smiled in spite of himself; smiled, and scowled at
Erminie without knowing it.

She caught the look, read her own meaning into it, and turned away with
a casual, “Thank you, Billy,” that chilled him as no wind ever had. He
little dreamed she was saving him at her own expense, as she did again a
moment later, when the teacher repassed with Barney by his side, and she
gave the bully the brilliant smile Billy had expected for his own.

“I didn’t mean you should kiss him with your eyes,” Billy growled,
jealousy flaming so ludicrously in his face that Erminie laughed when
she would better have been serious.

“Don’t be foolish, Billy; you told me to square with him. Sh—! Here they
come again,” she added, and with a hasty good-bye left Billy to gloom
all the way home about that smile.

Of course he himself had advised the recognition, but not like that. Oh,
that smile!

He arrived at home to hear that his dear little comrade of earlier days,
May Nell Smith, had been hurt and was coming home.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                               CHAPTER IV

                         ERMINIE THE UNCERTAIN


A FEW days later May Nell came, and Billy went to see her. On the way,
and while waiting in the parlor of her imposing home, he recalled the
April evening she had come into Vina on the refugee train from San
Francisco, a homeless waif. Driven right into his arms he believed, by
the catastrophe, he had led her to his mother’s door; and the little
girl had walked into their hearts, never to be forgotten.

Yet now she seemed remote,—very young, and out of Billy’s life, if not
out of memory. He had not seen her since they separated after the summer
together at Lallula; and that was far away, a part of another life.

May Nell had never been robust since the terrifying days and nights of
the great fire; and her parents sent her to a girls’ school in a
neighboring town, where health was the first consideration.

The maid came interrupting his memories, and he followed her.

“Come up, Billy!” May Nell called in the well remembered melodious
voice.

He was unprepared for the change in her. She had been only slightly hurt
in the foot in an automobile accident, and now showed almost no ill
effects from it. She seemed no older, no larger, yet different, in a way
that Billy could not explain to himself. As she rose impulsively to
greet him, leaning gracefully on her cane, he felt in full force once
more her charm, her otherworldliness.

Her face had rounded and taken on richer tints; and the gold of her hair
and the blue of her eyes were almost ethereal. She was like a beautiful
dream, or like some little princess of bygone years stepped from the
canvas of an old master.

“Oh, Billy, Billy! How good it is to see you! And how fine of you to
come this first day I’m at home.”

Billy was only half at ease. He felt old and rude, and in some odd way
not good enough to touch her delicate hand, to help her reseat herself.
“I had to come, you know.” And though he smiled he remembered that he
had wished he were going to see Erminie instead.

Yet now that he was here he felt widely separated from Erminie. A fancy
struck into his mind on the instant between sentences: Erminie was the
bright red rose, quickly blooming and quickly fading, that grows
luxuriantly in plain view in the valley; May Nell was a rare and
delicate yet unwithering orchid that hides on the far mountain side.

“Mama says I am not to return to school till the autumn semester opens.”

Again the daintiness, the foreign flavor that attached to all she said
or did came with the French “mama.”

“That’s dandy!” and he gave her a boyish scrutiny. “You’re different,
older someway; but you’re—just as little.” A teasing mischief danced in
his eyes.

“I _am_ older, Billy. Did you think I would always stay a little girl?”

“Thirteen isn’t very old.”

“It’s only three years younger than sixteen.”

“I’m much more than sixteen,” he objected, and thought with dismay of
Erminie. Could she feel as much beyond him in age as he felt beyond May
Nell?

“Well, no matter, Billy. You look twenty. But I’ll challenge you on the
score of studies, that is, if—if you’ll cut out mathematics,” she added
in a mock-plaintive tone.

“Mathematics is—are?—the whole business,” he swaggered; and thus they
chaffed themselves back to childhood standing again, and talked on of
many matters, each telling of life during the separation.

She was almost well, would soon be ready to join in their sports again.
Going home, Billy thought over his changed future. The gay days were
coming when May Nell and his cousins, Hector, Hugh, and little Miss
Snow, as they called their little sister, would all go chugging around
the Sound among the beautiful Thousand Islands, or startle the silences
of night and day at lovely Lallula.

But he would not be there. He would be drudging at some sort of hard
work; making a beginning in his long, hurrying climb toward an income
that would warrant him in taking Erminie to a home of their own.
Suddenly the future looked bigger and darker, and he mentally drew back
from it; but instantly chid himself for a coward.

He need not. He was only a boy. How was he to know that he was not yet
able to endure long mental strain; that this depression was the
inevitable reaction from exciting days, and nights with little or no
sleep?

On his way he met Bess Carter.

“Hello, Queen of Sheba!” he called as she was passing him, her head up,
eyes unheeding.

“Oh! Billy! I’m glad you spoke. We’re so busy I’m totally absorbed and
don’t have time to see my friends.”

“Evidently not. What is it? Politics?”

“Yes. Though it doesn’t seem like that. I thought politics was something
tremendous and difficult and—rather bad. But since mother says women are
to be enfranchised and I must learn things, and since I heard Mr.
Streeter, it really appears merely a sort of housekeeping for the city,
or State, or whatever; easy, but lots of work.”

“When you’ve heard more from Mr. Streeter you’ll see that any kind of
housekeeping that’s worth while isn’t so easy; though it’s simpler when
all the people have a pride in it.”

“Yes. Do you know, Billy, I’d never have been allured by it if he hadn’t
said that one who forgot or abused his city was the same as one who
forgot home or demolished the furniture.” Bess retained her fondness for
long words.

“That was rather striking.”

“And now I’m in—deep in the girls’ reform party; and we are going to
participate in the Progressives’ playground rally to-night. Will you be
there?”

“Sure. But what will the girls do?”

“We wish to address the meeting. It’s especially to bring about better
conditions on the playground; and the student body will take some part
there if Hector is president.”

“Yes.”

“You know the boys of the Fifth Avenue High have an unconscionable name
there.”

“Yes; and it’s only a few that have given it that reputation. You’re
going some for girls. How did you get the chance to butt in on the
rally?”

“Oh, Billy, doesn’t the school and the playground belong to girls as
well as to boys? Have not we a right to be heard?”

“Sure. But how is it the boys let you?”

“Hector told the managers of the meeting that if they wanted him to
speak they’d have to let us in too.”

“Good. I’ll be there.”

“And—Billy—” Her hesitation was unprecedented.

Billy’s eyes questioned.

“It’s about the—Erminie Fisher.”

“Well?” This time the eyes warned.

“They’re talking about her—the girls don’t like her.”

“Anything else?” There was a steel-like quality in his voice that Bess
Carter had never suspected.

“Yes. She’s working for Jim Barney’s ticket, and you must make her—only
you can—make her stop, or Hector won’t win.” She was intensely in
earnest now, all her loyalty to Billy fighting for him. “Billy! That
girl is no good friend to you, and she’ll spoil everything if you don’t
stop her.”

“I think you’re mistaken,” he said, after a silence that puzzled and
chilled her.

“She won’t join the Girls’ Branch of the Progressives, nor register. And
she says if Hector Price is elected he will turn the student body into a
kindergarten; at least that’s what Walter Buckman said she said.” She
pumped out the words breathily.

“Any more slams on her?”

“Oh, Billy, I’m no tattler. It isn’t _what_ they say; it’s the looks and
sniggers that say more than words. No one would dare to tell _me_
anything anyway; they know I’m your friend, Billy, your California
friend.”

He caught the emotion in her voice, knew that in all the world he had
not a more devoted friend, a more fearless champion than Bess Carter.
“You’re to the good, Bess. I shall try to deserve your kindness.” He
lifted his cap and passed on, leaving her troubled and mystified.

He found his mother busy over her window plants. After an anxious
inquiry as to dinner, which settled the fact that he would have to wait
ten minutes, he stood watching her in such an unusual silence that she
noticed it and rallied him.

“What’s happening in Calcutta, Billy?”

“Not in Calcutta; right here. What are you killing all those little
babies for?”

Mrs. Bennett straightened up and looked at him, startled. “It does seem
almost like that, doesn’t it? But if I don’t pinch these buds the plants
will be less thrifty, perhaps die.”

“Why?”

“It’s warm here in this room, and the plant has hurried to put out buds
before the root has struck deep enough. It would be unwise to let it
come to flower now.”

“Doesn’t Nature know best how to do things?”

“Not always. Nature is very wasteful. Besides, I’ve robbed these plants
of Nature’s care, taken them into artificial conditions; so I must stand
in place of Nature to them.”

“Suppose the plant gets discouraged and won’t bloom at all?”

“It won’t do that; blooming is the law of its life.”

He was silent a moment before asking, “I wonder if that is true in—in
other ways—that about blooming too soon?”

“Yes, true of all Nature. Fruit grown or gathered prematurely is always
poor, tasteless; still more important, the seeds produce poorer stock.”

“I don’t quite understand. I thought young flowers were finest. Didn’t
you say pansies wouldn’t have fine blooms the second or third year?”

“Yes. That is because naturally the pansy is an annual. Only in warm
climates does it live through the winter; when it does, the second
season is merely a prolonged old age.”

“How about animal life?”

“The law is the same. In hot climates where boys and girls marry early
the races are not strong, dominant. And in our own latitude the children
of well-grown, well-trained men and women are stronger mentally and
physically than those whose parents marry in their teens.”

Billy winced. “I should think that—that—well, when boys and girls are
old enough to care for each other that would mean they were old enough
to marry.”

“In the dawn of the race when men were no wiser than the plants, when
they lived naturally, it did mean that. But as the race unfolds and we
make artificial conditions, man sees more fully perhaps the meaning of
God’s command to him to have dominion over every thing on the earth.
Man’s growing wisdom is in charge over Nature to mould her material
forms to higher, ever higher perfection.”

“Then why is it that kids do marry? Why do they want to before they
ought?”

“Why do you wish to eat before you are really hungry? Why do you wish to
run, leap, dance, be ever on the move, whether you have conscious need
for motion or not? Why does a baby try to walk before its legs will bear
it?”

Billy grinned. “You’re too deep for me, marms.”

“Because Nature is often blind. To preserve the race is her first
business. She sacrifices the one to the welfare of the many. Man,
exercising the power God gave him, sees that only as each one comes to
his best, will he contribute to the race the best possible stock.
Therefore our wisest thinkers say that all should wait till at least
well in the twenties before marriage.”

Billy was thoughtful for a minute. “What of the fellow who likes a girl
so well that he can’t keep—well, keep from thinking of her?” He knew
very well that his mother cast a quick look at him, but he did not meet
her eye, and she went quietly on with her employment of snipping and
digging.

“That is a very deep question, one to which you should give much study.
There are books prepared especially to answer such questions. For ages
man has been developing unevenly. The truth is that men and women are
nine-tenths alike; that is, human—eating, drinking, suffering, joying,
loving each other and mankind alike, and dying alike. Only in about
one-tenth of their natures are they different, this being the difference
of sex.”

“Gee! That seems strange.”

“But is it? Look at Bess Carter. She has been reared most wisely. Is she
not nearly as much of an athlete as you are? What is there that you can
do that she cannot?”

Billy scowled. He remembered uncomfortably a day when a little child had
fallen into the edge of the lake, and Bess had outrun him and rescued
her just as he was arriving. Also he was more uncertain than he liked as
to their relative percentage for the year.

“She’s an exception,” he evaded.

“So are you. Few boys of your age are as well developed. Yet you could
not endure, except for a momentary spurt, perhaps, what, with no
accident or illness you will be able to endure at twenty-three. Mentally
the difference will be nearly the same.”

“Why do people marry so young, then?”

“For many reasons. Children are not taught these things as they should
be taught. Boys who leave school early and earn for themselves usually
have no aim beyond mere physical satisfaction, no large ideals to
follow, and become a prey to natural emotions they yield to but do not
understand.”

“How about the others—and girls?”

“The young man who takes a longer school course or a profession must put
his whole effort to succeeding in that. He cannot take the burden of a
family life, and he has his work, sports, various matters to occupy his
attention, and all his forces combine to the making of his higher
success. It is about the same with girls.”

“But why shouldn’t they love each other, be engaged and wait?”

He thought it a long time before she answered. When at last she turned
and looked deep in his eyes her voice took on the tender tone he knew,
and her words were grave. “Billy, think back to the time when you were a
little boy and the apples, full grown and gloriously tinted but hard as
wood, tempted you from their leafy nests. What would have happened if
you had fondled and pinched each one?”

Billy’s eyes darkened. “I—I—see.”

“Would it have been the fault of the apple if it had become later a
dented, spotted thing with decay setting in before it had really
ripened?”

“No.” He writhed inwardly at the conclusions forced upon him.

“Remember, Billy, every girl is like an apple slowly ripening toward
womanhood.”

The room was very still, and they stood together, Billy’s arm close
about her waist, looking out upon the distant shimmering lake. At length
she lifted her head suddenly and spoke with a singular passion.

“My boy, the love relation between a man and a woman is the holiest one
on earth. It may begin in passion, but if true, it ends in a constant
devotion that opens the door of heaven. Since this is God’s way of
keeping his race going it is blasphemy to speak or even think coarsely
of it, or to enter upon it except devoutly. If there is one relation in
life that should be given preparation, almost I would say that should be
entered upon with prayer and fasting, it is that by which you shall
become responsible for the welfare of future beings, your children.”

She was trembling, and Billy knew now that she understood him; that even
if she did not know the one he loved, she knew the fact. He could not
deceive her, nor did he wish it. He felt relieved that she knew, though
he could not bring himself to speak of it. He thought it was because he
must not let any one intrude on Erminie’s privacy, but the reason lay
deeper than that, deeper than he could then know.

The dinner was brought in. He had forgotten his hurry; but now it
returned, and he hastened his meal and excused himself to go to the
rally.

He went round by Erminie’s home. He wished to ask her of the situation
Bess had described. He was sure she could clear up everything that
troubled him, sure she could defend her course no matter how it might
look to others. Perhaps she really disbelieved in politics for girls; if
so, she had a right to her opinion.

Yet why had she openly assisted the school bully? That was as much a
political move as the other, and not so frank; more, it was exceedingly
unpopular. She could not be associated with Jim in any matter, and hold
the goodwill of the best girls in school.

A hot wave swept over him. Whatever she did, he must stand by her now,
make life for her better, not worse. Yet how could he do it? Open
interference between her and Barney would be disastrous.

Still questioning anxiously of himself he rang the bell; once, twice,
and a third time. No one answered, and after a wait and another ring he
went back to the playground, and found a noisy, chaotic scene.

Redtop was manager. He had planned a rally in imitation of the campaign
meetings of real politics. There would be speeches, and the candidates
for the playground officers would be presented. There could be no rules,
of course, as if in a room, but three boys were appointed to keep order,
Billy being one. And everybody was welcome.

Apparently the cityful had arrived before Billy. As he approached,
Redtop, perspiring and anxious, called, “Billy Next Week, come on! Get
busy! Hold down those kids, will you? This meeting’s got a football game
skinned silly on noise.”

“All right,” Billy responded cheerfully. “Shall I scare ’em or run ’em
in?”

“Oh, anything. Cop ’em or duck ’em. Here! Take this.” He pinned a badge
of authority on Billy’s coat.

Billy started through the wriggling, shifting mass of boys of many
nationalities from fair-faced Swede to swarthy Italian and garrulous
Irish boy, with quiet, squat Japanese fringing the edges.

“The cop’s coming!” ran derisively from lip to lip along the crowd,
which curved back at his approach, only to close in behind him with more
and more noise.

“Say! Fellers!” Billy wheeled and called to the nearest, “What’s the
matter of helping here and getting the taffy a little later?”

“Sure, Mike,” cried some. And others asked, “Where’s the taffy?”

Billy laughed and touched his lip. “You’ll get as much as I will.”

“What’s that?”

“The fun. See? Now hike, and bring those benches over here.” He waved
his doubled fist at them as if it were a club; and thirty or more
hurried off laughing, and began to labor with the park benches which
they set in semi-circular rows on the grass around a central bench
between two torches, that was the speakers’ stand.

Coming on Sis Jones a moment later, Billy asked him to look after the
bench brigade, which he did, crying out to Billy when he passed again,
“Gee! This is work! Where’s the reward?”

“Where mine is,” Billy jeered. “Look at the girls; they’re doing half of
the work.” He nodded to a dozen or more struggling by with the heavy
seats, one bending alone under the weight of a short bench, and refusing
help.

“Look at the strong Miss Kid!” shouted a small boy.

“The mighty suffragette!” another fleered.

The girls only laughed, straightened a little, and tugged on.

Some of the Kid’s followers caught Sis Jones, stripped off his coat,
tied a girl’s hat on him with a scarf, threw a girl’s wrap over him,
pulled off his shoes and socks, and dragged him forward into the circle
of light, only to be themselves caught and lashed to trees farther back.

Billy and his helpers rushed about frantically. Redtop mounted his bench
platform and tried to call the meeting to order; but the uproar
increased, and after a moment of vain gesticulating for quiet he stepped
down amid wildest cheers.

Two large boys swung a little negro back and forth, head down,
commanding him to sing. Too frightened to emit a sound he finally
wriggled away from them and fled like a rabbit, with a dozen yelling
buffoons after him.

A third group crowned a tiny girl with evergreen, lifted her to their
close-touching shoulders, and paraded with her around the open space,
shouting, “Madam President!” “I rise to a point of order!” “I have the
floor—” “No, no! It’s the ground!” and a lot more nonsense.

The pranks went on while those in charge conferred apart upon the
question of handling the mob, each in turn bolstering the courage of the
rest.

“Gee whiz! I didn’t expect any of the real thing—voters and mamas,”
Redtop panted as he lunged back after his inauspicious beginning. “What
are we to do?”

“If we fizzle out, the girls will never stop guying us,” Sis Jones
groaned; “they toted almost as many benches as we did.”

“Get a girl to start the meeting; they’re keen on it, and maybe the
fellows wouldn’t give it to a girl so—so in the neck.”

“Where’s Hec? What does he say?”

“I say we’ve got to beat that crowd into respect, or not only the
Progressives will lose their election, but we’ll lose ours.”

“But this is no meeting for the student body,” Redtop urged.

“No. But Barney and Buckman and their crowd know that nearly every one
who will vote for me is mixed up in this playground fight on the side of
the Progressives. The Good Citizens’ Club stands for the Progressives
too.”

“You go speak to them now, Hec,” Redtop urged.

“No, he can’t,” Billy objected. “He’s the principal speaker of the
evening; he must be introduced properly.”

Behind them stood Bess Carter bursting with indignation. “You boys
haven’t the spunk of a flea!” she taunted, and before they could reply
she was standing on the bench gazing fearlessly but silently around on
the mob. Her advent, so sudden and unheralded, touched the most quieting
element of a crowd, its curiosity.

Tall, erect, her dark eyes flashing in the light of the torches, her
beauty enhanced by her air of refinement and womanliness,—her power was
felt by every little hoodlum there as keenly as by the older people.

“Gee! The Queen of Sheba’ll do the trick!” Billy ejaculated softly.

For what seemed to be minutes she stood, motionless except for her
quick-glancing eyes, calmly waiting for perfect silence. It came at
length, and she bowed gracefully and smiled as if she had expected
nothing else.

“Ladies and gentlemen and fellow students: I did not mount this rostrum
to make a speech, only to announce that the meeting is about to begin,
and that we shall expect quiet. For really good Americans this is an
unnecessary request. For any others who may possibly be here we have
behind us real American policemen who will take charge of them.”

She bowed and in a moment was back among the anxious group again, while
the audience clapped and roared, and the high-school boys shouted,
“Hooray for the Queen!” “Bully for her!” and other elegant expressions
that nevertheless held only admiration.

“Bess! What did you say that for? We have no police—”

“Not now, but we’re going to! I never saw such barbarians! I’m going to
telephone for the police!” Before any could stop her she was flying
across the street to find a telephone.

Taking advantage of the lull that followed her speech, Redtop mounted
the bench and in the briefest way announced the programme and introduced
the first speaker, who was Reginald Steele. Hector was to follow him,
and Billy was to be called on for an impromptu speech, when he would
introduce one or two of the girls.

But this programme was never carried out. Before Reginald got to his
“secondly,” two boys sprang at the torches and extinguished them; half a
dozen bunches of firecrackers began to explode in different localities;
and a scream from the wading pool at the same moment completed the
panic.

The long twilight had faded and the scattered park lamps shed only faint
gleams.

“There’s no danger! Everyone go home quietly!” shouted one man. And
another called, “The little chap that screamed fell into the wading
pool. He isn’t hurt, and has gone home.”

In five minutes the playground was deserted and silent under the quiet
stars. Billy remained to the last, searching in vain for Erminie. He had
seen her there, and expected her to wait for him. On a sudden impulse he
decided to go across to her home.

As he neared the house he saw her standing under the porch light with
Jim Barney. Her face was in the shadow, and he could not hear their
words; but he knew from their low, tense tones and Jim’s eager, bending
attitude, that their conversation was important.

Billy watched them an instant, dazed and uncertain, yet tormented by the
tender pleading in an occasional tone that floated out to him in
Erminie’s voice. But eavesdropping Billy despised; and as soon as he
could recover himself he turned away, his disappointment at the utter
failure of the meeting pushed to insignificance by this puzzling,
sinister, covert situation that included both Erminie and Jim. Billy was
utterly perplexed. What could she mean?

Slowly, his feet weighing tons, he plodded home, and entered to find the
telephone ringing.

He hurried to take down the receiver that the household might not be
disturbed. “Who is it?”

“Erminie,” came back over the wire. “Oh, Billy, I’m so glad to get you!”

“Yes?” Billy could not keep the coldness out of his voice. He was
hearing again the tender eagerness in her tone as the Kid bent over her
twenty minutes before.

“Oh, I don’t wonder you speak in that Alaska voice, Billy; but you don’t
know everything. Billy, dear, won’t you trust me? Just for a few days?”

“I—I’d like to,” he sent back huskily over the wire. Even at that
distance he could feel her power over him, hear the caress in each word.

“You may, Billy. And you won’t be sorry. Good-night.”

Without another word she hung up, leaving Billy a trifle comforted but
more perplexed than ever.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                               CHAPTER V

                        ERMINIE FUMBLES THE GAME


TWO weeks later came the annual Junior picnic. It was a variation this
year in being set for evening. They had chartered a steamer and were to
stop at one of the wildest points on A-mo-té Island.

There was merely a little clearing, with one or two rustic pavilions for
shelter against rain, and the dancing platform. This last was rated the
best out-of-doors dancing floor anywhere around the city or its suburbs,
and was correspondingly popular with young people.

Billy started off in fine spirits with a basket his mother had prepared,
and a proud feeling that he would not be ashamed to open it in the
presence of any girl. He had begged Erminie to let him bring the
luncheon for the two of them; and when he met her as agreed at the
trolley line transfer point, care-free, erect and strong, his eyes
shining with anticipation, it was little wonder that he saw an answering
look of pleasure and pride in her eyes. He was a young man any girl
might feel it a privilege to know; better still, older and deeper-seeing
ones, mothers, would turn to observe him and wish their own sons might
be like him.

“On time, Erminie!” he greeted gayly as he helped her from the car
almost before it came to a stop. “Good girl!”

“Isn’t it perfect?” She met his frank gaze cordially. “Just warm enough,
and the moon is full.”

The week had been a hard one for her. She had struggled to hold the
goodwill of Jim Barney without allowing him the familiarities he had
once enjoyed; familiarities she would allow no boy after knowing Billy.
She was anxious that Billy’s side in both school and playground politics
should win, but she knew the only way she could help him was to remain
good friends with Jim.

She used her utmost subtlety to exact from him a pledge of civility
toward Billy and Hector, and found this was the hardest bit of
management she had ever undertaken. The Kid was as keen as she was, and
had a half womanish intuition that matched her own. And Erminie could no
longer juggle with the truth as formerly; it hurt her. When taxed with
undue interest in Billy, her denials did not ring true; and her witty
sallies ridiculing Jim were half-hearted. Had he been less in love, or
Erminie less than altogether beautiful and charming, she would have made
no impression.

Billy had looked forward to this day as one of reckoning. With this in
view he had insisted that Erminie go to the picnic with him openly.
“Don’t you frame up to go with Jim,” he had whispered days before, in a
moment of waiting in the rain for a car at the school corner; “I won’t
stand for it this time; I’ve things to say to you.”

“Oh! It’s good to be with you once more, just us two,” she said, as they
went aboard, and forward to the very peak of the bow of the steamer.

But there was too much hilarity for any two, however absorbed, to remain
unnoticed.

“Oh, here you are, Fishie!” one jolly girl shouted, and bore down on
them, dragging in her train others with boys following. “We don’t need
spoons at this picnic! Come on, you—the boys are going to get the band
to play so we can dance.” She pulled Erminie to her feet; and shortly
two or three dozen couple were whirling around on the crowded deck.

Erminie and Billy took a turn or two and dropped out, preferring to wait
for the ampler room and smoother floor of the pavilion. Yet when they
sought their places forward again, and the music and preoccupation of
the dancers isolated them almost as much as walls would have done,
neither of them could speak of what was uppermost in both minds. The
hour and the surroundings were not propitious.

Billy fretted inwardly. There was much to say. She must know all his
plans; all he had thought and dreamed since that evening—was it only a
few days ago?—in the park, that evening that had changed all his life.
Still these were serious matters, even sacred. He could not bring
himself to mention them here, where unsympathetic eyes might read his
emotions in his face; he was not an adept at hiding them as Erminie was.

When the hour’s trip was nearly over she gave him a quick nudge with her
arm. “There’s Jim!” She looked down the stairway.

“Where? I thought you said he wasn’t coming.”

“So I did. He said he had work to do.”

“Work!” Billy’s tone held a fine scorn. “Did you think any one would
stay away for that? I wouldn’t. I’ve worked in our garden till nearly
ten o’clock some of the nights this week, so I might feel free for
to-day. I didn’t know till yesterday it was changed to an evening
affair.”

But Erminie was not heeding. “Billy, you must not let Jim see—”

“Jim be hanged! You’ve put me off for days with that plea. I’m not
afraid of the Kid, I—”

“Oh, Billy! Won’t you listen—”

“Not to one word. I brought you to this picnic; I have the lunch, and
you’re going to sit it out with me while we eat, and dance with me, and
go home—”

While he spoke, Jim and Walter Buckman came up from the lower deck, in
animated discussion of some matter that pleased them both. The dancers
had stopped, and nearly all were standing in groups at the rail,
watching the shore come nearer as the puffing craft approached the
landing.

“Oh, you Fishie!” Jim sang out on seeing her. “You’re going to feed with
Buck and me; we’ve got the grub and—”

Billy rose, and every vestige of his light good humor faded; was
replaced by a sternness Jim had never seen. “Miss Fisher has consented
to be my partner for the evening; and I also have the—the grub.” Erminie
herself could not have edged a sarcasm with finer scorn than Billy threw
into his last word.

Jim eyed him in surprise for a second, then broke out in a loud voice,
“Well, Miss Fisher belongs to—” His eyes burned red and his hands
clenched involuntarily.

His companion though not as bright was more prudent than Jim; also he
was selfish; he wanted the presidency, and knew that open hostility in
any direction endangered his chances. “Come off, Kid! You always kick in
for fair play.” And ingratiatingly bowing to Erminie, “Probably Miss
Fisher was engaged to Mr. Bennett first.”

“Mr. Bennett nothing! By jiminy!—”

But Erminie interrupted glibly. “I’ve expected to come to this picnic
with Billy ever since I knew there was to be one.”

“But I told you—”

She laughed nervously. “Jim Barney, you’ve told me a good many things
lately; but if you are Boss of the Fifth Avenue High you’re not my
boss.”

The words were not out of her mouth before she knew that all of her plot
and subterfuge of the past weeks was lost. Daily her repugnance to Jim
and his methods had been growing. She had tolerated, wheedled him, only
that it might be easier for Billy till the end of the term. Now, with
that day only two weeks off, she had in a moment undone all she had
gained.

Yet even in that instant of dismay she was filled with relief. She need
dissemble no more. She could be straight with Billy and fight Jim in the
open. She would tell Bess Carter a little—what she needed to tell, join
the Progressives, and be with those she believed were doing well.

Jim was angry through and through, and too astonished to speak
immediately; and in the moment of his hesitancy Walter Buckman led him
away.

“Billy! Billy!” Erminie whispered as she started up. “You don’t know
what an awful thing I’ve done!”

“You’ve done what I wished you would do long ago, and I’ll stand for
whatever happens.” A proud light shone in his eye that she saw others
besides herself could read.

“I’m going to speak to Bess Carter,—tell her that I’ll work with her.
Anyway it will be better if I’m not seen with you till the Kid’s mad
cools off.”

She started across the deck but he detained her. “Erminie! Did you
promise Jim you’d come—come here with—”

“No, Billy, he took it for granted. I laughed and let it go so, for that
was my game then. But—oh, Billy! I’ve fumbled everything! And it’s going
to be hard for you when I was trying to make it—”

“Never mind me. I can fight my own battles.”

The steamer bumped the wharf, lurching the standing ones against one
another; and the merry confusion of disembarking drove all serious
matters to cover of silence. The few teachers, making as little as
possible of their duties as chaperones, let the young people manage
things for themselves.

Dinner was the first consideration; and as no one there knew quite so
much about coffee as Reginald Steele and Billy, that was their job,
which occupied them wholly, together with Bess Carter, skilled in
cookery through use of the tiny rock fireplace on the bank of Runa Creek
in “good old California.”

Erminie, who had no more idea of how to make coffee for three hundred
than she had concerning heavenly ambrosia, hovered close to the three,
anxious to tell Bess of her change of heart, yet more anxious to keep
away from Jim Barney, and most of all to be near Billy, who meant
strength and deliverance to her.

It was early June and the sun still high at seven o’clock, when they
began dinner. In groups of several, with perhaps fifty sitting in
comfort at the long table in the bark-roofed pavilion, but oftenest in
couples seated apart in the many nooks of the small clearing, they
chattered and feasted, punctuating the meal with many noisy pranks and
repeated yells.

Erminie had expected this to be the moment for the quiet talk with
Billy. No less had he looked forward to it; but the coffee pots were an
unanticipated tyranny. The making did not end the care. The pots were
not large enough, and more water had to be heated, and a second lot made
for the thirsty crowd. Billy had barely spread his cloth, with Erminie’s
help laid out the contents of his attractive basket, when the call came;
and his time till all the rest were satisfied, was spent in running back
and forth, bolting sandwiches on the way.

And so it happened that dinner was over and the fiddlers already calling
eager feet, while Billy was finishing his meal.

“It’s too bad, Billy! You let every one impose on you.”

“No matter. You shall be next. Impose on me as much as you like. Is it
dancing?”

“Nothing doing. You like that as well as I do.”

“Let’s try it then. You can cook up something later in the imposition
line.”

They piled the remnants of the dainty meal into the basket and went to
the pavilion.

The music, the perfect evening, all conditions were auspicious for
restless young creatures who inevitably love the motion and harmony of
dancing; and Erminie and Billy enjoyed it more than most people do, for
they were both musical and danced well.

It was an “informal” to-night, with no programmes, each making
engagements for but two or three dances ahead. Billy wished he did not
have to dance with any one but Erminie; indeed he did sit out most of
the dances he did not have with her; sat and watched her as she whirled
by him, scarcely touching the floor, it seemed. In the earlier evening
he thought he wanted nothing else but the chance to take her away by
herself and talk; but the music and the motion intoxicated both of them,
and when he held her in his arms, in their favorite dance, each movement
so attuned that they felt as one being, he wished they might glide on
and on, with no thought of time.

But musicians tire if dancers do not; and when at last the best dance of
all stopped abruptly he drew her away. The boys had gone variously
dressed, and as the evening was warm many of them, among others Billy,
had laid aside their coats.

“You must get your coat, Billy,” Erminie warned as they went out of the
pavilion. “Mine too. I hung them both on that big cedar. I’ll walk on.”

When he went to find them he noticed some one start hastily away from
the tree and slip around the other side. He wondered a little why any
one should be there instead of dancing, but he was too absorbed with
Erminie to think long of anything else; and he ran back to her, putting
on his coat as he went.

“Is it all right?” he asked as he helped her on with hers.

“Yes. Did you think it had changed color?”

“I might have taken the wrong one, you know.”

“Billy, let’s go round by those trees to a place I know that’s
beautiful,—high above the water.”

“That goes. Is it far? We mustn’t be late to the boat.”

“Only a little way, a block or two. We can hear the whistle and run.”

They followed a smooth trail to a jutting point where the underbrush had
been cut and a rustic seat placed to catch the full beauty of the view.

The warm fragrance of the evening, the pulsing melodies that floated to
them softened by distance and foliage, the brilliant moon silvering the
broad lake that splashed softly at their feet, the ghostly mountain in
the south looming into the sky till it seemed a white pathway right into
heaven itself,—it is little wonder that they sat silent, entranced for a
moment, each thrilled by the spell of the night.

Erminie was the first to speak. “Billy, I can’t tell you how sorry I am
for that break.”

“I’m glad.”

“It’s something terrible. Jim’ll make you pay for it,—me too, for he
isn’t above hurting a girl; but I deserve it, and—”

Billy turned, quickly moving closer. “Erminie, you must not worry about
this thing any longer. He’ll have to reckon with me on more than one
count. I—hoped to get through the year without a clash, but I see it’s
bound to come; when it does I’ll get in your score too.”

“No, no, Billy! You mustn’t fight him! He’ll say things, do things that
will lose Hector the vote because you are his cousin. He’ll—” She broke
off suddenly and covered her face with her hands.

Billy reached over and drew one hand down in his own. “Erminie!” His
voice was tender. “I can’t let you worry about this. You must tell me
just why you are afraid of him, so I won’t be doing things in the dark.”

She lifted her face to the moonlight and sighed; and Billy thought she
had never been so lovely, never so womanly. “Oh, Billy!” There was a
catch in her voice that made his hand close quickly on hers. “Before I
knew you I thought it great fun to be engaged to several boys at
once—Jim was one of them. It was like a game, and—”

“Yes?” he prompted, and did not know that his grasp of her hand
loosened.

“I’m ashamed to tell about it now, but I thought it all right then. I
used to like to see how the different ones did it, to see if I could
catch the difficult ones—” She stopped again, divining Billy’s
disapprobation; but when he did not speak she continued:

“I thought it fun to watch them get jealous of each other; to plan to
keep them apart or let them meet, whichever I was in the mood for at the
time.”

“What did your mother say? Did she know?” Billy asked after an instant
of silence.

“Oh, yes. I used to tell her a lot. It was about all the pleasure she
had,—poor ma! Her life’s awfully dull. Hearing about my courting affairs
keeps her sort of waked up.”

“Did she approve?”

Erminie laughed at his solemn tone. “Sure. She said it was all good
practice; would teach me how to land big game when it came my way.”

Another and a longer silence awed the girl. Billy had no idea that the
seconds were ticking by interminably to her; he was trying to place in
his mind the Erminie just revealed to him. Her measure of life was so
different from any he knew; her mother so—so impossible as a mother,
repelled him as a travesty on womanhood. Yet recalling her from his few
glimpses he could not help a feeling of pity mingling with his
condemnation.

It was natural, though he could not have told why, that he should blame
Erminie’s mother, her father, any one and every one rather than herself.
She was near him. She was beautiful,—to-night with the calm moon
glorifying, etherealizing her face, more than ever beautiful,—and she
could not help doing things differently from—his sister, for instance,
who had been so differently reared.

“Billy! Why don’t you talk to me? Don’t look off at nothing as if I were
not on earth! I’m not like that now. I know you, and—”

He took her hand again in the closer clasp, and she saw a new look in
his face, the look his mother saw when they discussed together the deep
things of life. “Erminie, I have been trying to see your life as you see
it. You know my mother is—she talks things over with me—the things a
chap needs to know before he starts out for himself; and I have come to
see pretty deep into—into the sort of thing that’s between us,
engagements and that; what it means to one’s whole life, what it means
to the race.”

“Why, Billy! Billy! Does your mother talk to you of such things?”

He smiled innocently at her vehemence. “Why not? My father is dead; who
would tell me things if she didn’t?”

She looked out over the shimmering moon-track on the water. “I—I never
heard of such a thing.”

“Do you think the Creator makes anything bad?”

“Why—why I suppose not,” she returned, wonderingly.

“That’s the point; He doesn’t. It’s only us that make wrong out of his
creations.”

A shrill whistle startled them.

“Billy! It can’t be time to go!” She started up.

“That must be the first whistle.” He looked at his watch and calmly
pulled her back to the seat. “It’s only ten; ten-thirty is leaving time.
If we start ten minutes before we’ll have scads of time.” He dropped his
watch back into his coat pocket.

“That’s no place to carry a watch,” she chaffed as they readjusted
themselves.

“Yes, it is, for I’m such a kid for dropping it when I bend over
anything, a fire for instance. And then my coat is always off.”

They talked on, but of other matters. Both were relieved at the
interruption of the tense moment, yet Erminie had a regret she could not
understand. More than ever Billy attracted her because of his larger,
deeper knowledge. He knew the forbidden things, things she only
whispered about, yet on his lips they had a dignity, a purity unbounded.
He never made silly jokes where reverence was due, yet never went out of
his way to avoid anything that came in the natural course of
conversation. He was the only one she knew who did this; and she wished
she, too, might have such an open mind toward life.

“Billy! The music has stopped!” She rose hastily and started down the
path.

“Oh, I guess it’s only the wait between dances.” But he was suddenly
conscious that it had been long, and hurried after her.

They turned the point where the pavilion came to view to see it looming
dark and deserted. From the wharf the noise of embarking came warningly.

“Gee! They’re going!” Billy caught her hand and ran with her down the
steep hill.

But they were too late. When first they started, the steamer was setting
off. Now she was well out in the lake, headed northward.

Billy called at the top of his voice; and Erminie added her frantic
shriek to his; but the band was playing, the young people shouting and
“jollying,” and no one heard. The two could hear sudden gusts of
laughter rising above the music, and after that the steady rhythm and
beat of the instruments.

“Oh, Billy, it’s no use!” Erminie sobbed, as the boat grew smaller and
smaller on the gray water.

“I guess we’re in for a night of it on a desert island.”

They faced each other there in the moonlight, silent, wondering,
perplexed.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                               CHAPTER VI

                          THE REVEALING NIGHT


FOR minutes they stood looking after the boat. They could not believe it
true. Left on the island, far from any habitation! It seemed as if some
one _must_ miss them, as if the steamer would surely come chugging back
after them.

But instead it went farther and farther away, and presently out of
sight.

As the last gleam of light disappeared around a far point of land,
Erminie turned in dismay.

“Oh, Billy, do you know the way to the Beckets’?”

“Who are they? I never heard of them.”

“They live on this island, but I don’t know the direction.”

“The island is five miles long and wooded like a jungle. We might wander
in a circle for hours and not get five hundred yards from where we
started.” Billy spoke calmly and rather absently. He was sizing up the
situation, trying to see the best way out of it. While they talked,
clouds that had been earlier hovering on the horizon, now joined and
veiled the moon.

“Gee! If Luna goes back on us we’ll have to give up travel by land.”

“Perhaps there’s a boat—canoe or rowboat.”

“I’ll see. You stay here a minute—”

She caught his hand. “Billy! If you leave me I’ll scream; and if I do
that I’ll faint, I know I will. There may be wild cats!”

Billy laid an impressive hand on her arm. “Kid, there are no wild
animals about here. We’re just as safe here as anywhere. And whatever
comes, we’ve got to buck up and take it, haven’t we?”

“Ye-es, I suppose so. Oh, I’ll try to be game if—if only you won’t leave
me, Billy.”

“All right. It’s partnership, then. Come on.”

They went to the wharf and skirted the lake up and down a few steps, but
found nothing.

“Perhaps that path we took leads to some house,” Erminie suggested.

They climbed the hill to the pavilions again, and followed the path; but
it ended in the little clearing where they had sat a few minutes
before—hours it seemed to Billy.

“Possibly there’s some other trail leading off from the park; let’s
investigate.”

They went back, and slowly, and with many scratches from blackberry
vines, Billy leading, they felt their way around it, diving into the
dense thickets at each promising bit of openness, only to be met after a
few steps with close-woven vines, breast-high ferns braided like a net,
or fallen logs covered with briers.

Erminie stumbled and almost fell; rose pluckily before Billy could reach
her; tried again; fell prone the next time, and was not quite on her
feet when he came.

“Erminie, you can’t stand this. We’ll have to give it up. It’s so dark
anyway with the moon hidden that if there was a path we’d likely miss
it.”

“What then, Billy? We can’t give up trying.”

“Suppose we try the shore again. Perhaps we can make it that way to some
house.”

She agreed, and they went to the water’s edge and started north. But
their progress was stopped by the very promontory from which, high
above, they had looked out on the moonlit lake. The bank rose
perpendicularly from the water, which was deep here; and the only way to
proceed was to climb back to the cleared space and down on the other
side, a course they had already proved unfeasible.

Next they tried the southern way. Unlike the shores of salt water, there
was no beach to be bared by lowering tides; and they could only pick
their way along shore at the edges of the same dense growth as above, a
growth that in spots even trespassed on the water.

They succeeded in going some distance; and once were cheered by
discovering an unmistakable path; but when they had followed it a little
distance it grew less plain, and broke into half a dozen blind trails
which all ended in the blank wall of green.

They tried one or two of these, their courage and Erminie’s strength
growing less with each effort.

“What made trails like these, I wonder?” Billy asked, half to himself.

“Could they be deer trails? There were ever so many on the island years
ago; dad used to come here to hunt.”

“Whatever they are they aren’t for us.” Billy looked at his watch.
“Twelve o’clock! We’ve been thrashing round for nearly two hours, and
got nowhere; and you’re all in, Erminie. We must go back to the picnic
ground and think out some other scheme.”

Erminie made no objection. She was too weary and frightened to do
anything but fall in with his suggestions. Billy himself, as perplexed
as she was, and with the added weight of responsibility for her safety,
felt the need of a little respite for fresh planning.

In silence they climbed the hill again, each thankful for the broad
smooth path that led up from the steamer landing.

“The first thing is a snack, Erminie. It’s a great thing for us that my
mother’s eyes are bigger than our appetites,—at least for a first
trial.”

He left her in the pavilion and went to look for his basket, but it was
gone. Puzzled and more weary than he knew till this fresh disappointment
revealed it, he dropped to the ground for an instant in sheer
discouragement. What next? They would have to remain all night,—there
was no other way. And what would that mean?

For himself it did not matter; he would tell his people just how it
happened, and they would believe him; they always did. But Erminie—would
other people—strangers—believe? Think as well of her as before? Would
her father——Her father! What would he say? Billy knew he was a violent
man; what would he do?

She called him, and there was a pitiful note of distress in her voice
that warned Billy he must not leave her alone. “I’m coming!” he
answered, and sprang up, aroused by her need to fresh action and a
semblance of cheer. “You can’t shake me, you see.” He ran up the steps
toward her.

“I’m so afraid when you are not near me, Billy.” Her voice trembled.

“I couldn’t find our basket. I guess Mumps or some of them thought I had
forgotten it, and took it along.”

A sudden gust shook the trees above them, and the noise coming so
unexpectedly on the dead quiet of the cloudy night, startled them.

“It’s going to rain; and you’re shivering, too,” he added as he took her
outstretched hand at the top of the steps. “The first thing to do is to
make a fire.”

“Can you? Have you any matches?”

“No, but I guess there will be some coals under the ashes.”

They went down and raked over the fireplace, but the boys had obeyed the
rules only too well; every vestige of live coal was gone.

For a minute they stood speechless, looking out over the dark and angry
water. There seemed to Erminie absolutely nothing further to be done.
She was worn and faint, and with difficulty restrained her tears.

“There’s nothing for it but to try to make a fire camp fashion. It will
be tough work, even if it doesn’t rain.”

As if in answer to this last, another gust swept through the trees,
louder than the first.

“Erminie, you’re just all right. You’ve never once hinted that I was the
boss slob to get you into this.”

“Why, Billy, I wouldn’t think of such a thing. I saw as plain as you
that half-past ten was the leaving hour. It’s the fault of the steamer
people; or——Are you sure your watch is right?”

“Yes. It’s never failed yet. My brother Hal said it was guaranteed. He
gave it to me. It hasn’t varied a minute in two months. But this isn’t
work. You go back and cuddle as close in that corner as you can, little
girl, and try to keep warm, while I see what I can do with my jack
knife. Here’s a time when a fellow that smokes has the advantage.”

“I don’t see why he couldn’t carry matches if he didn’t smoke.”

“I know one chump that will after this.”

But Erminie did not settle to uselessness.

“While you’re trying to make a fire I’ll see what was shaken out of the
tablecloth. I saw them hold it over this corner; and if we could find a
roll or a bit of meat,—you wouldn’t mind eating scraps just about now,
would you, Billy?”

The cheer that came into her tone with the prospect of something to do
heartened Billy as much as herself. “Mind? I could eat the shell right
off the eggs. You’re a bright kid, you are, all right.”

“Oh, I’m sure it will be something better than egg-shells.”

“Go to it. You may find a course dinner there in the grass, or at least
the nice brown tint on one of Bess Carter’s biscuits.”

She laughed, which pleased him; and he went to a spot in the path where
he remembered to have stubbed his toe on a projecting rock, intending to
get it for a flint. But he had barely found it when she called to him.

“Billy! Billy! I’ve found a match-box with one match in it.”

“Bully! We’re saved!” He was by her side in a second.

“But _one_ match,—it’s—”

“It’s as good as ten.”

He was woodsman enough to succeed with his fire very quickly.

“How did you come to be so clever, Billy?”

She watched him intently as he prepared his gathered paper, twigs, bits
of bark, and boughs; and struck his precious match within the shelter of
his coat.

Soon a crackling blaze cheered and warmed them. And when Erminie found
some sandwiches and a few bits of ham thrown away in its wrappings of
oiled paper, they felt as if a second feast had been like manna dropped
from heaven to save them. The moon broke through the clouds for a
minute, and Billy, rummaging in the grass, found the discarded coffee
sack.

“Good enough! Hot coffee in five minutes!” he called softly. Without
realizing it they had not spoken really aloud. Unconsciously they felt
and acted as if a thousand sentient, invisible beings surrounded them,
hearing and seeing their every word and move.

Billy found a lard pail, one among the many thrown away, washed it, saw
it did not leak, and put the coffee to boil a second time. When a few
minutes later they drank it, without sugar or cream, they thought it
better than any coffee they had ever tasted before.

With hunger banished and the cheer of the warm fire, the situation
seemed less direful; and they sat with feet to the embers and talked
more calmly.

“Don’t you think a steamer will be along early in the morning, Billy?”

“I don’t know the Sunday schedule very well. I think they stop here only
for picnic parties; but I shall tie my handkerchief to the signal pole;
maybe she’ll see it out there if she has a regular run to town.”

“There’ll be the Sunday picnics! But we don’t want—we must not be seen
by—by anybody here.”

The tone of desperation told him that she had waked to the fact that had
troubled him ever since he knew they were left,—what might be said when
their plight became known.

“It’s lucky to-morrow’s Sunday; it needn’t be known at school,” he
comforted.

“How can it be helped?”

“If we can’t get a steamer in the early morning you can hide in the
brush by the wharf till the boat discharges her passengers; and when
they are climbing the hill, you step into the path and head for the
steamer. No one will know that you are not one of them, and the steamer
people will think you came only for the boat ride, or—oh, they won’t
notice you any way.”

“But the picnickers, Billy; they’ll know I don’t belong—”

“Sure they won’t. At those promiscuous public picnics half are strangers
to the rest.”

“But you, Billy? When—?”

“Don’t worry about this kid. If we’re not seen together, no one will be
able to say certainly that we were here. You just ’phone my mother that
I’m safe—” He stopped suddenly, his face pale with another thought which
he did not voice,—her people might be seeking her, telephoning to the
pupils, the police. That would mean certain disclosure of the whole
situation. “Your mother will be having a bad time, I’m afraid,” he said
calmly.

To his consternation Erminie showed no concern. “Oh, no; ma won’t worry.
She’ll think I’ve gone home with one of the girls.”

“Is it—is it often—that way? Doesn’t she know where you go?”

“Not to which house. I’ve a lot of chums, most of them out of school;
and their young men—when I don’t have one of my own—take us to the
theatre, and to supper afterwards; and it’s late then; and if I stay
with the girl the young fellow doesn’t have to make another trip taking
me home.”

Billy was silent, wondering what his mother would think of a girl who
went about thus. It revealed to him a new sort of girl-life. In his
boyhood town of Vina such a situation as this could not have happened;
and in his city life he had known intimately only the cherished and
protected daughters of careful parents.

His own evenings were full of boyish things, meetings, study, decorous
calls, and work or play at home. His attendance at the theatre was rare,
either in school groups or with his mother, or alone, high among the
“gallery gods.” He tried to put out of mind the feeling of “commonness”
that Erminie’s story gave him.

As if she divined his thought, she said a little plaintively, “I know
lots of mothers don’t think it nice for girls to run about so; but mine
always told me to go ahead and have a good time while I could. When I am
married, she says, all such fun will be over.”

“Well, it won’t be!” Billy’s vehemence startled her. “But it will be a
long time before we can be married; I’ve got to learn how to earn a
living first. But it shall be a good enough living to include a little
fun.”

“Billy!” Surprise, gratitude, and besides these a more genuine and
womanly emotion than she had ever experienced, came out in the single
word. “Billy, what do you mean?”

“Mean? Why, our marriage of course. At first I felt badly because you
would have to wait so long; but I don’t any more. I had a good chin with
my mother. You and I—we’ll both of us be all the better for waiting
and—learning things.”

For a time Erminie sat quite still save for absently stirring the ashes
with a twig. When she did speak her voice was low, with a half timid
note in it that touched Billy. “How splendid you are, Billy! Too good
for me. I didn’t dream you thought that—that we were engaged.”

“Gee! How else could I save you from Alvin Short?”

“But, Billy, that—that is not exactly a reason for—for—”

“Don’t you care for me? Wasn’t that what you meant that night I—I kissed
you?”

“Oh, yes, I care for you, Billy; ever so much; but I never got as far as
an engagement. I—”

“But that kiss—”

“Oh, I just thought you kissed me because—well—because—Oh, Billy, do you
tell your mother everything?”

He caught the anxiety in her speech, and wondered if kisses of the sort
he had given her were so common in her life that she could dismiss them
with merely a “because.” But his reply was to her question only.

“’Most everything. You see I’m just the common transparent sort,—she
reads me anyway. But of course I didn’t tell her about you; that’s your
secret. I shall not tell that till you give me leave.”

She caught up his hand in both her own. “I believe you’re the best boy
that ever lived.”

“Boy! That’s just what I am! And you need a man, right now, to protect
you.”

“You are doing it,—doing it better than any man I ever knew.”

He threw on some more wood. “I’ll have to hunt fuel in a minute,” he
said, and stirred the fire to a blaze.

“What did your mother say that changed your mind about—about—”

“About waiting to get married?” he finished as she hesitated, and
repeated much of the conversation prompted by the pinching of the
geranium buds.

Erminie was silent again, and Billy waited on her mood. When she did
speak her words were plaintive and halting. “Billy,—Billy, dear, it
would be a very wrong thing for you to marry me. I am older, anyway, and
it would wreck your life to be hampered with a—a wife when you’re so
young. Perhaps—perhaps there’ll be—”

“Perhaps children,” he finished fearlessly. “I’ve thought that all out;
but you need me to take care of you; and after—this—this night, it’s got
to be.”

“Oh! oh!” She cowered a little closer. “People won’t know of—of this—”
She put her hand over her eyes and shivered.

“They may; and—”

“It’s awful!” she burst out. “Just because an accident happens, for
people to talk—say bad things about us.”

“They won’t think it an accident, Erminie. Don’t you see? I have a
watch—all our set know how foolishly I’ve bragged about it. We had our
strict orders not to go out of sight—”

“We weren’t out of sight,—not in the day-time anyway.”

“And to be on hand at the ten-thirty whistle.”

“But it wasn’t ten-thirty; it was ten.”

“We can’t make folks believe that.”

A sudden dash of rain fell upon them and made the fire sputter.

“Gee!” Billy sprang up and threw on the last of the wood, arranging it
to cover the heart of the fire from the rain. “Get under shelter, quick!
We’re in for a heavy shower.”

She stood, but did not move away. “Aren’t you coming too?”

“No. I must keep up the fire. Go and get under the table; that will be
more sheltered. Here! Tie my handkerchief around your neck.”

There was a new insistence in his words. She obeyed as a little child,
and he hastened to the fringing woods. He remembered where he had seen a
fallen tree, and a lot of loose bark, and chips that might have been
hewn from the rough beams that supported the floor of the pavilion.

But he did not touch any of these. Instead he whipped out his knife and
began to slash at a fir that was thrashing in the rising wind. He worked
fast, piling branches till he had all he could carry, when he took them
to the pavilion where Erminie sat huddled on a seat.

“That won’t go, kid! You’ve got to obey orders. Here!”

He threw down the branches and began to strip off the soft tips.

“Let me help you, Billy.” She set at it, glad of action.

“There!” He piled them under the table, spread them smoothly, and stood
back. “In with you! I’ll have to spread the covers. You can’t do it for
yourself,—not in this boarding-house.”

She was not deceived by his jocularity, but something compelled her to
submit without words. She lay down in the sweet-smelling litter, and he
covered her thick with the boughs.

“Sorry my blankets are so heavy, but they’re the best the house
affords.”

“But where is your—what will you do, Billy? You must be awfully tired.”

“I’d be a nice lad to go to sleep now, wouldn’t I? The fire must be kept
up, the wolves scared away; bears, too, and—”

“Oh, Billy, don’t!” Her self-control broke, and she began to cry.

“Say! Kid! If you do that I’ll run away! I’ll jump into the drink! I can
fight a bear, but I can’t stand salt water—not that sort!”

He reached down, felt for her face, and patted her cheek. “You’ve been
as plucky as— Do you know, I really can’t—”

What in Cain was the matter with him? Would he snivel too? Right there!
Before her? He scorned himself silently, not knowing that the situation
and her pitiful tears were enough to break an older and calmer fellow
than he was.

“There, Billy! Good boy! I’m all right now. I won’t cry another tear.
Why should I? I have the best, the bravest—”

“Cut it out! I’m the fool that got you left.”

He ran off with her half laughing challenge to fate ringing in his ears.
“Billy, I almost don’t care. It’s awfully grand to see any one prove all
to the good the way you do.”

Back to the chips and the bark he hurried, and had hard work to nurse
his fire in the rain. Only by a constant piling of the dried fir
branches that he found around the prostrate tree did he defy the
shower,—which was harder now,—and keep the blaze going till it passed.
When at last the clouds broke and the moon appeared it was behind the
hill, leaving the little clearing in the shadow; but a faint tinge of
lighter gray in the east heralded the dawn.

Worn with anxiety more than with effort, Billy dragged some dryer limbs
from under the tree, finding them by feeling rather than by sight, as
indeed he had done nearly everything that night. After banking his fire
high with bark, he shook his wet cap and put it to dry, threw open his
wet coat to the heat, and prepared to watch out the rest of the short
night.

Soon an irresistible drowsiness overtook him. He fought desperately, not
wishing to stir about lest he should keep Erminie awake. In the midst of
a moment that was perilously near unconsciousness, she called:

“The signal, Billy! You forgot it. Here’s the handkerchief.”

“Gee whiz!” He sprang up and went to her. “My forgettery deserves a
medal. You should be proud to—”

“Stop calling yourself names, my—”

“It’s mean to take it,” he interrupted, “but I have nothing else.”

“I don’t need it. I am as warm as a kitten in a feather pillow. It was a
shame to wake you.”

“Wake! Do you think I’d sleep when—” He stopped, recalling how near he
had come to the Land of Nod.

“But you must,—a little anyway. I’m not afraid any more.” She reached
the handkerchief up to him, and he took it, holding and patting her hand
a second before he went on. “Good girl! You make a jolly fine pal all
right. I’ll bank on you.”

With those words still on his lips as he ran down the path to the wharf,
suddenly before him rose the face of May Nell. Something tugged at him,
gave him a queer feeling that he could not understand. He wished
Erminie’s mother had been like Mrs. Smith, that Erminie might know all
the beautiful things May Nell knew, might look out on life with May
Nell’s clear, loving vision of the soul of things.

Even as he thought, and chided himself for it, while he fixed the tiny,
fluttering signal, a rosy light in the east told him the night was
going, and deliverance near.

Another dilemma presented itself—suppose a steamer should answer his
signal, what would the crew, the scattering passengers, think if Erminie
came aboard alone at that early hour? Could she do it and not cause
comment? A story for the papers perhaps?

With this in mind he ran back, thinking to ask her; but no words greeted
his noisy steps, and he knew she must be asleep at last. He threw
himself on the ground before the ash-covered embers and in five minutes
he also was lost to his troubles.

He had taken the precaution to face the east in such away that the sun,
surmounting some tall firs, would waken him as nearly as he could guess
at about six o’clock. As the first ray struck into his eye he started up
to find it nearer seven, though but for his watch and the dancing,
diamond-tipped ripples in the track of the morning sun, he would have
declared he had not slept five minutes.

“Half an hour for breakfast!” he called cheerily. Erminie answered, and
soon came down to him.

At once Billy told her his latest worry, and asked her opinion.

“I believe I’d better risk it. If the captain says anything, I’ll tell
him I got left. It will be about nine when I get home, and people I know
won’t be out so early.”

“Then we’ll have another dish of manna, and—”

A whistle interrupted Billy.

“There she is now! What’s got into my watch? That’s been the joker all
the time.”

“Do you suppose she’ll stop, Billy?” Erminie had already started down
the hill.

“You’ll have to run for it. Got any money?” While he spoke he thrust a
dollar in her hand and she flew down the path out of his sight.

He heard the signal to stop, heard the mate cry “All aboard!” as usual
before the gang plank was lowered, and after a moment heard the vessel
puff her way out on her course again.

When he was certain that Erminie was off he realized, as not before, his
great fatigue. A search by morning light revealed many toothsome bits of
picnic dainties in the high, clean grass, which he gathered, an egg in
an unbroken shell, some butter in a covered jelly glass, and a bun which
he toasted by the coals.

They did not taste very good. In spite of sunshine he was depressed. The
night had revealed Erminie in a way that almost repelled him at the
time; but now that she was gone she seemed nearer and dearer than ever
before.

After eating, and raking out the fire, he carefully removed all traces
of Erminie’s bed to a nook well hidden in the brush, and threw himself
down on it to rest. He did not expect to sleep,—he had too much that was
exciting to think of; but hardly had he touched his bed of fir when
Morpheus claimed him. He heard nothing till the advent of noisy
picnickers arriving on the four o’clock steamer, when he jumped up,
drowsy still, skirted the park carefully, and barely made the steamer in
time.

At half-past five, dishevelled and haggard, he walked into his mother’s
room.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                              CHAPTER VII

                    “DO YOUR BEST AND THEN——WHISTLE”


“BILLY! My son!” Mrs. Bennett started forward as he opened her door, and
threw her arms around his neck.

“Did she—did a girl telephone you that I was all right, mother?”

“Yes. This morning. She said you were detained, but did not tell me
where or why.”

“What else did she say?”

“Nothing, but hung up the receiver before I could ask any questions.
Very odd, I thought; certainly not courteous.”

“Mother, don’t judge her too quickly. A girl who has to stay all night
out in the woods with a chap like me, is not likely to be very proud of
telling it around.”

“Why, William Bennett!”

Billy was as much astonished to see his mother turn pale as he was to
hear in that stern tone his full name. “Sit down, marms. It’s all right
for me, but pretty rocky for her.”

Then he told her the whole story, except that he did not divulge
Erminie’s name, nor their relation to each other.

For a long time they were silent, his mother strangely serious and sad,
it seemed to Billy. At length she turned to him, took both his hands in
hers, and looked steadily in his eyes, but still did not speak.

He bore the scrutiny well though it made him uncomfortable. “Don’t look
like that, mother. What could we have done different or better than we
did?”

She kissed him on the cheek and he felt her closer clasp. “Nothing, my
boy. It was one of those trying situations one cannot foresee. But it is
serious. Do you realize what it will entail upon this girl if
evil-speaking people learn the story?”

“Gee! That’s what I’ve been thinking of all night. But I don’t see how
any one is to know about it.”

“If she is questioned she will have to tell more than one falsehood to
keep people from knowing some one was with her; and lies always defeat
themselves.”

“Well, mother, if it comes to the worst I shall stand by her.”

“Of course, if you can; but whatever you say will only harm her. Your
silence is the best thing you can give her.”

“I can marry her.”

If Billy had shot at his mother he could have astonished her hardly
more.

“Billy! You’re only a little boy!” she gasped with her first recovered
breath.

“Oh, not to-day, but after a while. And meantime, while I’m growing old
enough and earning something, I can lick any fool that speaks against
her.”

In a long life of many trials Mrs. Bennett had learned self-control;
also that many worries are best left alone for a time before attacking
them. She rose and stood behind Billy’s chair, stroking his soft,
abundant hair. “Boy, put such thoughts out of your mind. They are
unsuited to you. Whatever is just and right, whatever is manly and
needed by this girl from you, that of course you must do. But time will
show what that may be. In the meantime you must go on as usual, doing
the duty of each day. Just now that means a bath, supper, your lessons,
and bed.”

Again she kissed him, drew her hand caressingly across his forehead, and
left the room. And to Billy’s keen ear it seemed as if her step in a
moment had become the slow, shuffling tread of an old woman.

As the evening passed, his depression grew. He found it difficult to
study. The pages were meaningless. Or if he roused himself to some
attention suddenly the print blurred, and he heard again the quick
tempest of the night before surging through the trees, or Erminie’s
pitiful, “I’m so afraid, Billy!”

And his mother’s step, as she left the room, haunted him. What had made
her walk like that? He began to suspect the case was worse than he had
thought if it could hurt her so. “Betsey, Betsey! Why didn’t you get a
move on?” he whispered whimsically. It was years since he had thought of
his boyish name for his conscience. Yet reviewing the night’s experience
he could find little blame for himself.

His large attic room, usually so cheery and so much to his wish, was
full of sounds that to his overwrought mind seemed to come from unseen
beings. He listened for a time, then switched on the light; and seeing
only the familiar scene, turned it off again, impatient with himself,
ashamed. He need not have been so. He was neither a coward nor a
hyper-sensitive; it was his own high-strung imagination that peopled the
darkness with jeering shapes.

But finally he slept. And with the morning youth asserted itself, and he
went off to school with new courage to meet whatever might come.

That proved to be nothing unusual. Erminie was there, pale and quiet,
but otherwise quite herself. By a subtle understanding that needed no
explaining they kept apart. No one seemed to notice them except Jim; at
noon he watched Erminie’s every move. At first Billy thought himself
over-suspicious; but once when he caught a gleam in Jim’s eye, saw the
covert smile on his lips, Billy knew something malicious was brewing;
believed that the Kid possessed their secret and only waited his own
time to use it—no one could foretell how.

Billy was not very light of heart when he went around after school to
Mr. Smith’s town office, and found Dr. Carter there. He wished to talk
with Mr. Smith alone, to ask him for employment, for something to do
that would be worth good wages at once. He was not skilled of course,
but he was strong and quick, able to do a man’s work at hard labor; and
with a boy’s optimism he knew he could learn, “Make good from the
start.”

Dr. Carter’s genial face and excellent stories, even though Billy knew
he had no better friend anywhere, were not welcome to him now. He did
not know just how to proceed. He wondered if the two were considering
business; though it must be so, since Mr. Smith was a very busy man, and
it was still in business hours. And yet they were laughing heartily and
had admitted Billy at once.

“Well, what can I do for you, Billy?” Mr. Smith asked cordially. “Jove!
It’s time we called you ‘Mr. Bennett,’ you’re such a giant.” Mr. Smith
was a short, stout man, and when he stood beside Billy he had to lift
his face to look into the boy’s eyes.

The doctor greeted Billy in his quiet, friendly way; and with his firm
hand-clasp a quick memory came to Billy of the day, so long ago, when he
had found the counterfeiters, and raced to town on his wheel with his
secret, not knowing how to tell it till he met the doctor. Again he saw
himself, coatless, torn, dusty, freckled, his hair wet and “plastered,”
following the immaculate doctor into the grand dining room of the new
hotel. After that came the memory of telling his story to the sheriff,
and of that awful trip when he led the sheriff and posse up the
mountain, through the edge of the forest fire to the counterfeiters’
den. And after that, the rescue of May Nell—

These pictures flashed through his mind during the instant he was
returning the doctor’s greeting; and on recalling himself he felt as if
he were coming back from a long journey, felt unpardonably abrupt when
he tried to state his business to Mr. Smith.

“I came to—I’d like—”

“You’d like a private interview? Is that it?” Mr. Smith prompted.

“The boy’s after a job. Don’t give it to him, Mr. Smith. He’d better
play through his vacation; he works hard enough at school to deserve
it.” The doctor smiled and rose to go; and Billy wondered how it was
that the doctor could “beat a chap’s own thinker to it.” He did not know
that the keen, trained sense that enables a skilled physician to read
the hidden meaning of every line and tint and pulse of the body, could
also reveal to him the meanings the mind writes into voice and eye.

As soon as he had gone Mr. Smith motioned Billy to a seat and listened
with no interruption, while the boy told his errand. For a time after he
had finished, the man of affairs continued to draw meaningless designs
on the blotter, till Billy grew first hot, then cold, and wished himself
away.

“What can you do?”

“I—I don’t know. Isn’t there a lot of just common work to do on your
railroad that you’re building over to Tum-wah? I surely can do digging;
I am strong.”

“Yes, there is plenty of digging,” Mr. Smith said absently, and again
lapsed into silence.

“Does your mother know you’re doing this?” he questioned so suddenly at
last that Billy jumped.

“She doesn’t know I’m here to-day, but she knows that I intend to work
this summer,—perhaps right along.”

“Do you intend to dig in the dirt for a living?”

The stern words stung Billy as a whiplash. “No, sir. I hope to do
something better—I _shall_ do something better after a while,” he added
with an energy that pleased Mr. Smith.

“Have you decided what you will make your life work?”

“I’ve thought of—” He was about to say journalism but something about
this fearless, successful man made the boy feel young and very ignorant.
“I had thought of trying to get on a newspaper.”

“Nothing in it! You’ll smell of a grindstone all your life, and be a
slave besides.”

“Slave?” Billy repeated anxiously.

“Yes. The newspaper business is no longer an outlet for individual
character. It’s just a machine where each man is a cog, and writes what
he is told, no matter what he believes. If his stuff is good the paper
gets the credit; if it isn’t he is fired.”

Billy made no reply to this, but after a moment asked, “Would not that
be the way with anything I tried at first?”

“Yes, boy, it would.” There was an unexpected kindness in his tone. He
rose and walked once or twice across the richly furnished office, when
he stopped and looked down upon Billy, who sat with every muscle tense,
his hands unconsciously gripping the chair arms.

“Billy, ever since the day you prevented that devil from kidnapping May
Nell, I’ve had you in mind. I’ve no son of my own; but if I had, I’d be
glad if he was as much of a man as you’ve always shown yourself.”

Again he walked the length of the room and back. “You know I wanted to
educate you; but your mother was right, wiser than I. Now I’m not so
sure I’m going to do this thing you’ve asked of me. If you need money to
tide you through your school, Billy, I shall be more than glad to
advance it. No amount of money will square what your family has done for
mine. But—I’m blamed if I’m going to help you ruin your future. What you
need now is school, and the university; a year or two of running about
the country to see what sort of a nation you belong to; and then you’ll
be fit to settle in some business where you’ll have men digging for you.
That’s what I want you to do, Billy.”

The boy could not speak. This was what he had looked forward to, had
planned to do, even if he had to earn his way and take years in doing
it. But Erminie’s coming into his life had changed everything. Such
dreams must be abandoned for a different and harder future.

At last he stood, and looked into Mr. Smith’s face steadily, but with a
disappointment in his determined eyes that touched the man. “There are
reasons,—reasons that I am not at liberty to mention, Mr. Smith, why I
must go to work as soon as school closes; and probably I shall not be
able to go back. If you had anything I could do I would rather work for
you than for any one else. I’d try very hard, sir.” He hesitated an
instant, but not long enough for the other to speak. “But since you
don’t approve I must look farther.” He stepped toward the door.

“Here! Sit down! If you’re bound to make a fool of yourself about work
it might as well be where I can hold you down to it till you’re sick of
it, and come to your senses.” Mr. Smith’s eyes twinkled, and his voice
was softer than his words. “You needn’t hunt any other boss. I’ll have a
job for you when you come for it. How soon will that be?”

“School closes on the twenty-third of June; I’ll be ready the morning of
the twenty-fourth.”

“That’s Saturday. I won’t take any fellow from school till he’s had a
vacation; come Monday, the twenty-sixth.” He laughed at his own joke,
and opened the door, and Billy knew the interview was ended, yet he
tried to stammer his thanks.

“I’m very—I’m—”

“Get out with you! I won’t be thanked for helping you to ruin yourself!”
Mr. Smith blustered, and shut the door on Billy.

Ruin himself! The words roused a sudden anger. He’d show them! This
course that he was taking was not his own choice; circumstances forced
it on him. It was the right thing to do, and right never ruined any one.
Or if it did—He looked up as he walked and saw a lineman high among the
deadly light wires, held only by belt and spurs, busily splicing wires
and whistling at his work.

“That’s it,” Billy thought. “Do what I have to do as well and carefully
as I can, and then—whistle.”

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                              CHAPTER VIII

                            THE POTATO ROAST


A FEW nights later came the rally of the Progressives before their
election for playground officers. Since the episode of the stilts Hector
had taken a prominent part in playground affairs, and some thought it
was hurting his candidacy for president of the student body,—that it was
too small a matter for high-school students to consider. But he held to
his course.

The election for president was due the next week. Jim had decided on the
next afternoon, Friday, for Walter Buckman’s last demonstration.
Hector’s party had held their preëlection meeting also; but this
playground rally would be one more opportunity to test Hector’s
strength.

The benches were arranged on the ball ground this time, and Billy, who
was manager, saw that everything was ready before he went home for
dinner. When he came again he found Mumps, Redtop, and the squad of
freshmen left on guard, looking as if there had been things doing.

“It’s good the cop’s coming to-night; the Kid’s crowd intend to act up,”
Mumps said as Billy came up.

“What makes you think so?”

“They tried to beat us out of the benches.”

“How did you stop it? I see they haven’t been touched.”

“Mumps is the keen kid,” Redtop commended; “he told ’em we had those
benches from the supervisor and could keep them here till to-morrow
morning; and that we had a cop to see that no one interfered with them.”

“Bully for you, Mumps!”

“Redtop told the Kid that if they get busy hoodooing the Progressives
that’s all we ask; it will be the prettiest sort of a finish for the Kid
and Buckman.”

“Do you think that fixes them?”

“Yes, unless—They have some plan hatching to beat Hector that we can’t
find out. The election’s no walk-over for Hector; I can tell you that.”

Billy noticed that the Buckman boys were rather quiet, standing about in
small groups on the edge of the crowd; and also that whenever he went
near them the talking suddenly stopped; and once he caught a significant
lifting of the brow and a sneering smile.

There were many people already on the ground besides school children,
some walking about in the waning sunlight. Even at half-past eight the
torches seemed a joke this late May evening.

But the band was no joke. It was the band of the Chetwoot (black bear)
Troop of Scouts, the newsboys’ troop, and Mr. Streeter’s pride. Their
uniform was handsome, their marching excellent, and their music
remarkable considering they had been playing together less than a year.
Under the guidance of the best teacher Mr. Streeter could hire for them,
and with an enthusiasm that warmed his heart, the little chaps worked
together night after night; and now, when they came up the street, and
filed into their places, proud of being invited to play before such a
large audience, he led the clapping, which lasted till long after the
boys were seated.

Billy made a good chairman. Everything went off in orderly fashion. The
girls were represented by two short speeches in which the importance of
good manners on the playground was emphasized; the band played several
selections; Hector spoke convincingly of the responsibility of the Fifth
Avenue High for the good name of the playground, and Reginald Steele won
the fathers and mothers present by telling of Mr. Streeter’s Good
Citizens’ Clubs, and how their work should dovetail with all that the
Progressives were working for in their proposed playground government.

Billy expected some demonstration from Jim and his followers, but none
came; and the meeting was dismissed after band and audience had joined
in “America.”

The crowning triumph was a surprise; and provided by the girls. It was a
potato roast on a vacant lot across the street from the playground.
Every one present was invited, the parents being especially urged to
join the feast.

The bonfire made both light and cheer that were welcome in the cool
evening; and the girls with very rosy faces poked the ashes with long
sticks and rolled out bushels and bushels of hot potatoes. They had
thoughtfully graded them as to size, so that the smaller ones were
served first, though all had as many as they could eat. Salt, butter,
and sliced ham, with pickles for a relish, made a high mark for evening
outdoor fun.

The surprise was complete. Even the opposition could find no chance to
gibe.

“The girls take the cake but we get the potato!” shouted Walter Buckman.
“Three cheers for the potato roast!” he proposed with a heartiness that
showed him an adroit politician. They were given with vigor. And the
band played again, and they dispersed.

Billy felt well pleased with the evening, till at the very last of the
frolic, when he stepped into the edge of the crowd, he caught a low
sentence spoken with incautious clearness. “Oh, yes, they are hollering
to-night, but we’ve got the jump on them. The Kid is laying low.”

The words troubled him all the way home. And Erminie had not been there
as he had hoped. He did not agree with her that she should keep aloof
from the school activities; it was like acknowledging a wrong that did
not exist.

But he was tired, and too young and normal to lie awake long over any
anxieties—save those “Betsey kicked in for,” and he “hit the hay with
eyes already shut,” he told his mother the next morning.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                               CHAPTER IX

                            FACE TO THE SKY


THE next evening Billy was busy with preparations for starting at six
o’clock in the morning on the scout for which he was patrol leader.
Although it would last only two days he had been a little uncertain
about going, since the end of the school year with its many duties and
activities was so near; but the day before he had learned that he would
have to take but one examination, his high standing excusing him from
the other “exams.” And now that he would not be able to take any of the
long, summer scouts, he could not resist this last chance for the tramps
he loved.

A little before nine over the telephone came Bess’s voice.

“Hello, Queen of Sheba! That was a great gift you brought us last night
from your domain in the south.”

“I only planned it; and like the queen of old, I didn’t do it for
nothing; I crave a boon.”

“Say on. I’m no Solomon, but you shall have your desire if I can grant
it.” Billy laughed and waved an imaginary sceptre, forgetting that Bess
could not see him.

“It’s not so difficult. May Nell has just telephoned that two of her
classmates arrived before dinner time on their way East, and she wants
you and me to come over.”

“Gee whiz! It’s late to spring your command.”

“Not five seconds since I received mine. They’ve been motoring all the
evening.”

“And I’m—not—dressed to meet—”

“Billy To-morrow! When did you begin to cogitate about apparel?”

“It’s different—”

“No more. The Queen commands. Come over right away, and father will set
us down,—the machine is at the door. I won’t be a minute.”

Bess’s home was only a block away, and her “minute” only five, yet in
that short time Dr. Carter had a call in another direction, and the two
young people had to take a trolley car. This was an opportunity Bess had
desired, and she improved it at once.

“Billy, I want you to tell me why you didn’t ask May Nell to go with you
to the picnic instead of Erminie.”

“May Nell isn’t a pupil of Fifth Avenue High.”

“That makes no difference. A lot of the Juniors brought friends. For
that matter what was Mumps doing there? If I had known you wouldn’t ask
her, I should have taken her.”

Billy did not reply. For once Bess could not understand him, and was
distressed. He was the playmate of her lifetime, the one boy comrade she
had treated as frankly as a brother. But now she realized he had
interests apart from hers, cared no longer for things she could share;
and the knowledge hurt her.

“And then that Erminie Fisher! She’s no more to be compared with May
Nell than—”

“Go easy, Bess. You saw that Miss Fisher went with me, didn’t you?”
There was a look in his eye, a tone in his voice that chilled her, that
added to her feeling of distance from him.

She glanced up almost shyly. “Then do you wish it to be ‘Mr. Bennett’
and ‘Miss Carter’ after this?”

“Oh, piffles, Bess! You’re always to the good. The reason I said that is
because it makes me mad to hear every one say mean things of Erminie.
She’s a lot better than—” He did not finish. An uncomfortable memory of
her self-revelation during the night on the island told him why girls
like Bess shunned her. But what she had said of her mother also came to
him, and what he knew of her father. How could she be the sort of girl
Bess was, whose parents were not only loving, but wise?

“Well, there must be something good about her, Billy, when you like her.
But I can’t see how you can neglect May Nell for her.”

“I don’t neglect May Nell. But I am no J. Pierpont; I’ve got my living
to earn. Do you suppose May Nell will want me ringing her door-bell
after I don overalls and grease?”

“Will Erminie?”

“Yes.”

“Then she’s different from what I think. But anyway you won’t do that.
You’ll do something splendid; something with your brains; or you’ll go
out into the mountains or desert and juggle old lady Nature, and—”

“And she’ll beat me to it—juggling. Bess, you’ll soon be going by shy of
a nod to me yourself. I’m going to work, just plain digging with no
frills on it.”

“Billy!”

They were at their destination with no chance for pursuing the subject.

Billy was not usually self-conscious. Before his experience with Erminie
he would have entered Mr. Smith’s elegant parlor as easily, would have
met the strange girls who were larger and older than May Nell, as
unabashed as if he had been reared in luxury. But now he felt out of
place. He was beginning to note social differences; to realize that
daughters of very rich men are reared to a luxurious scale of life; that
they cannot understand poverty, or even simple comfort. He was seeing
that no matter how willing they may think themselves to endure poverty
with the loved man, they are totally unfit; and their failure is not
their blame.

Something of this made him awkward and silent, while the four girls
together with Reginald Steele, Redtop, and Sis Jones, chattered and
laughed and joked, till Billy began to wish he had not come.

May Nell did not know of the changes coming to him. She attributed his
different attitude toward her entirely to the fact that she was too
small and young to interest him. But he was her guest, and courtesy as
well as pride determined her to compel him to unbend. She left the
others, and on a quickly invented pretext drew him to the farther end of
the large room.

“Billy, is it true, as Bess says, that you have given up your part in
the Fifth Avenue High play?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, Billy, why? When you wrote it, too.”

“No, no! Who told you that? Three of us wrote it; that is, we thought
out the stuff, and Mr. Streeter helped us put it in shape.”

“But he told father the ideas were all yours, and that you were very
clever.”

“I guess I’ll have to hand ‘Pop’ Streeter a nickel.”

The half cynical note in Billy’s laugh did not escape her keen ear; and
though she could not have told why, it hurt her. “You bad boy! He meant
every word of it. Tell me about it.”

“It isn’t much. Just a picture of Washington life as I thought it would
be if we did all the things with Nature we might do. Just imagination.”

“_Just_ imagination makes the whole world, Billy.”

“That’s what we think when we’re children, but I guess when we get out
with the cold facts we’ll find imagination doesn’t fill the dinner
pail.”

“Billy, imagination makes everything! It builds the world. Why, when God
himself looked into the void didn’t He have to imagine a world before He
could speak the fiery word that created it?”

“That’s—that’s a pretty big thought, isn’t it?” Billy answered slowly,
overmastered by her eagerness.

“And, Billy, you used to believe in it so thoroughly. Don’t you any
more?”

“Do you?”

“Yes, yes! I’ll have to die when I don’t believe in it.”

“Don’t say that.”

“But it’s true, Billy Boy!” She had not called him so since the days in
Vina when she was a waif and the Bennett home her refuge. The
affectionate child-name touched him, bridged the distance between them.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he hesitated, “imagination may be a divine
privilege; but for mere man,—too much dreaming makes him discontented. I
think when one must earn one’s bread and butter the straight fact is
better.”

“Boy, boy! Nothing but slavery and plodding comes of such a feeling.
You’re holding your head down when you should look up, face to the sky.”

“I guess if one were making chairs for a living, he’d have to look
down.”

“I guess if he hadn’t looked up he’d never have had the idea of a chair
for a pattern. Oh, you’re no sheep, Billy. You couldn’t hold your nose
to the ground! You’ve got to look up, or you’ll die.”

The others interrupted, calling for songs, little French songs that May
Nell sang captivatingly. And after that they had college songs, and a
rollicking time. Billy joined, yet with his voice only; his thoughts
were lifted to the realm his soul always reached when with May Nell.

Mr. Smith came in, bringing with him a gust of the big out-of-doors; as
if his swift flight in his great motor did not stop at the door. He was
a man who drew all to him. Children and dogs, men and women, rich and
poor. He seemed to have a wealth of power and substance that sufficed
for a cityful. And he was a providence to more of the needy than any but
himself knew.

He greeted the young people breezily, unconsciously giving the feeling
for the moment that their presence was the one thing needful to make him
happy, and left the room taking Billy with him.

“Sorry to interrupt pleasure, my boy; but since you’re determined to
become a business man, you will find that pleasure has no rights that
business is bound to respect. I want to speak to you.”

After preliminary explanations Mr. Smith took Billy into his confidence
in a remarkable way. “I have a piece of work that you may be able to do
for me, that’s beyond your years. If you fail I shall not blame
you,—others have failed before you. Here is the situation: That
interurban line I’m building, the Washington Railway line between the
city front and Tum-wah, is a small matter in itself, but it is the key
to a big situation.

“We have pushed our bill through the Legislature, allowing the canal
between the two big lakes, and we are going to change that little
Tum-wah Valley into a great city with a payroll of thousands of men.
We’ll dredge the small river right to the falls, make our own power, and
load our own ships,—while they clean off the barnacles in fresh
water,—load them for the world’s ports. In a few years the plant will be
worth ten or fifteen millions.”

Billy gasped in astonishment. The narrow little valley along the Tum-wah
Creek was within the city limits, yet it showed nothing now but the
vegetable gardens of the Italian colony, sordid little huts, dirty
children, and the rickety old electric line where dirty cars went
bumping along on an elastic schedule that got people to town along in
the forenoon, and home some time in the evening. This seemed as distant
from Mr. Smith’s fifteen-million dollar dream as is heaven from a very
dirty earth.

Something of this Billy ventured to express.

“The only heaven we have is right here. If it isn’t clean, it’s up to us
to make it so. And one thing sure: it will never be any bigger or any
cleaner than we imagine it to be.”

The boy thought of May Nell. This was off the same pattern of life as
hers. As if in answer to his thought, Mr. Smith went on.

“Business is merely realized dreams; preferred stock in imagination. But
it takes sweat to realize on them. And it’s your sweat, boy, that I am
asking. The people who own that old teetering string they call the
Tum-wah Railroad are down on me because I’m paralleling them. They will
give me all the trouble they can,—they’ve served one injunction, but it
didn’t stick. I have men watching them, but they suspect these men. You
see they are stirring up those Italians to believe that as soon as I get
my business started I will take their lands from them.”

“You’ll have to have them, won’t you?” Billy questioned as the other
paused; Billy’s vision had run forward to the teeming city Mr. Smith had
prophesied.

“Surely. And those Italians will get more for their land than they can
make in raising vegetables all their lives. But of course I’m not
advertising that now; and the other concern is, I have reason to
believe, making the Dagos think I shall steal them out of their homes.
What I want of you is to keep on the lookout, let me know things before
they happen. Go to work with the other laborers, run errands, keep your
ears open, your mouth shut, and look as stupid as you can. Will you do
it?”

“I’ll try, sir. It won’t be very hard, that last.”

“Say! Stop that! And that ‘sir’ business. Who taught you that?”

“That’s the way we address the Scoutmaster; and—and my father was a
soldier of the Civil War.”

Mr. Smith softened. “And made a record to be proud of; I’ve heard it
from your mother. But here’s the situation, Billy: You’re beginning at
the bottom; but if you are to be useful to me you must have a definite
power of your own; you must compel. It’s in you; and while you must
adopt a stolid exterior in this first job, when you come in contact with
my men, when you are delivering my orders, you must charge them with
enough powder of your own to make them carry. See?”

Billy thrilled with the prescience of future force. “I think I see what
you mean, Mr. Smith. I shall try not to disappoint you; though—” A
sudden thought of Erminie intruded itself,—what would this man of great
affairs say if he knew that a wife, and the support of a home, would
soon be the burden that he, a mere boy, would have to add to the
difficult service Mr. Smith was asking.

“Out with it! Better thrash out all the ‘ifs,’ and ‘thoughs’ right now.
But I don’t allow those words a place in my vocabulary.”

“Then I won’t!” Billy brought out the words with a snap.

“Well said, my boy! That’s the soldier’s way. But remember this: While I
get my business done, done at any cost,—if one man can’t do it another
must; yet I know when a thing proves impossible. I don’t expect the
impossible.”

He gave Billy a reassuring clasp of the hand, and a look that determined
the boy to “make good if any chap going could,” and bade him good-night.

Billy did not know how long he had been away from the drawing-room till
he went in and found the others going, and Bess already hatted.

“I began to think it all a dream that one Billy To-morrow brought me
here this evening,” she chaffed.

“No dream; he’s arrived.”

“Yes? So has to-morrow—almost.”

Billy glanced at the clock. The chimes for eleven-thirty had already
rung.

They laughed and “jollied,” delaying their departure with joyous
nothings. Both Bess and May Nell felt a subtle change in Billy; he was
not the same boy that had entered there so shortly before.

Thus did Mr. Smith galvanize to unsuspected power all who came into his
presence. Billy went home lifted, ready to meet any future.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                               CHAPTER X

                               THE SCOUT


LONG before the alarm clock buzzed the rising hour, Billy was awake. He
hopped out and hurried with his dressing, watching the sunrise meanwhile
with some anxiety. It seemed more golden and opalescent than usual; or
was it only because it was some time since he had seen it? Such a fine
beginning was apt to end in rain, he remembered a little impatiently.

He was at the meeting-place before time, as were the five other eager
ones. Two days! So short a time in which to win honors! Three patrols
had failed to find the flag so cunningly hidden by Scoutmaster Streeter
to test the troops. The Skwis-kwises (squirrels) had tried, the
Chetwoots, and Billy’s troop, the Olympics. This was a joint patrol, and
the honor of being its leader Billy had long coveted.

They looked quite smart when they started off, in their khaki uniforms
and their scouts’ hats all at precisely the same angle with chin-straps
resting jauntily on the tip of the chin. Billy carried the banner of his
own troop, the design being a snowy mountain with a jagged crest, a
picture of old Olympus himself; not the classic mountain, but the
Sentinel of the Pacific.

Their work was definite. They were to take the trolley line to the
northeast city terminal, going and coming; from there cover at least
fifteen miles on foot in the two days, whether they found the flag or
not. Mr. Streeter said if they could only read his plain signs they
could not miss it; but so far the patrols had failed.

Besides finding the flag each was to fulfil the rule of one kind act
each day; to report some fact of the woods-life not before recorded in
the annals of the city troops, or some new deed; and to stop one hour on
Sunday for exercises of their own devising that should take the place of
church. To accomplish this most of the circumstances would have to be in
their favor. Billy hoped the weather would be one.

The start included breakfast which they took at an early restaurant,
that their knapsacks might not weigh an unnecessary ounce. They set off
northward from the railroad terminus, following the beautiful boulevard
as long as its direction was right, then a country road for a mile or
so, which they left at a given point for the trails where their real
hunt began.

Billy divided the patrol into three squads, Hugh of the Skwis-kwises had
Mumps from the Chetwoots for his partner; Redtop was assigned with
“Bump” Parker; and Billy took Bob Brown. He was a tenderfoot. So was
Hugh, though one of the cleverest and most observant of all the scouts;
but he was doomed to his class till time should bring around his twelfth
birthday, when he would be eligible to all the scout honors he could
win.

“We’ll search the trails for three hours,” Billy decided, “and meet at
the south end of Lake Mow-itsh on the main road.” He studied his map, a
copy of which each one carried. “Ten points for the first squad to
arrive, and ten points for any new bird seen in the forest and rightly
named.”

“That’s easy!” Bob exclaimed. He was a recent arrival from the Middle
States.

“You won’t think so after you’ve hiked a while; the forest is too dense
for many birds,—not enough food for them.”

“And now for the routes; draw straws.”

Billy and Bob drew the longest route, which pleased the patrol leader.
“Now’s your chance to show your grit, kid; your legs are not as long as
mine.”

“But they’re as good, I bet,” Bob returned spunkily. And they separated.

The woods here were dense and heavy with rain of the night before. The
fickle sun disappeared, and the stillness of the forest settled upon
them. Unconsciously Billy and Bob lowered their voices, doing very
little talking, for Billy’s eyes and mind were on the trail intently
watching for the slightest sign. At each division of the trail he
searched so long and carefully that Bob was impatient.

“We’ll lose all chance of winning in at the lake.”

“If we find the flag that will be the biggest win of all, and I’m not
going to lose one pointer if I can help it.” Billy went down on his
knees to look at a track.

“What did you expect to find?”

“I didn’t know; but it’s up to a scout to pass nothing by in the woods.
Look for the arrow that points the way, you tenderfoot. It may be only a
straight shaft or it may have a square at the feathered end.”

“What does that mean?”

“A letter three paces from the arrow.”

“What color will the arrow be?”

“Gee whiz! Did you think it would be bought from a store?
Diamond-tipped, maybe? It’ll be any old stick touched up with a jack
knife perhaps. You’ve got a lot to learn, kid.”

“What direction from the arrow would the letter be?”

“What do you think?”

“The way the arrow points?”

“Right—What have you found?” Billy crossed a small open spot to where
the other boy was bending over two crossed sticks at the foot of a tree.
“Good! You’re not blind as you might be. That’s luck—finding that. We’re
on the wrong lead.”

“How do you know? Two sticks might fall that way.”

“But look here! See that crooked line made of pieces of bark?”

“Yes, but that’s nothing—Why, it’s the letter ‘S.’”

“That means Mr. Streeter. Around here somewhere we’ll find more signs.”

They hunted carefully along, leaving their own records on tree or
ground. Billy explained the many ways of marking the way,—smokes,
wigwagging, shaking the blanket, the semaphore code, all of which are
practically useless in the dense forest, where trees reach higher than
could any smoke that would be safe.

“I’ve got it!” Billy shouted presently, and blew three blasts on his
whistle three times repeated, to herald the finding of an arrow.

No answer.

“We’ll have to write our message in bark chips, I guess.” Billy selected
one large smooth piece, placing it directly beside the path, with
another small round piece on top.

“What does that say?”

“This is the trail,” Billy answered. “And this means ‘Go to the right,’”
he continued, making a similar sign except that he put the small piece
at the right of the larger one, and scratched a rough “B” in the soft
forest debris.

A drizzling rain had begun, and the summer forest was dark and very
dreary to the plains-bred boy. “Golly! I’m glad I’m not alone. I’d be
dippy in an hour.”

“Why?”

“Oh, you can’t tell it in words. It’s like hearing and feeling things in
the dark; you could swear they were there just where they could touch
you; but light a match and you find every one of ’em on the hike.”

“Yes, I know the feeling. You almost think these ferns will rise and
strangle you. In California the forests are more open—” He stopped
suddenly. “Here’s a blaze!” He pushed away the ferns that almost
concealed a square cut in the bark of a tree, in the centre of the bared
space was a pencilled “S.” “These ferns have done a good job of growing
since Pop Streeter hid the flag two weeks ago. But it’s his mark all
right. No wonder the other boys missed it.”

They pressed on, not minding the rain now that the goal seemed near;
Billy’s enthusiasm warmed the other boy.

“It’s funny, ain’t it, how a fool bit of cloth can make a fellow work?
When we get it, it’s worth nothing.”

“Bob, I guess some of the things that seem useless are really worth the
most.”

“But we can’t sell it for anything, we can’t eat it, and it won’t pay
debts.”

“Well, how many debts would greenbacks pay if the American flag was
wiped out? And anyway those that do the biggest things seldom do get
paid in money.”

“Who, for instance?”

“The great artists; many of them starved in their own day, and now we
pay a fortune for one piece of their work. And who pays the mothers?
They do most of anybody.”

Bob was thoughtful. “Ye-s; I reckon lots of mothers get slim pay.”

The signs became more frequent now. They were written in broken twigs,
in bunched and tied grass, and once in a more open place in piled
stones. Presently the boys found themselves on the shore of Mow-itsh
Lake about two miles from the rendezvous. There, in front of a great
cedar, stood the notched and numbered staff with its well-known device
etched with knife and ink,—a mountain with a scout and a flag on its
summit. But the flag they had searched for was gone!

“I wonder what that means!” Billy shook the water from his hat and gazed
in all directions for an answer.

“Search me. I’m no more good at knowin’ things of this country than if
we were in Sahara.”

Billy looked at his watch. “Half an hour to get back to the rendezvous;
and then dinner.”

“Well, filling the hole in my stomach will be real pay for this hike;
enough for me, whether we get any glory or not.”

Back over their way they went to the main trail, with no delays, for
Billy had blazed the way carefully.

“Use your eyes, kid,” he admonished. “There are things in the woods
besides trees; and to-night we’ll have a gab to see how much six pairs
of eyes have been able to discover.”

They arrived to find Hugh alone, preparing to make a fire.

“Billy, I’m glad you’ve come. Now you can watch me,—see if I work
right.”

“You’re not going to try it by friction, are you? It will take too
long.”

“No, it won’t. I got fire in six minutes the other day by following Mr.
Seton’s directions.”

“That’s all right if you have dry wood and the right kind; but it’s been
raining.”

“Just the same I’ve found some fine cedar. You watch me.”

While he drilled out the fine wood-dust Billy was busy finding dry bark
fibre for tinder; and soon a tiny spark appeared, then a little glowing
coal upon which they placed the bunch of fibre, fanning it with their
hats till a flame answered, and soon they had a blazing fire with its
cheering warmth.

“Gee! I didn’t know it was easy as that.” Bob was a trifle contemptuous.

“Easy!” The Fairy rose, rather quickly for a fat boy. “If you think it’s
easy you just try it: I’ve been three months learning.”

“Three months?”

“Not all the time of course; but every time I could get the chance to
practise. The directions in books are as good as words can tell, but
there’s a lot you have to see with your eyes that can’t be told.”

“Six minutes—that’s fair time. Oh, Billy! The flag-staff! Where did you
find it? Where’s the rest of it?”

“That’s what we want to know; this is all we found. Did you get
anything?”

“This.” Hugh took from his pocket a much worn shoe the size to fit a
child of seven or eight.

“Heavens! A lost kid!”

“A little girl, too.”

“How do you know that, Fairy?”

“See the little buckle business? Boys don’t wear that sort.”

“Where is Mumps?”

Billy scowled. “That’s against the rules, you two being separated.”

“We aren’t. He’s in earshot.” Hugh sent a musical “hoo-hoo” into the
distance, which was immediately answered.

“Is there water so near?” Bob questioned incredulously, while Hugh went
on with his calls, singly, in groups, and by spaces.

“Mumps has four fish,—bass.”

“Well, how in jiminy do you know that?”

“Oh, it’s a little set of signals we decided before he set off.”

“Trust the Fairy for talking by signal; he’s a cracker-jack at that,”
Billy explained.

Sydney came up with the fish cleaned for broiling; and presently the
others came in. It had stopped raining, and the sun though not shining
still warmed and brightened the air.

Their luncheon was a quick affair of coffee, fish, and bread and butter;
for they were too excited over the “finds” to take much time for eating.
If there was a child lost what better “kind act” could they do than to
search for her? Redtop and Bump had passed a farmhouse some distance
back, which was the only hint of human life any of them had seen.

Billy decided to start immediately, and keep together till they came to
the house. They would make that headquarters, to which any one finding
any trace of the child should report.

“Perhaps there is no lost child; maybe the shoe was just thrown away,”
Bump ventured.

“Who would carry a shoe into a forest to throw it away?” Redtop jeered.

“A dog might,” Billy returned, and the others laughed at Redtop.

They broke camp and hurried on, spurred by the apparent seriousness of
the situation. The quest of the flag lost all zest beside the mere
possibility of human life in danger.

Half a mile on, or more, they came to a comfortable-looking house where
a woman was washing on the back porch. To their question she shook her
head. No child was missing. She had one, and she had gone home from
school the night before with her cousin to stay over Sunday. But when
Hugh showed her the little shoe she caught at it and turned pale.

“That’s hers. Where did you find it?”

Hugh told her, and she became hysterical with fear. The men of the place
were away on business, and the boys had to plan their search without
help. Billy managed to learn from the excited mother the name of the
cousin’s family and the direction of their ranch, where he sent Redtop
and Bump to find out if the little girl had left, and when; and to
arouse the few neighbors to the hunt.

Billy took the other three with him and set out to the spot where Fairy
had found the shoe. This was near the lake shore; and as they noted the
steep banks and how the green things grew close down and hung into the
water, they chilled with apprehension.

Carefully they worked through the afternoon, peering into every opening,
following every slightest path, calling every few minutes that they
might not lose one another, and with the added hope that a little voice
might answer.

Later they came upon the neighbors and learned that the child had left
the cousin’s home early that morning unseen by any one. There were not
many hunters, less than a dozen, including two or three school-boys.
Three or four small ranches were all the settlements on that side of the
lake; the few children rowed across the narrow inlet to the school on
the other side.

A fear that the scouts had not voiced was yet present in every
heart,—the wild creatures, cats and bears. Billy asked of this, under
his breath that the smaller boys might not hear. The answer was
reassuring. There was such a fulness of wild young growth that animals
would not be hungry, and a little thing that did not attack them was
comparatively safe.

The men had taken out several dogs; but they were untrained, and the
rain had washed away what scent there might have been. They did nothing
but start up small game and go baying off on their own quest.

Till nearly dark they all beat the woods but with no success. The boys
were worn. The men believed the search useless and discussed among
themselves the advisability of dragging the lake. However when dark fell
they ate hastily of food brought to them by some of the women, and set
out again with lanterns into the woods.

Billy was anxious. He was responsible for getting his scouts home not
only safe but in good order; and he believed that to continue the hunt
without rest would utterly exhaust them. Though his own desire was to
push on, and on, through the night and the awful forest till it was
compelled to give up its secret, he ordered them to make camp.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                               CHAPTER XI

                “WHOSE GLORY WAS REDRESSING HUMAN WRONG”


BILLY kept every one busy till an excellent meal was ready. It would
surprise those unaccustomed to camping to know that they had hot
potatoes, broiled bacon, coffee, and hot bannocks—“sinkers,” the boys
called them. Yet they had neither kettles nor dishes, except one
aluminum pail, and each scout had his collapsible cup.

The potatoes were roasted in the ashes, the bannocks were mixed in the
pail, patted into thin, wafer-like biscuits, spread on a clean board
Billy had begged at the farmhouse, and put to bake before the fire. The
pail was then washed and used for the coffee. The bacon was toasted,
each man for himself, his slice pinched in the split end of a green
stick.

Butter, jam, crackers, and canned milk added the “class” to the meal,
for which Billy carefully measured out the rations, that they might not
encroach upon to-morrow’s supplies, for there would be no time for
fishing: a more serious business claimed them.

Around the camp-fire they sat a while, toasting and drying, for the
night was damp and chilly. Billy insisted on some speech, song, or story
from each one, knowing that would help to banish the gloom. He called
for opinions or stories regarding the Scouts’ motto, “Be prepared,”
showing how it might become more of a talisman to them, how it could
become a continual incentive to effort.

“You never know when knowledge is going to come handy,” Redtop said.
“That reminds me of a story of the desert country over east of the
mountains, where the ranches are fenced with barbed wire. They run their
telephones by means of them now; but some years back before any one had
thought of that, some miscreants planned to rob a place, and cut the
telephone wires that their escape might be easy. A bright boy discovered
the cut, suspected some deviltry was up, and connected up the wires by
tying the cut ends to the fence. The robbers did not discover the trap,
and when they went to loot the house they met the police, and were
caught.”

“A good story,” Billy declared; “I wonder how that boy saved himself a
shock?”

“Rubber would do it,” Redtop answered; “and glass, though that would be
hard to manage.”

“The shock from telephone wires wouldn’t be much,” Mumps said.

Billy called for a count of things each had noticed in the woods that
day, Redtop to keep the count, and was pleased when Hugh outdid all in
original observation.

“Some of those things have never been reported in any book that I ever
read,” Bump declared. “You’ll make a boss scout, Fairy. I never can get
the hang of making fire the way you do.”

“If I live long enough,” Hugh gloomed; “I’m big as sixteen and not
twelve yet; just a baby.”

“No matter, kid. Put your thinker to something else. Who’s trying for
the city flag design? September will be here before you know it.”

“Have you done anything, Billy?”

“I’ve an idea coming, but I haven’t chased it down to paper yet.”

“Are you going to try, Redtop?” Hugh’s thin little voice finished in a
low rumble that made the rest laugh.

“Me? I couldn’t draw a flag-pole that anybody’d recognize unless it was
labelled.”

Billy tried hard to keep the talk brisk, yet his own mind wandered. He
was thinking unusual thoughts. Something in the lush fragrant woods, in
the silence and the leaping flames,—or was it the feeling that other
denizens might be prowling near?—recalled “The Idyls of the King,” that
king

                “Whose glory was redressing human wrong.”

All his boyhood Billy had wished he might have lived in the olden days
of chivalry, when men gave their lives for the succor of the weak and
wronged. The glitter and splendor of court and tournament described in
Tennyson’s ringing, singing lines, thrilled him; stirred a passion that
he hid within the silence of his own heart, since he found few that
understood the feeling. Hugh and May Nell were the only ones of his
friends who felt as he did about the ideals of chivalry. Erminie either
looked at him in wonder or laughed at him for a visionary.

But to-night the world-old stories of high adventure, where all was
risked for love of humanity, came to him with new force, culminating in
a sudden vision of what the tragedy on Calvary meant. There could have
been no good deed done in the past that was not possible to-day; and
perhaps this very quest for the little child was as worthy as the
romantic deeds of Arthur’s knights.

Suddenly Billy straightened, and began to tell the story of that famed
Round Table where sat the knights of the king, Launcelot, Sir Percivale;
Merlin, the Magician, and his evil fate, Vivien. He told of the pitiful
Elaine, the beautiful queen, and how she wrecked Arthur’s court, and of
Sir Galahad and his search for the Holy Grail.

At first the boys were not interested; but Billy’s voice deepened with
earnestness; and the fire declined, leaving only its glowing heart
changing, gleaming, and paling like a monster opal, while the silent
forest drew closer, seemed to reach down and clasp them, till almost
they felt themselves transported to those

                      “Great tracts of wilderness
               Wherein the beast was ever more and more,
              But man was less and less till Arthur came.”

“Fellows, every age needs its King Arthur and a Round Table of knights
who think more of redressing human wrong and abating human suffering
than they think of their own bodies and meat and drink. That is what our
Congress at Washington should be. I wish it might become the fashion to
go to Congress for what men could put into the nation, not for what they
can get out of it.”

He rose and reached his hand up toward the stars, showing bright in the
small open space above the tall trees. “Think of it! Just to do nothing
but feed oneself, earn, spend, sleep, and die,—an ox does that. Yet most
of us think that if we do that and keep out of jail we do enough; we are
men.”

“Just what are you driving at, Billy?” Bump yawned.

Billy, out of patience, went over and shook him. “Driving at? I’m
thinking of the chances I waste every day while I moon over the great
things men _used_ to do: that if we can only find that child and I can
get back to work, I’ll dig! I’ll ‘be prepared’ even if my sword is a
shovel instead of Excalibur. I’m going to—”

He stopped abruptly. “It’s time to turn in, boys,” he said quietly,
turning away, ashamed of having shown his emotion.

Rubber blankets over boughs were all “to the good.” They spent little
time in chaff or “rough-house,” and in a few minutes all but Billy were
asleep. He could not rest. The day had been too exciting to give room to
any of his own affairs; but now Erminie intruded.

Why had she not come out the night of the playground rally? He knew her
contention that she should keep out of sight, yet she had almost
promised. Had her father learned of their night on the island? He had
thrashed this over before, but in each quiet moment the question came
again insistently. He tossed and turned wondering that he should notice
that the bed was hard, that his blanket was short, that the others
snored; usually these things were as nothing.

But at last he slept.

They were astir at five o’clock, and breakfast was soon over, when they
were off again. They stopped first at the farmhouse to hear the latest
word, which was not encouraging. The men had been out all night and
found no trace; now they were starting for the lake where nearly all
felt the search would end.

Not Billy. He decided that, if the lake proved the child’s fate, it
mattered little when she was found. Yet she might be in the forest; and
with the endorsement of the others he set about a still more careful
hunt in the woods.

Through the forenoon, which was clear and warm, they travelled by twos,
taking many by-paths they had neglected the day before. The going was
hard, and their faces were scratched by thorn and brier. They climbed
logs and delved into many a hidden hole where the child never would have
thought of going, unless she had crept there in fear. Billy kept the
details well abreast of one another by whistles and calls, and as fast
as possible made their general direction toward home, for soon they must
give up the search and be on their way.

Near noon a shout from Bob who was following up one side of a huge
fallen tree halted Billy on the other side. “I’ve found the flag!”

Billy ran around the towering root of the trunk. It was true, but such a
flag! Creased, torn, and soiled, it was hardly recognizable. Where it
lay, the ferns and wild grasses were trampled as if some light thing had
walked about, perhaps lain there.

A whistle said imperatively “Come!” and Billy, marking the spot and the
way, followed the call to find Mumps and Hugh excited over a little
black stocking. That, too, was torn; and a dark spot on it showed where
briers had pierced the tender skin.

“We’re warm!” Billy exclaimed. “We’ll find her near here, or—” He did
not finish; but each knew what Billy did not voice. They forgot their
own fatigue; their scratched hands and weary feet. A fresh strength
invaded them as a tide from some unknown sea of life. They divided
again, travelling faster and in parallel lines following the direction
pointed by flag and stocking.

It was perhaps half an hour later when Billy’s quick eye detected a
splotch of white protruding from under a fallen log ahead. He called to
Robert and ran forward, his heart beating with mingled fear and hope of
what he should see. His feet were lead and would not move, he thought;
yet he was running fast, catching in tangles, recovering, jumping logs,
fighting each clinging, hindering vine and shrub.

When he reached the place he saw what he sought—the child. One small
scratched bare foot lay out from under the torn white frock, beside the
other, hardly more protected by its torn shoe and stocking. With a sick
fear Billy bent to look upon the face hidden by the drooping ferns.

But when he looked, he saw a sweet little face, stained with tears but
unmarred by claw or tooth, the lips red with life, her breath coming
evenly.

At once he turned and gave a great shout which Robert echoed; and both
blew their whistles. Instantly came replies. The sudden noise woke the
child in fright, and she screamed and cowered closer; yet in a second
she hushed, and peered cautiously out from her leafy nook.

“Don’t be afraid, little kid,” Billy said softly, not touching her lest
that might add to her fear. “You’re lost and we’ve been hunting you a
long time. Come out. Are you hungry?”

Between each sentence he paused, thinking she might be dazed with
wandering, loneliness, and sleep, and could not at once realize that
they meant her no harm. “Don’t be afraid, little girl,” he said again.
“We’ve come to take you home.”

She sat up and looked the boys over with calm, questioning eyes that
measured them well before she spoke. “Are you a gypsy man? Because if
you are, you won’t take me home, but to your gypsy country.”

“Not so bad as that, baby; just American boys going to take you to your
mama.”

“I’m not a baby,” she gravely replied, creeping out of her nest,
surprisingly free from stiffness. “I’m seven, and my name is Signa.” But
when she put her weight on her brier-torn foot she winced and cried out
with pain.

Billy opened his knapsack and offered her some crackers and cheese.
“Here! Eat this. You must be awfully hungry.”

She took the food, but ate slowly, at which the boys marvelled; they had
expected to see her bolt it.

“Have you had anything to eat since you ran away?”

“I didn’t run away, I walked. And I had my dinner pail, and in it was
some lunch I didn’t eat at school. I tooked some cookies from my Aunt
Felda’s pantry too.”

The others came tearing up, expectant, excited, puffing with their
speed. After so much walking an extra run told on them; but the relief
of finding the little girl safe and well was as good as rest.

Billy ordered them back to a more open space to make camp, carrying the
little girl himself. In a jiffy they prepared their light meal,
dispensing with coffee for no one felt like taking time to hunt for
water.

While Billy was carrying the child to a place of honor at their luncheon
she spoke up shyly. “I ’spect my face is dirty—I didn’t wash this
morning; I couldn’t find any water.”

“I’ll fix you, kid.” He put her down, took from one of his pockets a
clean handkerchief, searched a moment till he found a wide, cup-shaped
leaf full of rain water in which he wet a part of the handkerchief, and
went back to her. “Here you are, a whole toilet outfit, little kid.”

“No, I can do it myself,” she said as he began gently to wipe the
smudged little face. She caught the cloth and used it vigorously.

“Weren’t you afraid?” Redtop asked when the first, busy part of the meal
was over.

“Of what?” she asked nonchalantly.

“Of everything: bears, the dark, and—”

“Dark doesn’t hurt; it isn’t anything. And bears—we don’t have much of
them. For a minute I was afraid of—of him.” She pointed to Billy. “I
thought he was a gypsy man, and they are the baddest, they are.”

“She’s plucky for a girl kid,” Bump volunteered.

“She’s plucky for anybody, boy or man. It’s no sociable experience to be
lost overnight in these woods, I bet.” Mumps looked gloomily into the
dark depths in front of them.

Some laughed, and the reaction from the long strain brought relief; but
Billy interrupted it.

“Fellows, our scout has been different from the plan, but we have found
what we came after, the flag and—the good deed.”

“Oh, is that a flag? Where’s the red, white, and blue? I was cold and I
wore it.” The child reached up where it hung and traced the design with
her finger, the while rubbing one brier-scratched leg with her calloused
little bare foot.

Billy explained the flag to her, and then to the others said, “We must
start if we are to reach home to-night. There’s no time for Sunday
exercises, but what do you say to a song?”

“All right! Good enough!” they shouted.

“What shall it be?”

They answered one thing and another, but the girl piped, “‘My Country,
’tis of Thee’; I can sing that.”

So there in the woods they sang the hymn, not so inappropriate as it
might seem, since a country is its people, and these young citizens had
performed a noble service. There was a note of thanksgiving in the
voices swelling there in the forest stillness, the child’s thin treble
standing out clear from the rest.

The mother was beyond speech when they brought her baby to her; but the
father, who had been summoned from the city and had spent the night in
vain search, coming now from his dismal task on the lake, had more than
words for two. He praised the boys, begged them to stop all night, tried
to reward them, and failing that, ordered his wife to cook the best
dinner “ever spread in the shack.”

With difficulty Billy explained that they had no time to wait for
dinners, that they must get back to the city by sunset.

The Swedish farmer frowned at this speech, and tried to dissuade them.
Failing that, he made a welcome proposition. “I have a good team and
carriage, my neighbor also; we’ll drive you to town in two hours. To
that you shall not say no.”

They were glad to accept this offer, and none knew how tired they were
till they were jogging on their way home. Billy’s pedometer recorded
forty-one miles.

They arrived in town with no adventure; and after reporting by telephone
to Mr. Streeter, Billy went home to find his mother keeping dinner warm
for him.

Mrs. Bennett waited on him, and listened to as much of his story as he
felt like telling; he found it hard to repeat from sheer fatigue. When
he had left the table she handed him a note.

“Bess brought that to-day, and said you were to read it the minute you
arrived; but I thought something to eat might prepare you. She seemed to
think it of great importance.” Mrs. Bennett smiled and began to clear
the table; but Billy, with a prompting he could not understand, took it
to his room to read.

What he saw in the printed slip, a circular in form, banished sleep,
fatigue, every emotion but anger.

    [Illustration: “Weren’t you afraid?” Redtop asked when the first
        busy part of the meal was over]

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                              CHAPTER XII

                               THE FIGHT


BILLY did not suppose he would sleep that night, so disturbing was the
matter of the little circular; but nature protects youth. In a few
minutes the words jumbled incoherently and lost themselves; and a night
of dreamless sleep prepared him to meet the day.

His first waking thought was the circular. He caught it up and read it
over, growing angrier with each line.

    “A certain lily-necked, high-browed junior found the picnic plus one
    Dark-Eyed Beauty so enthralling that he forgot the call of the
    whistle, and they had a forced sample of the simple life for one
    night in the open.

    “This is what may be expected from the kid-gloved, Sunday-school
    contingent represented by the haughty H. They’re all handy with the
    moral tacked on fore and aft to—the other fellow’s story. But when
    it comes to getting away with any little plum, _viz._, the D. E. B.,
    they’re there with both feet, and the goods. See?

    “N. B. All who favor muck-raking the other man in public, and the
    primrose path on the sly, vote the High-brow ticket.

    “N. B. No. 2. Every man who handles money for clubs or societies
    should be under bond. This means the Fifth Avenue High. A word to
    the wise is sufficient.”

Billy was so disturbed by the first item that he took little note of the
third, though he knew it was intended for him. But his conscience was
clear; he had— A quick fear assailed him. He had not banked the money on
Friday! It had been too late. School duties pressed that day, and he
thought it would be perfectly safe in Miss Hartell’s desk in the
high-school library. How could it be otherwise?

Yet when he put on his school clothes the key to his drawer was missing!
In a fever of worry he hunted through his belongings, knowing all the
time that he could not have taken the key from his ring. He tried to
think back over his every movement on Friday afternoon; first, his
interview after the session closed with Miss Hartell about his essay;
next, the meeting of the Good Citizens’ Club when they had taken many
initiation fees. He and Bess had counted the money and he had receipted
to her for it; and last, he had locked it in the drawer, but this was
after Bess had gone.

Nothing illuminating came to him. A suspicion instead filled him with
indignation: Who could write such a paragraph unless he knew something
to warrant it? Whoever knew that was the one who had tampered with the
drawer, the lock.

Hardly able to concentrate his mind, Billy wrote out his report of the
scout for filing, brushed and cleaned the flag as well as he could, and
tried to settle down to study; but the lessons dragged. The words meant
nothing; his mind was held by the disquieting slip, that had neither
signature, nor slightest mark to show who wrote it or who printed it.
That was evidence of evil intent; and if the school authorities could
find out its source, they would expel the student responsible for it.

He went to the dining-room, impatient for breakfast, and while waiting
his sister Edith came down with the baby. “Good-morning Billy. Baby is
glad you’re at home again.”

Billy touched the pink cheek, and put his finger in the tiny hand that
closed softly around it. He thought his sister very lovely in her sweet
dignity of motherhood.

“William Bennett! Your grandfather made your name worth while, my baby,
and now Uncle Billy is adding honor to it.” She caressed the soft cheek.

“Don’t count on me; I may not add lustre even if I do the best I can.”
The future loomed rather dark to him just then.

“Billy, that is all any one can do,” his mother said, coming in with Mr.
Wright at the moment.

Breakfast followed, and while they ate, Billy recounted the happenings
of the scout.

He went early to school, and barely greeting the first comers, hastened
to the library. The drawer was locked, and no trace of meddling
appeared.

Puzzled and worried he went to the west entrance to wait for Erminie.
Instead of seeing her he was surrounded by friends with voluble
congratulations; for the morning paper, in large type and pictures,
featured the adventure of little Signa and the part the Scouts had
played in her rescue.

Billy wondered how such an account, fairly accurate, had been managed,
and again his desire to do that work burned in him. Yet on inquiry it
was simple. The Morning News Company kept photographs on hand of every
important and picturesque spot in the State, and the lake was among
them.

Through Mr. Streeter they learned the main facts that concerned the
boys, and also through him obtained pictures of the boys, Billy and
Redtop; for the Scoutmaster’s den was littered with pictures of his
admiring boys.

With all the effusiveness of the greetings, Billy divined a reticence,
an aloofness, even on the part of some who had been his most
demonstrative friends; and on the appearance of Hector he broke away
from them to tell his cousin of his difficulty.

“Perhaps I have a key that will fit the lock; those desks are nearly all
alike.” Together they went to the library, locking the door behind them.

The lock yielded to one of Hector’s keys.

“There should be over forty dollars there,” Billy said, his voice a
little shaky.

“Why, didn’t you bank—”

“It’s gone!” Billy threw up his head and looked blankly at Hector.

“When did you put it there?”

“Last Friday. It was after banking hours when the meeting closed.”

“And Saturday morning you left town. Nearly three days the start of you
that thief has, Billy. I guess you’re in for making good. Can I help
you?” Hector’s voice was sympathetic.

“I may need your help. Did you see that dodger?”

“Yes.”

“When did it come out? Are there many?”

“At Buckman’s meeting. It was circulated so adroitly that not one of us
can tell where it came from. It just appeared. Everybody has one.”

“Of course it’s the Kid’s game.”

“Probably; but it will not be safe to say so. He’s too sharp to leave an
opening for proof.”

“Whoever wrote that circular knows where that money went to.”

“Yes. I wondered what that ‘treasurer’ squib meant.”

“That key was stolen in this building.”

“What did you do after the meeting Friday before you went home?”

Billy thought. “I threw my coat over a bench while I straightened up the
drawer and locked, and then went to the lavatory to wash my hands. A lot
of kids were there, joshing, and I may have been gone ten or fifteen
minutes.”

“Whom did you see, coming or going?”

“Gee! I can’t tell, fifty, I guess.”

“And you were the last to leave the library?”

“Yes, before it was locked.”

“It’s a mystery surely. But I must go. See you later.”

The loss troubled Billy sorely, and the morning wore on dully, his books
a burden, his recitations poor. At noon he waited again for Erminie.
When he did not see her go out of the building as usual, he went
upstairs, and watching his opportunity at a telephone when no one was
near, called her up at her home.

Her mother answered. Erminie was gone, Billy could not learn where.
Indeed the tremulous voice at the other end of the wire sounded as if
the mother herself did not know. Above her words and his own he heard
her husband’s voice swearing, and the curses were coupled with Erminie’s
name. But of the scraps he heard, the one that electrified him was this:
“Al Short showed me that paper—”

Instantly Billy divined that he meant the circular. He was speaking with
a third person in the next room. “Don’t you have an idea where Erminie—”

“Billy Bennett, Erminie’s whereabouts is none of your business. You’ve
made her and us enough trouble.”

He dropped the receiver. It was true. He was the cause of their trouble;
he had gotten Erminie left at the picnic; he had angered Jim Barney,
whose threats, Billy believed, had frightened Erminie into running away.
And Billy could not say a word in her defence. She had to bear the cruel
slur alone. How shameful that an innocent accident should be the scourge
of a girl, perhaps for the whole of her life!

The afternoon was duller than the morning. It was near the end of the
year, when the routine was somewhat relaxed, and the coming election on
the morrow caused a buzz and stir, an undercurrent of restlessness that
swept around and past Billy unheeded. He sat with his eyes glued to his
books, trying to think, and failing.

At the close of the session he met the officers of the Good Citizens’
Club and told them of the loss of the money.

Bess, girl-like, jumped to her conclusion. “That Jim Barney has
something to do with it!”

“Bess! Bess!” Reginald chided; “it’s serious—accusing one of stealing
with no proof against him.”

“Just the same, I’m sure I’m right.”

“It makes no difference who took the money, I must make it up.” Billy
faced them fearlessly. “Boys, and Bess, I know you’ll believe me when I
say I don’t know a thing about where that money is. Yet I’m all to the
bad for being so careless about it. I want to do the right thing, but I
can’t refund it all at once, not—not to—”

“Of course you can’t, Billy! We’ll make it up, and the club need never
know. I’ll lend you thirty myself, and I’m sure—”

“Here, Queen, you can’t have all the glory; the rest of us want to prove
good too,” Reginald shook first her hand and then Billy’s.

His throat began to ache and he could not speak, but gave each a racking
hand-squeeze and turned away, his eyes burning, his heart beating, yet
feeling lighter than since his first glimpse of the venomous circular.

On the steps outside he met Jim Barney face to face. He had hoped this
would not happen., Since the day when, a little boy, he had fought Jimmy
Dorr for whipping the twins, Vilette and Evelyn, fought with every
muscle in his body a twisted whip-cord of indignation, he had had no
such “bloody hate” for anything living as he now felt for Jim. It took
all the self-control he possessed to answer the Kid’s sneering greeting
calmly and pass on.

“Where have you cached the D. E. B? Money comes in handy when one has—”
Jim never finished.

The double-barrelled shot was barely sped when Billy sprang upon him.
Fortunately for Jim he was on the last step and had not far to fall. He
had not expected Billy to retaliate. He knew that Billy prized the
honors he expected to win, and did not believe he would forfeit them by
fighting, no matter how great the provocation. Neither did he reckon on
the reversal of his own maxim in life, “Might makes right.”

Billy was proverbially good-natured. His quick wit could turn most of
the “joshing” back on the “josher,” and he had learned that fighting is
usually an indulgence to the blood of the beast in us, rather than an
act of devotion to right. But when the man slow to fight does become
enraged, especially if it is in the just cause of others, he is twice an
adversary; the blood of the beast joins with the spirit of man. Right
then makes might.

Billy was younger, slenderer, less skilled; for the Kid valued his “good
right arm” as his chief glory in life. But right arm and skill, any
force that mere physical exercise had developed, met its Waterloo in
such a tide of outraged spirit as enables a little woman with a carving
fork, to put to flight desperadoes, or such as now nerved Billy’s arms.

In that grapple his fingers were pincers of steel. His doubled fists
were derrick hammers, and every blow brought blood. The Kid did not have
time even to think of his vaunted “strangle-hold,” his pet “trip-trick.”
He was down and under—not under a man, but a fury all legs, arms,
weight, crushing knee, strangling fingers powerful beyond belief.

So fast rained the blows that the by-standers, silenced by what they
read in Billy’s face, hardly believed the fight begun before they saw
the Kid’s resistance weaken, his body grow limp. Billy realized it, and
ceased his onslaught.

“Say ‘enough,’ or I’ll kill you!” Billy’s words were not loud, but they
carried a white-hot power to the half-conscious fellow under him.

“Enough,” came in a thick voice.

Billy got to his feet, bent and turned the Kid’s face up,—a bloody,
bruised face,—and set his foot on the heaving breast. “Stay where you
are till I speak.” His words hit like bullets. “Within a week you get
out another dodger and take back the slam you gave that girl. You find
the key to that desk, and return the money you stole from me—”

[Illustration: “Stay where you are till I speak.”]

Billy, blinded by his passion and sure of his ground, flung out his
accusations, forgetting that money is visible, ponderable; that evidence
to its theft must be equally convincing.

But the Kid did not forget. He was cowed but not beaten. He reached out
a thick, dirty forefinger and interrupted. “Go to the man who printed
that dodger if you want retraction, not to me. You’ve called me a thief,
you son of a gun! You’re the thief, and I’ll prove it! I’ll have you in
the pen—”

Reginald and Sis Jones, who had stayed to discuss Billy’s plight, now
came on the scene in company with Redtop in time to see Billy spring
again on the prostrate Jim.

“Hold on, Billy! Do you strike a man when he’s down?”

Reginald’s cool voice checked Billy’s wild fury, that had leaped again
at the Kid’s accusation. He looked up fiercely. “He called me a thief,
Reg,—a thief!”

“What evidence have you for saying that, Jim?” Reginald asked sternly
while helping him to his feet.

“I’m not giving my case away.”

“You’ll have to, or be arrested for libel.”

This was a bold stroke, but Jim thought he knew more than any of them
when it came to accusation, law, and trickery. “Arrest nothing! You
didn’t hear me. You can’t swear—”

“But these others did.” Reginald glanced about at the five or six boys
looking silently on at the quarrel.

“Then they’ll have to bring suit, not you.”

“What rot is this?” Redtop lunged forward and leaned threateningly near
Jim. “I don’t give a dead dog for law, but if you call Billy Bennett a
thief, you loafer, I’ll mop this town with you!”

It looked to Jim as if he would have two furies to fight. “I’ll explain.
Bill won’t even try to deny that he stayed out all night after the
picnic with—”

“If you bring a girl’s name into this I’ll kill you! I’ll—”

“That’s right! No girl’s name may be mentioned here.”

The cool, authoritative voice was the Principal’s, Professor Teal’s. He
ordered the boys to his office, and there the story of the fight and the
causes producing it were retold, save by common consent the episode of
the picnic was not touched.

“I’ll take this under advisement,” the Principal said quietly, when the
matter had been thrashed out with no definite result. He saw it was a
tangle none could unravel except those who would not. Jim had been so
adroit that no gap in his story left an opening for attack.

Billy remained after the others were dismissed.

The Principal returned from closing the door, and did not speak for a
moment, but stood with his back to Billy fumbling with some books on his
desk. When he wheeled Billy saw a different Principal from the one he
knew, calm, cheerful yet powerful and a little stern. Instead, he saw a
sorrowful face.

“Bennett, I can’t tell you how I regret this. I—I suppose you know that
if you have not a more convincing explanation you’ll lose your
honors?—perhaps have to leave the school?”

“Yes, Professor Teal.”

“Can you tell me privately anything more than I heard? As it is, you are
charged with theft, and have been fighting.”

Billy hesitated. “I—I think I can say no more.”

After another silence the man asked suddenly, “Did the picnic episode
noted in that circular refer to you?”

Billy’s eyes blazed. “It did.”

“You are the last one I should have suspected had I not heard Barney’s
remark. How did it happen?”

“It was an accident. My watch went wrong.”

“That was unfortunate.”

“Professor Teal,” Billy burst out suddenly, “I believe my watch was
purposely set back, for it has never varied before nor since. Some one
planned the whole thing for spite. How else could any one have known
about it? We came home separately and—and—Not one moment of that night
is one we need be ashamed of.”

“Then I shall have two or three of the teachers hear your report and the
young woman’s—”

“Pardon me, Mr. Teal, I would never give her name.”

“Will she not wish to do this herself?”

“I think not. My silence will protect her. That’s what I fought Jim
Barney for.” And when the man did not reply at once, Billy added
impulsively, “Mr. Teal, in my place would you give away a girl?”

The man turned, laid a kindly hand on Billy’s shoulder, and smiled.
“Billy, if I had the pluck I wouldn’t. But go home and tell your
mother.”

“I—I had hoped not to worry her.”

“I’ve met your mother; and from what I know of her I think she’s
worrying already. Moreover, she will have to know why you lose your
honors, won’t she?”

“I—I guess you’re right. I’ll tell her.”

He bade the Principal good-bye and started off with a buoyance that
surprised him, for he was stiff and sore, and he knew his standing among
his mates was lost.

Not till he was nearly home did he think of his troop. Would the
Scoutmaster take away his badges? He must, if the theft of funds was
known. For Mr. Streeter the return of the money would not be enough; he
must know that Billy did not commit the theft.

“He need never know; they have made up the sum,” Billy thought. Yet
instantly he knew that was neither justification nor proof of his
innocence.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                              CHAPTER XIII

                       ERMINIE TIES ANOTHER KNOT


BILLY told his mother all except Erminie’s connection with the
situation, which his stubborn loyalty withheld. But Mrs. Bennett had
seen the circular and drawn her own conclusions, which were the same as
Bess’s, though the older woman saw there was no way of reaching Jim
Barney. She resented the heartlessness of the girl who could allow Billy
to bear the blame alone, though of course she did not connect her in any
way with the theft.

“Billy, Billy! I thought you had at least learned to keep your money in
a bank.”

“I told you the bank was closed.”

“I could have banked it for you.”

“I never thought of that.”

“‘Never thought’ doesn’t lock the door, nor rebuild the burned house. Of
course I shall advance the money, but that does not clear you. Your
brother Hal is too busy to be troubled just now, but before school opens
in the Autumn everything must be straightened out. Perhaps before that
the girl will see fit to speak—”

“She can’t tell anything about the money.”

“But she can clear up the picnic matter.”

“But I shall not return to school, mother; I am going to work for Mr.
Smith the Monday after school closes.”

Mrs. Bennett looked at him sternly a moment. “Billy, don’t you know that
you are still my little boy in the eyes of the law? You will have to go
to school if I require it.”

Billy put his arm around her. “Yes, mother; but you won’t require it if
a woman’s good name depends on my doing what I think right.”

She returned his earnest look and sighed. “Perhaps you’re right, Billy.
At least I cannot live your life for you. Take your position for the
Summer, and afterward—we’ll see.” Mrs. Bennett had learned that patient
waiting, more often than opposition, adjusts tangled matters wisely.

The election for president of the student body took place the next day,
at the close of the afternoon session. All day groups of students at
every opportunity had discussed the situation in low tones. It was known
to both factions that the teachers were watching carefully, and that on
the slightest indication of disorder or chicanery they would interfere.

The Kid was openly jubilant, and his forces full of brag, though Walter
Buckman did not quite conceal his anxiety. But Hector’s friends were
serious, extraordinarily quiet, yet mysteriously busy.

Several of the leading boys wore badges bearing an inscription none but
the initiated could read. These were seen to be in close conversation
for a moment at a time with student after student; and after each such
conversation the badge-wearer was seen to pass a card. He was especially
busy among the girls.

Observing these groups, sensitive Billy thought they often glanced his
way; and he noticed that the active ones were all his friends. But none
of them came to him. It was the first mark of disapproval they had shown
him. Among the workers were Redtop, Sis Jones, Reginald, and Mumps, his
four best friends except Hector.

He watched them pass and repass during the noon hour, always with a
pleasant nod but too busy to stop. In the halls he met them as groups
passed to the recitation rooms, and outside it was the same. And even
Bess, who always had time for a word, now waved to him and actually
hurried away.

At last he could endure inaction no longer. He wanted to be in the
fight, to be doing things for Hector. The truth did not occur to him
till he finally appealed to his cousin at the close of the session.
“Say, Hec, what do the fellows mean, leaving me out of your fight? I’ve
chewed the rag with myself all day, expecting I’d be asked to kick in
for something; but they’ve passed me by as if I were a stone dog or a
skunk cabbage.”

“Don’t get peeved, Billy. You don’t know the whole game. Our boys are
secretly fixing the lie on the circular. We’ve found out the whole
business, name of the printer, and how much he got for concealing the
name of his press; but we’re not talking out loud, because that would
queer things.”

“Gee! That’s great!”

“Every one in the school who holds club or society funds has been
investigated and found to the good.”

“That—that—”

“Fixes you. Of course I’m not supposed to be busy on any of this,
neither are you supposed to be interested. See?”

Billy looked down and scraped the floor absently with his toe. “I see
I’m a heavy drag on you, Hec. I’ve about knocked you silly.”

Redtop, hurrying by, heard this. “Stop running off at the mouth, Billy
To-morrow! We’ve got them shot all to pieces; only it’s on the q. t.
till after the trick is turned. It’s your cue—ours, all of us—to look
all in, meachin’ like. We’ll hit the cheers later.”

And so it transpired. The contest was quickly over. Hector won by a
clear majority of thirty-seven. The jollification followed; and several
of the teachers, waiting in the building conveniently in case of
difficulty, came into the assembly-room and listened to the riot of
exultation.

The other party was dazed. They had counted so confidently on Jim
Barney’s contention that “queering Billy meant queering Hec Price,” that
they could not at once realize their defeat. Their leader was a master
at vilifying; but had not lived long enough to know that reputation is
cumulative and powerful for better or for worse. Billy had built his
good name in the school too surely to be downed by one blow; and the
students who didn’t know Billy proved their good sense by voting for
Hector on his merits instead of his connections.

But the leader “played his game” to the end. After Hector had closed his
speech of appreciation, the Kid claimed the floor and delivered a
scathing speech, full of innuendo, and interrupted by hisses and
cat-calls, and ending with a startling threat.

“I leave school in a few days. I know the schools are run in the
interest of certain political factions, in the interest of the classes.
I’ll be a voter pretty soon; and when I am, I’ll have my father and his
bunch behind me, and we’ll make school matters sizzle. We’ll see that
student rights are not invaded by teachers, and that the smooth-tongued
element gets what’s coming—”

Because Hector had been the speaker’s opponent he felt that his first
act in the newly created chair could not be one of repression; but now
the speech was becoming so incendiary that riot threatened. The factions
vied with each other in demonstration, each going as far as it dared in
the presence of teachers.

At this point Hector rapped for order, ineffectually at first but
insistently; and two or three of Barney’s followers who had another year
in the school to forfeit if they overstepped discipline, plucked at him
and audibly warned him that he was likely to lose his diploma.

He glared at them and went on. “They can’t do it. They can’t refuse me
my diploma because I exercise the right of free speech. I can call the
President of the United States any name I please, and the president of a
school-board or a principal is no better, because my taxes support all
of ’em. I—”

He got no farther. Redtop whispered something in Walter Buckman’s ear
that made him start up in his seat. He reached over and pulled the Kid
down, and three or four boys hustled him from the room. And Hector
adjourned the most threatening meeting in the history of the school.

Affairs moved on to the end of the term in outward quiet; yet the
Principal, aided by a few of the teachers, carried on a thorough search
for the author of the circular, that proved little. The small firm that
printed the circulars told what they knew, but said the business was
carried on entirely through correspondence. The copy being private
matter required no signature, and the payment was by coin brought by a
small boy whom they could not identify, and to whom they delivered the
order.

Thus when graduation came, Jim Barney stepped arrogantly forward and, as
the others, received his diploma. Billy’s anger swelled again, but he
could not indulge it for long. There was Reginald who had won first
place, delivering his oration with a power that cheered; and many others
Billy knew, receiving well earned rewards. Only Erminie’s name was not
called, and Billy felt anew his remorse as he remembered that but for
him she would have been there, more beautiful than any of them.

Next year it would be Hec and Redtop, Bess, Sis Jones, and all the
“gang”; and he would not be with them. This was the last day of school
for him. But soon he forgot regret in the midst of good-byes, bustle,
and joyous confusion, that presently subsided and left the gray building
silent and ghostly for the long summer vacation.

Saturday was a busy day, spent at home in preparation for work, in
“squaring up” troop duties, a bit of shopping, and other matters that
had been put off till the end of school. He was to sleep at home, but
would leave early for his work and return late. There would be little
time for other matters.

For weeks, beneath the push of increasing duties, he vainly had tried to
down the ache that came with thought of Erminie. She had not written. He
missed her, and was hurt, sore because she had gone without a word to
him, and had not let him know her hiding-place. He tried to excuse her.
He invented a dozen ways in which a note she might have left for him
could have gone astray. But the ache still lingered.

The Sunday before he left home was the hardest day of all. He was tired.
His bridges were burned behind him, and his march ahead, not begun, was
portentous with unknown trials. He worried himself with visions of
Erminie ill, in trouble, alone, or perhaps worse, with people who
mistreated her. Might the struggle be too much for her? Might she end
it?

But he did not dwell long on that thought. Erminie was too cheerful,
stout of heart, too bright and winning, and life meant too much to her;
she would not fail. One thing, however, haunted him persistently: she
would need money, and he could not send it to her.

The day wore on. In the evening they gathered around the piano and sang
the songs they loved, Billy’s smooth, rich bass making the family
quartette complete. It was nine o’clock, and Billy was saying good-night
because he must be up and off by six in the morning, when a messenger
came with an “immediate delivery” letter for Billy.

At last! He felt sure that it was from Erminie and his heart jumped,
though he held his face calm. He was glad the address was
typewritten,—they would think it was from the troop, or from some of the
boys on important business. With a hasty excuse he took it to his room
to read. There he tore it open, surprised that his hand was trembling,
his breath coming in gusts.

    “DEAREST BILLY:

    “You must have worried about me something awful. I did not write
    before because you told me not to. At first I didn’t know what to
    do, but now I’m going to stay right here. They want me to. It was
    perfectly darling of you to let me have that money, so much too. And
    I know you’ll need it. But what a funny way to send it! I’m sending
    two dollars. I can’t spare more yet.

    “I had an awful chin with the Kid the night before I went away, the
    night you were on the scout. As soon as I saw that dodger I called
    him up over the phone and told him to come over; and he did, and we
    walked and talked and talked. He wanted to go and sit in the park,
    but I wouldn’t. I told him he’d have to take back all he said, but
    he was nasty. He said he had both of us right where he wanted us;
    that I had lied to him, and a few more like that; and he wasn’t even
    yet,—he’d only begun. There was more coming.

    “Billy, I hated to run away and leave you to bear everything alone;
    and I hate it when I can’t even tell you where I am; but as long as
    you told me to do it, and wait four weeks before writing, I’ve done
    just as you said, though it’s been hard. I’m sure you know best. But
    why did you typewrite it?

    “Don’t worry about me. I’m at my cousin’s,—my uncle’s house, and
    they treat me fine. I don’t have to do anything that I don’t wish
    to, and Cousin Will is dandy. Tell ma this; though I suppose you
    won’t since you fixed everything safe for me. Poor ma! I’m sorry for
    her.

    “I’m sending you a thousand kisses and a heartful of love. I’ll send
    more money as soon as I can earn it.

              “Your loving, troublesome Erminie.”

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                              CHAPTER XIV

                             THE BLACK HAND


THE Summer was well on toward September. Billy’s first business that
Monday morning in June when he made his final break with boyhood was to
go to Mr. Smith’s Tum-wah Valley office for instructions. Here Mr. Smith
came every morning to see how his big concerns were going in earth and
rock, before he took them up in his town offices in the mystic symbolism
of paper and figures, and business policy and confidence,—all that vast
idealism which is so much more really the business of the world than are
the products of the earth we live on.

From the open door of the artistic, vine-covered log building Billy
could look up the steep hill to Tuk-wil-la (hazel-nuts), Mr. Smith’s
summer home, set in the edge of the forest overlooking the little valley
and the broad Lake Kal-lak-a-la-chuck.

Mr. Smith’s instructions were brief. “I told you it would be no picnic,
Billy. This is your stunt: take your shovel and go to work with those
Dagos on the grade. Learn all of ’em, the look of the face, walk, and
whatever you can pick up of their talk. You’ll have to slouch along and
be a Dago yourself. Mind, I don’t want any tattling,—just to know if
they are plotting any mischief, that’s all. And don’t come near me
unless you’re called. Treat me as you see them treat me. See?”

“I’ll try,” Billy answered. He went to the foreman for his tools, and
set to work.

The hard work, the long hours, and Billy’s youth unaccustomed to labor
left him at night little more than a log to roll into bed, sleep
heavily, and go dully off in the morning to another day of digging. It
was no wonder that the strange situation of being engaged to marry a
young woman and already entered upon his life obligation of providing
her home, and yet not knowing where she was, did not weigh upon him as
much as he had thought it would.

But as he became hardened to his labor, her problem grew more obtrusive,
and he longed to hear from her. He puzzled over the one, the only letter
he had received, trying by many readings to understand it, but it
revealed less and less meaning. That she had received a letter
purporting to be from him instructing her to take the money from his
club fund, go away, and not write for four weeks, and even then not
reveal her location,—this he gathered. But how she came by such a letter
which he had never written, how she could be deceived in the writing,
how she got the desk drawer open,—these and many other questions would
have become unendurable had he not been so engrossed with his new life.

Through the papers he had seen that her father had failed in business,
that Mr. Alvin Short was the chief creditor, and that the home had been
sold. It also transpired that Mr. Fisher’s business record was not one
of which any son-in-law could be proud.

Billy could never recover from his disgust at the camp feeding where the
dirty crew bolted better food than they were accustomed to in silent
haste, and yet complained. It was some time before the well-bred boy
could mentally detach himself and imagine he was in his own home; but he
partly accomplished this feat at last, and ate with better appetite.

He found one among them, an American whose better upbringing had
somewhat survived the tramping that had gone with the bottle. He was now
“doing his yearly stunt” at work, he said, putting by enough to keep him
out of “the poor house, or the chain gang, or whatever is the fashion
for the gentry of the road in the town I strike next Winter.”

At one corner of the table they ate together, and sometimes talked a
little, while the rest fed. But he was a philosopher, and Billy learned
from him many things that set him thinking. “Billy, a man must fight and
wait,” the man broke out suddenly one day, “before he can fight and
win.” They were lying under a _madroño_ tree, resting after the midday
meal.

“You’ll have to switch on the light; I don’t get a glimmer,” Billy
replied lazily.

“Anybody can fight, when he has to; even a dog does; but few of us have
the grit to fight and hold on. You’re just beginning life, my boy; hold
on.”

“I mean to do that.”

“Not to this! It is a dog’s life—to slave for another man, feed, sleep,
wake, and do it all over again. I shall not do it much longer. But
you—don’t form the quitting habit; hold, and all the time search for
something better. Then your fight tells. See?”

“Yes. But what’s the matter with you? Why don’t you do a little holding
yourself?”

The man’s eyes darkened and he frowned. “Too late.”

“It’s never too late.”

The man jerked himself up, and energy flashed in the weak face. “Not too
late for you. Opportunity will pass your way many times. Catch her every
time—hold her. By Heaven! With your face and body, your clean mind and
good brain, you can do anything,—be a young god. Billy, a fellow at the
open door of life doesn’t suspect his power, doesn’t use a fraction of
it.” He reached his hand up to the summer sky. “Up there, down here,” he
dug his foot into the fecund earth, “a thousand million possibilities
wait for us to draw them forth with our minds.”

“And you?” Billy asked as the other looked off gloomily.

He wheeled almost angrily. “I? I have ruined my chances. It takes a
clear eye, a steady hand, and a clean heart—mind you, a clean heart—to
see and hear the secrets up there, down here.” Again he indicated earth
and sky. “Under desert skies, miles from any human habitation, I’ve
watched the stars march from purple twilight to golden morning, and
heard things—whispers right out of heaven that would have been triumph
for me if—if I had been fit.”

The foreman called, and they took up their shovels; and Billy’s was no
longer heavy. But the man settled into his habitual silent, uneven
effort.

Side by side they worked till mid-afternoon, when the Smiths’ machine
appeared in the distance, May Nell alone in the tonneau. Billy’s first
impulse was to straighten and greet her, but it flashed across him that
the men must not know of his acquaintance with the daughter of the
“boss.” “Stand in front of me, will you?” he asked of the man, and bent
to re-tie his shoe.

“What did you do that for?” the tramp inquired as the machine flew by.
“Do you know her? If you do, don’t let any devilish pride keep you from
standing in her presence, a man, clean-faced or dirty.”

Billy grinned. “That’s all right; it’s part of my game.”

“I don’t get you.”

“It’s not because my face is dirty, or that she would care—she’s pure
gold—but because it’s part of my job to do that.”

“All right; you know your cards; I don’t.”

Billy’s eyes twinkled. “This is the fight,” he waved his hand around
toward the sweating, bending crew; “and not letting her see me is the
holding on. See?”

The philosopher smiled. “You’ve caught on, all right.”

That night after work, and supper, and when Billy was trudging down the
hill to get the car for home, he met the machine again. He tried to
dodge it for workmen were passing, some lounging along the dusty road in
groups.

    [Illustration: “What do you mean, Billy Boy, by refusing to speak to
        me?”]

May Nell saw him and ordered the driver to stop. “What do you mean,
Billy Boy, by refusing to speak to me? I saw you this afternoon. Your
shoe didn’t need—”

“Miss Smith, I—”

She stiffened as if struck.

“Miss Smith, circumstances alter cases,” Billy added quietly.

She was conscious of the slower gait of the dark passers, their smiles
and frank curiosity.

“I’m sorry I can’t tell you any more, lady,” he finished with a comical
imitation of the obsequious attitude of the foreign workman to his
employers. “I tell-a the Big-a Boss.”

She laughed and ordered the machine on, but he saw the perplexity in her
face as she sped away.

Billy turned to meet a leering, grinning Italian face. “Boss-a girl vera
good look-a.” He gave Billy a nudge that permitted no resentment, since
Billy had encouraged familiarity from the workmen. “You lika?”

Billy ached to “spoil his face.” Instead, “Be prepared” came instantly
to his mind. He pointed to the palatial home on the hill, Tuk-wil-la.
“Queens! Understand?”

The man nodded.

Billy stooped and gathered a handful of the dust at his feet and pointed
to himself. “Me. Understand?”

Again the man nodded, but with a queer look, half credulity, half
suspicion, and trudged on.

Billy had not grown up in the vineyard country of California without
learning something of Italian peasantry, and he had not worked a week
before he knew the men had a grievance. He got an Italian primer and a
phrase book, and utilized his time on the car, which was nearly two
hours each day, for studying, with the result of being shortly able to
catch the drift of most that was said around him. So it was that as the
Summer passed he learned and reported enough of their crude plottings to
keep Mr. Smith on his guard.

When Billy arrived home a second letter from Erminie awaited him, and
again behind his locked door he read it, wondering as he tore it open,
that he did not feel the same excited hurry as over the first one. It
was the unsatisfactory letter of one unaccustomed to correspondence and
without the natural gift for it, yet it was surprising enough.

    “DEAREST BILLY:

    “Here is five dollars more. I’ll be able to pay up soon now, for
    Cousin Will got me a job. It has seemed a long time to wait, six
    weeks; but I’m doing just as you said in that letter of instruction,
    Billy.

    “I want to tell you again, Billy, that I would rather have faced it
    out with you, because I wasn’t afraid to stand up to anybody about
    that night, with you so splendid to me. It’s all right. Whatever you
    say goes about that business.

    “I can’t understand yet how it was you knew all about the circular,
    and had it all planned out—what I was to do—before you went on the
    scout. None of us knew about it, the dodger I mean, till Saturday
    night. And how was it, Billy, that you had me send the key to a
    place away over in North City? I didn’t know any of your friends
    lived over there. The way I put it up is that some one there is to
    act in the club _pro tem_, for you this Summer, while you are
    working.

    “I like my work just fine. Such a jolly bunch, hayseeds of course,
    but I’m getting so I don’t mind that. And they’re all so nice to me,
    especially the boys. But Cousin Will don’t let any of ’em get funny.
    They all think I’m his steady.

    “I’m sending a letter to ma in this. Please mail it. I expect she’s
    about crazy. I sent one to the home number. I had to do that, Billy,
    if you did tell me not to. That wasn’t a bit like you, Billy. But
    the letter came back. If this goes to the general delivery maybe
    she’ll get it. You’ll send it, won’t you, Billy? She’s lost her
    home, you know; I saw it in the paper. Or Will did.

    “So long, dear Billy. Don’t forget me, though I’m not worth
    remembering. I think a lot of you. If I amount to anything it’ll be
    a lot because of you.

    “Cousin Will is dandy to me, so thoughtful,—lots like you, only he’s
    a hayseed too; but I don’t mind that; I’m getting used to it. He’s
    twenty-four.

              “Your loving Erminie.”

Billy stared at the sheet a long time, turning it over and over, and
scrutinizing the envelope as if he might make it tell him something
more. What could it all mean? Who had sent her that letter? Planned her
movements so carefully and forged his name? And the money? He didn’t see
yet how she could have got it out of the drawer at school even if she
did have a key.

Twenty-four! An old fellow that Will was. He wasn’t really her cousin
either. Billy set his teeth and wished he were free to set out on a
search for her. The letter was postmarked Portland, Oregon. The other
had been the same. But of course the place where she was must be the
country, and some distance too, or she would not call the people
hayseeds.

Suddenly the task of finding a girl somewhere in the State of Oregon
with nothing but that postmark to guide him revealed to him its
hopelessness; and too restless to sleep he went out and walked,—faster
and faster, without realizing it, going south.

With every step the puzzle grew worse. Only one grain of comfort showed:
Erminie’s letter would prove him no thief. Why, yes! that really
fastened the proof on him, and worse, showed that he was taking care of
her. That was no way out of the tangle.

Who could be using his name for this business? Of course, no one but the
Kid, and he was too cunning to be caught. And where was that key? Would
some of the boys get it, and never know where it came from? And the desk
drawer—whose would it be when September found that silent old pile
ringing again with a thousand student voices?

At length he found himself in the southernmost park of the city, not so
very far from Tum-wah. Exhausted, he threw himself on one of the
benches, drawing well within the shadows that he might, unmolested, go
over again all the matters that troubled him.

While he mused, he became gradually conscious of voices approaching, and
he was sensible of some ominous import in them. He knew they were
Italians. Instantly he dropped to the grass and crept behind the bench,
intending to go on as soon as they passed.

They were quarrelling, but speaking in guarded tones, vehemently. Billy
heard broken bits, “More, more,” and “Thousand dollars,” in English; and
in Italian, names of places he knew were in Italy. But nothing excited
him till he heard, “the boss,” and “in the lake!”

The Black Hand! That had put its mark on Mr. Smith! Well, even the Black
Hand might find its mate in a white one!

Billy was not so frightened as he might have been, had he known less of
their ways, these hotheaded Latins that live in America, but not _of_ it
till a second generation binds them to the soil. He knew their
allegiance to hates and friendships rooted in the land they had left;
and perhaps what he had heard was only a scheme to “even up” somewhere,
and concerned Mr. Smith only so far as the fact that the money they
earned came from him.

The men went by slowly, halting once or twice, and Billy crept
cautiously out and followed them at a distance till they came under one
of the park lamps that revealed them perfectly. Billy knew them; one was
the man who had chaffed him about May Nell.

He hurried around by the gate on the other side and took a car for home,
where he called up Mr. Smith at Tuk-wil-la.

“It sounds important, Billy. Out with it.”

“It’s not to be told over the wire. But please don’t leave your house
to-night—”

“To-night? It’s twelve o’clock. You’ve got me out of bed.”

“Well, let me see you in the morning before you leave the house, then;
it may be nothing,—what I have to tell,—and it may be a good deal.”

“All right, boy. Don’t worry yourself. Nothing is as bad in the morning
as it seems at night. Good-night.”

But in spite of that bit of truth Billy went to bed to dream of swarthy
banditti, Italian caves, beautiful maids held for ransom, and
hair-breadth escapes known only to dreams.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                               CHAPTER XV

                            A GLEAM OF LIGHT


WHEN Billy rang at Tuk-wil-la the next morning Mr. Smith was waiting for
him; and safely in the den Billy told his story. At the close he was
astonished to hear Mr. Smith chuckle softly.

“Look at that curiosity.” He handed the boy a smudged and rumpled
letter.

It was a threat common enough to men of large concerns, ill-spelled,
blotted, and signed with a black hand. It demanded ten thousand dollars,
to be delivered by Mr. Smith in person and alone, the next night at a
certain designated hour and place; and failure to comply meant certain
death to one of his family.

“Sounds creepy, doesn’t it, Billy?”

“What will you do?”

“What they tell me to do,—with a difference.”

“You—surely you won’t go, Mr. Smith!”

“Surely I will. But three or four good men will be hidden out there in
the bushes.”

“Gee! I’d like to be one; I can shoot.”

Mr. Smith shook his head, and his smile died. “This is probably comic
opera, yet—you’re your mother’s only son, and there might be a bit of a
scrimmage. Besides I have other work for you.”

“All right.”

Mr. Smith smiled, for Billy’s tone was not hearty. “The Tum-wah people’s
second injunction is out; but I can take care of that well enough, if I
can beat daylight on another proposition.” He rose and took a turn or
two around the room, one hand in his pocket, the other pulling roughly
at his mustache. “Do you know what our real trouble is?”

“The city won’t let you have the right of way over the boulevard? Is
that it?”

“Yes. Do you know why?”

Billy looked up shrewdly. “You won’t pay the price?”

“Right, the first guess. Alvin Short wants to cinch us. And the worst of
it is, if he gets what he asks, he’ll bleed us every time we cross a
street or cut an alley. Now your job is this: to watch this property
while the Smith family go on an excursion.”

Billy could not help showing his surprise. Usually the force of servants
was trusted to do that.

Mr. Smith laughed and nodded through the window to where thick green
woods swept an impenetrable curtain past the singing falls, past the
private grounds, and down the hill. “The boulevard lies through there.
It won’t be built for two years, yet I may not go over it nor under nor
across it till they get their price. Billy, there’s—how many points of
law in possession?”

Billy smiled but was discreetly silent.

“I want six of the Italian bunch down there,” he nodded toward the
valley below, where men were already gathering for the day’s work. “I
want six that work, and don’t talk. Can you pick ’em out?”

Billy named six, but recommended the tramp-philosopher.

“No, not any Americans; not on this job. Now I must go down to the
grade, stop the work, and pay off the men. I guess that’s all, Billy.
Your work here begins to-morrow night. Sorry it’s not to be at our
picnic.”

When Billy left him and started down the steps, May Nell came running
out to meet him. “Billy! Wait a minute!”

The sun touched her hair to brighter gold. She was rosier, fuller of
cheek than formerly, and rounder of neck and arm, with an indescribable
dignity that was not quite a woman’s, yet more than girlish.

“I heard you and hurried out to catch you. I never see you any more.”

“I’m pretty busy these days.”

“Tell me why you called me ‘Miss Smith’ the other day.”

“I’m only your father’s hired workman down there—as I am anywhere for
that matter—and those fellows mustn’t see me presume to speak to you.”

She laughed merrily. “That seems positively funny, Billy, when I think
of the day you led me into your mother’s house with a sheet pinned round
me, a woman’s skirt torn and trailing, and my toes showing through my
shoes.”

“But now your father is worth a million and—and my face is dirty.” They
had stopped near the conservatory, and he saw himself in a window that
greenery behind had turned into a mirror, and laughed not quite
mirthfully.

She caught his hand—hard and grimy—in her soft ones. “Your heart isn’t
dirty, Billy. And I want you to remember always that I think you are the
very best boy in the world.”

They laughed lightly, and Billy ran off, and that day the shovel was
light.

May Nell and her mother went away, the servants were given a vacation,
and the house closed. It looked rather lonely when Billy came in the
early evening. He had a room in the garage, and was to be on duty
practically all of the time. This was not arduous, for the entire place
was enclosed in a high barbed-wire fence, as effective as if not hidden
by honeysuckle, wild rose, and clematis; and at night the gates were
locked and two Great Danes policed the grounds.

The first evening was a test of Billy’s courage, not because anything
happened, but because it was the first night of his life absolutely away
from human beings. And also because his mind was with Mr. Smith,
wondering what was happening, and magnifying the danger.

Morning came, and a telephone message saying, “Nothing doing; the
blackmailers caught on.” And Billy almost forgot to be glad, so
disappointed was he at the tame ending of his adventure.

As the day passed, he knew something was going on in the forest. Soft
voices came occasionally above the roar of the falls and the clink of
iron; and in the evening he detected the odor of fresh coffee and
toasting bacon. And Billy knew—Mr. Smith was crossing the boulevard!

Visitors and men on business, applying at the gate or by telephone, soon
lessened; and the rest and time for reading stimulated Billy to thought
of things unremembered during the months of hard work. Each day he
opened and aired the house, and found in the library books that made the
hours short.

Vague ideas he had hardly glimpsed for the flag design now took shape.
The banner of the city! It must be a noble idea, yet simple, one that
all would love; and it must be like the city,—the City of Green Hills.
It was also a city of blue waters and bluer skies.

Each day he dreamed over it till at last the idea bodied itself in a
spire-crowned, forest-enfolded hill, with a sea at its base and the
declining sun on the far horizon. A shallop in full sail was setting
forth toward the sun.

There it was, the green hill, the city, the sea and its commerce. But
this was present and future; something must show what had been
vanquished. Rather sadly Billy put in an Indian and a bear at the edge
of the forest, both looking backward.

A sudden reminder came to him,—he was no longer a school-boy. With the
resignation of his office of treasurer of the Good Citizens’ Club of the
Fifth Avenue High he had severed every link between him and school. Yet
he was still a club member,—that admitted him to the competition. He
felt out of it all, old,—was he old before his time? He thought of his
mother’s words, and then of Erminie, and—of May Nell.

After about twelve days Mr. Smith appeared suddenly. His shoes were
dusty and his hands and cuffs soiled; but he was oddly jaunty, as if
some great load had been lifted.

“Didn’t expect to see me, did you, Billy?”

Billy returned the greeting, and waited, wondering where his employer
could have been.

“Great job, Billy! All done. As good a viaduct over that boulevard site
as there is in the city. I’ve just been looking it over. Did you know it
was building?”

Billy smiled. “I only suspected.”

“Good boy! You may see it now, any time you wish; but the men who built
it won’t be there.”

Billy looked inquiringly but did not speak.

“It’s all right, boy; everything’s right. We’ll be riding on our own
railroad in a week.”

“Knock on wood.” Billy laughed.

“That’s right. There’s many a slip betwixt rail and tie. Run into town
for a couple of days, boy, and see your mother. I’ll look after the
house now.”

“Thank you. I—”

“Oh, and you needn’t say I am here.”

Billy was glad of the two days’ visit at home. It had never seemed so
pleasantly dainty and quiet; and it was good to spend some time with his
family when he was neither sleepy nor in a hurry. He called up some of
“the kids” over the wire and began to feel young again. Sydney answered
excitedly, and what he said took Billy flying across the town to see
him, when he caught a glimmer of a clue to the mystery that had
enveloped him all Summer.

“A Postal Telegraph kid I know saw Jim Barney go by one day,” Mumps
began, “and that set the boy talking. ‘That’s a crooked one,’ he said,
and then he told this story. He said that he took a letter for Kid
Barney once late at night to a girl,—a mighty good-looker, he called
her,—and the next morning he went to the same place to get another
letter; and in both was something hard, a key he thought it was. This
made me sit up, and I asked him where the girl lived, and he said East
Street, somewhere in the seven hundred block.”

“That’s Erminie!” Billy burst out.

“Sure. And that letter had—”

“That letter was a forged one from me, and it ordered her to take the
money and run away, and not let any one know where she was.”

“Jiminy! How do you know that much?”

Billy told briefly of receiving the two letters. “Where can I find that
telegraph boy?”

“He’s gone to the country for a few days, but he’ll be back.”

“Then we can clean it all up, and—” Suddenly all the hope died out of
his face, and he turned away dejectedly. “No use, Mumps; there’s nothing
doing.”

“You bet there is! Now that I know so much, I’ll have it out myself
with—”

“Mumps, it’s just where it was before. Nothing can be done in the matter
without bringing in the girl, and that we can’t do.”

“Then it’s straight, what all the fellers are saying, that you two
stayed out all night at the picnic?”

“I’m not acknowledging that,” Billy said sternly; and then wheeled
quickly. “Nothing happened that night that the whole world might not
have seen.”

Sydney looked his sympathy and his entire understanding. “I see.”

“My watch was set back that night.”

Sydney jumped to his feet. “Gee whack! Did your coat hang on a tree back
of the dancing place?”

“Yes, for a time.”

“I saw the Kid fooling with something there, saw him hurry away just as
I turned the corner. And that minute you passed me; but it wasn’t very
light, and you didn’t notice me.”

Billy was silent for a time. “Mumps, all this may help me some day, but
not now. Will you keep track of that messenger?”

Mumps promised, and after some further discussion that was barren, they
separated.

The second day Billy spent with the Scouts, visiting each troop, hearing
of their scouting trips, watching the practice work, and with Mr.
Streeter going over the plans for the great civic review of the Scouts,
the Good Citizens’ Clubs, and the ceremony of accepting the successful
flag design and awarding the prize.

The evening of the second day Billy went back to Tum-wah. He was not due
till morning, but he had become already a part of the great activities
incipient there, which his imagination could see perfected and powerful.
He felt by proxy the responsibility and the joy of it.

Mr. Smith in his machine overtook Billy trudging up the hill, and took
him in.

“Ought I to ride—be seen riding with—”

“Jump in! You should not have come back before time, but I’m glad you
did. After to-night your job is over, and you’ll have a better one.”

“Why, what—what’s doing?” Billy began, too astonished even to realize
the import of Mr. Smith’s remark.

“Yes; find things changed, don’t you? We’ve been busy.”

When Billy left, the grade had stretched bare and brown for miles
without tie or rail. Now, except a short gap at the station and the
half-mile of contested right of way the track was completed up the hill
and into the forest.

“The girls took a notion to come home ahead of time—surprise.” Mr. Smith
looked toward the villa. “I hate surprises! Bad enough in business; but
this—Well, now they’re here, we’ll have to take care of ’em, Billy.”

The boy thrilled at being included as a defender of the two in the house
they were approaching.

“Get down in the tonneau,” Mr. Smith commanded. “They must not know
you’re here—and to watch; they’ll be uneasy.”

Billy obeyed.

“Stay here—out of sight—till I come again; I won’t be gone long.” Mr.
Smith drove to the garage, but not in, and Billy got out and went to an
inner room, his sleeping apartment.

As he had feared he heard May Nell’s voice when her father returned to
the machine. But he got rid of her.

“Run back, kiddie. I have some figuring to do, and then I must see a man
at Tum-wah, and some other things—it may be very late before I get
back.”

“It’s your birthday, papa. We came home to celebrate—”

“To-morrow night will do as well; make the old house hum if you like
to-morrow.”

“I suppose I’ll have to be satisfied,” May Nell said, and Billy heard
the crunch of her slippers in the gravel.

“Come out, Billy. I have time to burn,” Mr. Smith called; and as Billy
entered he saw the anxiety the man could not conceal. “If anything
suspicious occurs don’t wait to investigate but call up South 265, and
tell ’em to come at once; then me at Tum-wah.”

“Why don’t you have—the police, is it?—on hand before—”

“I didn’t expect to have women in on this deal. And—there are times when
one must have the trouble _before_ he calls for the cure. Sometimes that
makes a point in law.”

He was silent a long time. And the night, too, seemed stiller to Billy
than usual. Not a breath of wind was stirring, and nothing was moving
out on the road, though the hum of the distant electric car was making
itself heard.

“By George, Billy! I don’t want trouble,” the man broke out suddenly.
“If those Tum-wah fellows had let me alone I’d have been willing to
divvy even, and they’d have had twice as much as they have now. But
they’ve hogged the game. They’ve pushed their injunction suits, and
fixed these Dago gardeners. Last night they tried to blow up my grade.”

“They did?” Billy began to realize that there might be a shadow of the
Black Hand after all.

“But I’ve got the jump on ’em, Billy; got ’em in the neck, by George!
They’ve violated their franchise,—I have the evidence in black and
white; and if this night’s work meets any interference I’ll put their
old once-a-some-time-in-the-day cattle cars out of business.”

He lit a cigar and puffed at it nervously. Billy had never seen him in
this mood before.

“They think I want to get the land round here for nothing. Boy, when a
_real_ man wants to make money, he takes something out of Nature that’s
worthless, or worth little—or perhaps it’s man’s waste—and makes that
thing, after a dose of brains and a civilized dress, worth good money.
But a lazy man jumps a lot of land and sits down to listen to his
neighbors holler for it. In your time, my son, the people will have
their eyes open, and there’ll be no land going that way. Then you’ll
have to use your brains to think up new things.”

“Sometimes it seems as if all the new things had been thought up.”

“New things! Why, Billy, if every man should invent a new job there’d
still be as many coming. Look about you and see how many little things
need fixing. And who has made use of sawdust? We burn millions of
dollars’ worth every day. They’ll be making hot cross buns out of it
some day. Look at the thistles, nettles, base ores, the millions burned
up in sewage. Think of the untended, burned, and rotting
forests,—billions go that way. Think of the deserts even along foggy sea
coasts,—why, when we really use our brains we’ll condense that fog,
irrigate with it, and raise pineapples where the horned toad now
preëmpts all the real estate.”

He stopped a moment, rolled his cigar in his fingers, and looked out of
the open door; while Billy, breathless, waited for him to go on.

“Think of the tide. Billy, men of the twenty-first century will run
nearly everything in the world that calls for power by the force of the
tide. They’ll turn it into acres of light, and heat, and force their
garden truck with it. They’ll cook with it, grind with it, carry it up
mountains and down into mines; drive with it, fly with it, and laugh at
us for troglodytes.”

Both laughed softly, and Mr. Smith presently rose. “I guess I’ll go down
to the grade and kill time there. May Nell might come again; she doesn’t
have as much respect for business as you do, Billy.”

“Perhaps it would be the same with me if you were my father, though I
don’t see—how—” He hesitated, wondering what life would mean with such a
man for father.

“Perhaps so. Well, lie low. And don’t let the girls know you’re here.”

With that Mr. Smith got into the machine and chugged off down the hill.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                              CHAPTER XVI

                          A NIGHT OF DISASTER


BILLY looked after him a moment thinking it rather a pleasant fancy to
call mother and daughter “the girls,” but the situation quickly claimed
his attention. It was still light, and May Nell might come to the garage
and discover him; he would go to see the viaduct.

He went by the lower gate and skirted the river, a river in volume,
though called Tum-wah Creek. As he walked he mentally constructed the
scene as it would look when Mr. Smith’s enterprises possessed the
valley,—he heard the hum of mills and factories; on the peaceful lake
below saw ships entering the canal from the Sound to load for ports, for
the world’s far ports.

He looked back at the beautiful mansion; it would be a pity to see it
desecrated, made into a boarding-house, perhaps. Yet Mr. Smith would
move his summer home farther on. It was the way of this vast growing
city,—to-day’s lovely suburb was to-morrow’s mart of business.

Billy had barely walked around the viaduct, marvelling at the swiftness
and secrecy of its building, when a low whistle halted him, and the
tramp-philosopher came from the woods.

“Hello, Billy! Back in time for the rumpus, are you?”

“What rumpus?”

“Hasn’t the boss put you wise? It’s coming sure.”

“What’s coming?”

“There’ll be a row down there to-night when the old man starts to close
that gap in the rails.”

“Oh, I guess not.” Billy turned away with more jauntiness than he felt.

“See here, boy!” Billy could see that the man was serious and sober. “I
know—those hounds have it in for Mr. Smith.”

“But surely he is prepared.”

“For what will happen down there,” he pointed to the valley, “but not
here. The ladies—they came home.”

“Mr. Smith didn’t expect them. It can’t be helped now.”

“Not helped? Why doesn’t he send them to town?”

Billy thought hard. Why didn’t he, to be sure? There must be some
reason,—perhaps it must not be known that Mr. Smith expected
trouble,—but whatever his motive Billy must stand by him, stand by May
Nell and her mother. “He had his reasons; it’s not for you or me to
question them.”

“Perhaps not.”

“Are you going down there?” Billy nodded toward the railroad.

“No. He needs help here. They’d like to see this viaduct go up in smoke,
those Tum-wah rascals.”

“Gee! Will they do that?” Billy thought a minute. “Say! If you should
need me, blow this whistle twice; but don’t do anything that will let
the two at the house know I’m there. See?” Billy handed over his
whistle.

“I’m on. If you hear shots don’t be scared. I’m heeled.” He showed a new
revolver.

They separated, and Billy hurried back to his place. So far there was
nothing unusual in the quiet evening scene. Through the foliage he could
see May Nell and her mother in their summer white, sitting on the
veranda; could hear the soft murmur of their intermittent conversation,
though no words. The evening was warm, and the fragrance of honeysuckle
and mignonette heavy on the air. For years afterwards Billy never
smelled them that he did not live over again the events of that awful
night.

Many times he made the rounds, stealthily, keeping most of the time near
the garage lest he should be called. When he went in once for something,
the clock said eleven; and the next time he looked toward the veranda,
they were gone. The lower house was dark, but upstairs lights twinkled
from two of the rooms; shortly they, too, were dark.

Two men entered the radiance of the gateway lamps. Billy hastened down
the drive to see if they went toward the viaduct; but they kept on up
the road that led through the woods to some small ranches.

For more than an hour all was quiet. Billy hoped the two in the house
were sleeping calmly; hoped no hint of this night’s anxieties would ever
come to them. Suddenly, unbidden, came the thought of fire! He knew how
the stairways ran, how he could reach those rooms unless both stairways
were cut off. In that case—was there a ladder? He measured with his eye
the more than twenty feet between those windows and the sloping ground.

He remembered seeing a ladder at the back of the garage, and went to
look for it, but it was gone; and he wondered if it could have been
placed in the basement for safe keeping while the servants were away.

As he returned to his beat again, a ringing of metal struck through the
darkness. It was the hammers! They had begun to lay the rails!
Regularly, beat on beat, came the blows. Dozens of lanterns were bunched
each side of the track, shedding a dim light. Billy wondered why Mr.
Smith had not strung electric lamps on a sliding wire. Perhaps he did
not want the Green Hills Power Company to know,—since he must buy power
of them until his own plant was completed.

Billy crept quickly back to his post near the garage, thinking Mr. Smith
might call him. Again he saw the two men in the lamplight going by on
the road, this time headed for Tum-wah. An uneasy suspicion came to him:
What business had taken those men to the isolated ranches and back so
late at night?

A dozen answers,—business, illness, a telegram,—many legitimate errands
might be theirs for this midnight trip. Yet Billy could not rid himself
of his suspicion.

The sounds from below came regularly, but more rapidly, as if some force
were hurrying the workers. He could see the bent backs, and occasionally
the glint of metal in the lantern light; could see the helpers move the
stacked lights on, and hear the ring of the rails as they were dropped
on the ties.

The moon, red, lop-sided, and ragged, appeared over the Cascades. That
meant it was past twelve o’clock. Billy was creeping carefully by the
house to patrol the farther line of fence, when the hammering below
suddenly ceased; some of the lanterns went out, and noises of another
sort drifted up to him,—angry voices, the whack of sticks and clubs, and
then a shot.

It had come,—the protest of blows! He could see the confused commingling
of forms, hear louder voices, and again the dull crash as of wooden
weapons; and in a moment a detonation—a blast.

The road-bed—they must be blowing it up! Yet while Billy strained his
eyes to catch the location of the blast, and the meaning of the turmoil
that seemed a tragedy, he noticed a sudden stilling of the commotion,
and the shifting of the forms. One by one the lanterns were lighted
again, and soon the hammers rang, now more rapidly than before.

Billy understood. Mr. Smith had been prepared. He had seen that the law
should be ready to aid him as soon as assistance was needed. The work
would go right on, and Billy felt sure Mr. Smith would find a speedy way
to repair whatever damage might have been done. This outrage so promptly
met would surely stop any others that might have been contemplated.

Relieved, he ran into the garage and picked up the sandwich and bottle
of milk that were to be his lunch, and went out again where eye and ear
might still be on duty.

He did not eat. As he stepped out, a flame shot up at the side of the
house. He rushed into the garage to call up the fire department; but the
moment he took down the receiver he knew the wires had been cut,—the
telephone was “dead.”

A cold horror swept him. Whatever was done he must do himself. He ran to
find the garden hose and soon had a stream of water playing. The force
was good, and he could see that he made headway against the flame. Ought
he to cry out? Wake the sleepers? If he did, they would see—hear—No one
could tell what might happen down there in the valley before the coming
of the sun. He was gaining—the fire would soon be out. He would let them
sleep.

But this might not be the end. Those wires—where would the cut be? Near
the grounds surely, for anywhere else they were in plain sight of all
passers following the road.

He was looking for the last hidden sparks and considering it safe to
leave when a shot from the direction of the viaduct proclaimed that
malevolence that night was missing no property belonging to Mr. Smith. A
second shot rang out, and a third; and presently two men emerged from
the forest running, the forward one stumbling and recovering only to
fall again and rise no more. The second came toward the garage drive,
and Billy knew him to be the tramp.

He ran to open to him, explaining breathlessly about the fire and the
wires as they hurried up the walk.

“You take the hose and watch while I hunt where those wires are cut. I
believe we shall need the fire engine.”

“It won’t do any good; you can’t mend the cut if you find it. Better
break into the house and bring out the women now.”

“Wake them to all this turmoil, when it may not be necessary? No. I’ll
find and splice those wires someway.”

“You’ll get shocked, crippled, if not killed.”

“Telephone wires don’t shock to hurt.”

Without more parley Billy hurried out of the enclosure and around to
where the line entered the grounds, finding what he expected. The wire
had been cut near the pole. It was easy to tie the long end to the
fence, but he was puzzled how to manage the other.

The man—how had he reached the wire so high? He must have had a
ladder—that was where the ladder went! Or—could he have brought one?
Climbers! Of course. Billy’s heart sank, but rose again when he
remembered that all poles at Tuk-wil-la were of iron.

While thinking, he was hunting, slowly he thought, yet actually flying
from place to place, diving into the greenery along the fence and
leaving more than one drop of blood as tribute to the barbs. He found
the ladder at last, a flimsy thing, and placed it against the pole.

Wire! He must have wire. Like lightning his mind flashed from point to
point of his difficulty. The clothes-line,—that was copper! He started
back, running and thinking. How could he cut it? Must he take time to
twist it in two, even supposing he could? It was such heavy wire. Tools
in the garage? Yes, perhaps, and the chest locked; and while he hunted,
precious moments would be going.

The lawn-mower! Perhaps that would do the trick. He knew right where it
was, and ran for it. Now he was at the line, pulling the end loose from
its staple, and wishing all the time the moon would get a move on and
shine up brighter. Length by length he tore the wire from the arms of
the clothes tree, each staple “in harder than the last,” it seemed. He
thought he had never been so weak, so slow.

At last he had enough, and made a bight in it. Would the lawn-mower
“play up”? Yes! It cut the line in two, and Billy ran up the ladder,
soon making the connection. He got several light shocks and for a
panic-stricken moment trembled lest he could not let go, and should be
marooned in the air. Yet he came safely through his task, and ran with
his ladder to the garage to try the wire.

Before he arrived he heard the bell ringing. The ’phone was alive!

He went in and took the message. It was to say that Mr. Smith had gone
to town and would be back in an hour. Billy knew this was from the
Tum-wah office; and he told them there what had happened. He wondered if
he should call the fire department on the chance of what might occur,
but decided against it.

Fatal mistake. He started toward the house to tell the other what he had
done, beginning to speak at some distance, when a boom shattered the
very air around them, lifting and enveloping them. It came from beneath,
almost at their feet it seemed, and both men staggered back half
blinded.

For an instant neither could understand what had happened. But for an
instant only—less than a breath. The whole interior of the house flashed
into light. Each window was a red and angry eye.

“The fire department—South 687—call them up!” Billy commanded, grasping
at the hand of the man and running with him,—he was going for the
ladder.

But the other pulled away. “The fire department can’t manage this! We
must get the women out! Come, quick! They’ll be burned!”

“Do as I tell you!” thundered Billy, breaking loose. “I’ll get the
ladder. Come to me as soon as you ’phone.”

While he was shouting he had found the ladder and was hurrying back.
Both knew that a mine had been laid into the house, into the basement.
The fire outside had been but a “flash in the pan.” They knew the house
must go; and such a large fire at that season would endanger the forest,
and many homes near. Tuk-wil-la was just within the city limits, and
entitled to the services of the department; they must stop the fire
there.

It was but a few seconds from the time of the explosion before Billy was
placing his ladder at one of the windows where the lights had twinkled
so shortly before, calling May Nell’s name in tones that rang through
the night.

He knew that both stairways were cut off; whoever had prepared the mine
had seen to that. “May Nell! Come to the east window!” Billy called
again and again as he climbed nimbly, and plunged into the smoke and
heat.

“Yes, I’m here—in mama’s room—she’s fallen—I can’t lift her.”

Billy heard the suffocation in her voice, the weakness. He knew the
room, and groped his way on, calling, “Come this way! The ladder is at
the other window! Come quick! I’ll bring your mother!”

Billy’s own words were choking, sputtering even though he was holding
his head down. Where was he? Surely he had made no mistake, was going
the right way. “May Nell! Where’s the door? Where are you?” But no voice
answered, and for a breath Billy believed he could not go on. They were
caught, lost!

Yet that thought nerved him. Those two suffocating—burning—The little
girl he had succored once before, the brightest, loveliest—Yes, in that
instant his soul flashed a clear vision! She was the one. She had been
the inspiration to the noblest deeds he had ever thought or hoped. She
was the star of his life!

Some instinct guided him,—or was it his own soul? Something besides
conscious volition led him through an open door, kept him calling,
calling frantically, and crouching around the room to find the prostrate
woman. “May Nell! May Nell! Speak! Where are you?”

It was enough. Some shock from his soul to hers galvanized her to
consciousness. She roused, answered feebly, and moved toward the bed
where her mother had fallen.

    [Illustration: “Give her to me; I am fresh,” he said, attempting to
        take Mrs. Smith from Billy’s arms.]

Billy lifted the insensible woman, turned swiftly back, and called
encouragingly to May Nell. “Hold fast to me, girlie!” And when he felt
her grasp relax from his arm, “Brace up! Be game, Nell! We’re getting
there!”

Then he lost sense of time, of rational movement. Even the dead weight
of his burden did not signify. He felt no emotion. He seemed only to be
plodding on stolidly, while behind him flames roared and floors crashed.
He felt the timbers sag suddenly, knew the fire was close upon them, yet
he could not hurry.

But while smoke and heavy burden and heat dulled his mind, he was
actually making incredible haste. He felt the clearer air before he saw
the open window, and arrived there to find the tramp waiting, the only
one who had dared to enter the furnace. He had broken out the window for
them, sash and glass.

“Give her to me; I am fresh,” he said, attempting to take Mrs. Smith
from Billy’s arms.

He was a small, slender man, and Billy dared not trust him. “Not her;
here!” He pushed May Nell forward.

But the little girl shrank back. “No, no! Mama first.”

“Go!” Billy commanded, and thrust her into the awaiting arms. His brain
was clear enough now. The lighter pair must go first; the ladder would
certainly bear them, if not the heavier two. Well, he must see that his
own charge was somehow safely landed.

They obeyed. People did obey Billy when he used that tone. Those who had
gathered from the nearest houses steadied the ladder while the first two
came down, and held out glad hands to receive them.

But to Billy the rescuer below him seemed to creep. Would he never reach
the ground? The floor trembled with a new shock. Billy heard the crash
of another wall, saw the fire leap through the gap behind him, and
daring the lesser danger he climbed out on the ladder. Even as he passed
to the first rung a sheet of flame burst upon them shrouding them,
reaching for them like some red, cosmic tongue that would lap them into
the mouth of destruction.

But they emerged. Billy felt the spring of the wood that announced its
release from the weight of the other two, and hurried on with his
precious freight, knowing the danger, yet hoping the ladder would hold.
Midway between fire and earth he heard a crack, a splintering, and felt
the sag.

“Catch her!” he shouted hoarsely, and reached her down.

His cry fixed attention on the descending woman, and she was safely
caught and carefully borne to coolness and friends. But for Billy they
were too late. Relieved of responsibility for others, he made no attempt
to direct his fall—perhaps he could not have done so—but landed heavily
in an inert heap.

They lifted him tenderly. Almost at once he regained consciousness, and
asked anxiously of May Nell and her mother. It was not till he was
assured by his own eyes that both were safe, and that Mrs. Smith’s hurt
was from a light fall that temporarily had stunned but had not harmed
her, that he realized the meaning of the limp arm at his side.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                              CHAPTER XVII

                               BILLY WINS


THE beautiful house and its contents vanished before their eyes. The
fire department arrived only in time to prevent the fire from spreading.
Yet Mr. Smith said that the timber that would otherwise have gone was
worth twenty times the value of the house, save for its sentiment. And
even that was not what it would have been for an older home; the family
treasures were at the town house.

It was enough, the magnate said, to receive into his arms when he raced
out from town, his loved ones safe, and except for shaken nerves,
unhurt.

It was not possible in the long trial that followed to find the “man at
the top.” The poor ignorant foreigners who had been inflamed against Mr.
Smith, and, while he slept, had entered his house and laid the train to
its destruction, paid the penalty; while the one who tried to blow up
the viaduct died from the tramp’s bullet. Billy’s evidence decided the
coroner’s jury, for none of them ever saw the tramp after that night.

The Tum-wah people could not be directly identified with the outrages,
but investigation proved enough to cause the revocation of their
franchise, and incidentally Alvin Short finished his career in stripes.

Billy was taken to the hospital where his injuries—except the broken
arm—were soon healed. Here Mr. Smith came and more than once poured out
his gratitude.

“This ends it, Billy. We’ll have no more nonsense about working till
you’ve taken aboard your tools, your equipment of education and travel.
It’s school now; you begin with the term. Hear?”

Billy smiled his thanks. Later, when he was on his feet, would be time
enough to explain that his life must be lived according to his own idea
of duty.

                         ---------------------

A few days after the fire Mrs. Bennett was surprised to receive an
urgent call at the telephone in an unknown voice begging for an
immediate interview; and a little later an excited young woman was at
her door.

“I’m Erminie Fisher,” she explained. “I’ve come about Billy. How is he?”

“He’s doing well; will soon be out of the hospital.”

“And he won’t be crippled, scarred?”

“No. In a few weeks he will be quite recovered.” Mrs. Bennett could not
throw cordiality into her tone. Loyal as Billy had been to Erminie his
mother divined far more than he suspected of the part this girl had
played in his life.

“Oh, Mrs. Bennett, he’s the best boy in the world. He’s done so much for
me. I saw in the paper what a hero he was at the fire, and I came right
home. I—I—was so afraid I couldn’t clear up everything, but now that
I’ve seen Mumps—Sydney Bremmer—and heard a lot from him, I think I can.”

“Sit here, where it is cooler,” Mrs. Bennett invited, pushing a chair to
the open window. “Now tell me what you wish,—only that don’t distress
yourself.”

The kinder words and tone cheered Erminie. She told the story of her
acquaintance with Billy, of the picnic, of the attitude of the school
bully, of the letter, the money, and of her growing conviction that the
letter was a forgery, and the taking of the money a theft.

“And I came back to tell you, Mr. Wright, Professor Teal,—anybody who
can help tell the truth for Billy. I’ve been a fool, I know it now; but
Billy sha’n’t suffer another day for that.”

Mrs. Bennett took Erminie’s hands in her own. “You are a brave girl. It
has not been easy for you to do this, nor has it been easy for me to
look on helpless, and see Billy’s life so early burdened.”

“He could have put himself right any day if he had told on me.”

“How is it you dared come home, since your father was so—so angry—” Mrs.
Bennett hesitated.

“I would have dared anything. I had made up my mind to set Billy right,
no matter what happened to me. But my Uncle Henry fixed it. Anyway,
after what Mr. Short did to dad, he was glad I didn’t marry the man, and
dad’s as pleased as ma to have me home again.”

“You—wish Mr. Wright to know—what you’ve told me?”

“Yes, yes! I want Billy to be cleared of everything, to go back to Fifth
Avenue High respected as he deserves to be.”

“Yet if—if you do this it will be hard for you. It’s past, and a pity
for you to be exposed to censure when you were only the victim of
circumstances.”

“Mrs. Bennett, Billy never hesitated to bear censure for me; now it’s my
turn. Besides—” She stopped and for the first time showed embarrassment.
“I want you to know this,—Billy taught me some of the best things I
know; and I loved him—I love him still. But now I know that it is not
the kind of love a girl—a girl should have for the man she marries.
I—I’m not going back on Billy, Mrs. Bennett. It’s—it’s—”

Mrs. Bennett reached over and gently stroked her hair. “You need not
hesitate. I quite comprehend.”

Erminie caught her hand. “It’s perfectly lovely of you to say that. I’ve
been feeling so mean—untrue to Billy—even while I’ve been loving him all
the time. But I’ve met a—a man, a good man, much older than Billy,
and—and—”

“Yes, a man. Billy’s only a boy, but you are a woman.”

“It was Billy who set me to thinking. He told me many things you have
said, and I began to see that even if I had loved Billy as—in the right
way, it would have been wrong for us to marry.”

“That is over now. Look to the future, and—I hope you will be very
happy.”

“And may I bring Will—Mr. Harrington, to see you? He’s anxious to meet
you, and Billy—all the family. And I want him to before—before I change
my name.”

Mrs. Bennett made the girl happy by her sympathy. Erminie summoned
Sydney by telephone to meet them at Mr. Wright’s office, and there the
two told their story. Mr. Wright sent a command to Jim Barney that
brought him while they waited. He soon found his small knowledge of law
and trickery no match for the astute lawyer, and he was very glad to
accept immunity from prosecution on more than one charge by a full
confession of his misdeeds, and the payment to Billy of the money he had
induced Erminie to take.

When the interview was over Erminie and her lover went to the hospital,
where she saw Billy first alone.

Never had she seemed so dear and sweet to him as when she stood beside
him telling the story of what she had done for him. And when, after a
moment’s absence she brought her Cousin Will, looking so happy, and
proud of him, Billy felt his heart bound with a great joy, the joy of
freedom.

“Here’s the dearest man in the world, Billy, and the best, next to you.”
She looked sidewise at the well-made but rather short man beside her,
with a trace of her old coquetry lurking in voice and manner.

Billy shook the firm hand with his left one. “She has it twisted, Mr.
Harrington. You’re the best man; I’m—I’m just a kid.”

“I wonder she ever looked at a man, then,” the other returned
generously, waving his hands apart in recognition of the six feet of
muscle and vigor that surmounted even the background of a hospital cot.

Two weeks later the great day came; the day when the City of Green Hills
paid court to her young citizens; when the Scouts marched by the
reviewing stand, twelve hundred strong, and later performed their feats
of skill in the competition for honors; when the Young Citizens’ Clubs,
boys and girls, each club led by its own band, in song and speech
celebrated some great event in the history of their city, or prophesied
her future greatness.

Mr. Streeter told the multitude that this was but the beginning of a
campaign for the promotion of civic pride, a pride that should foster
art and beauty and civic honor, to the end that the City of Green Hills
should be known throughout the land as the best as well as the most
beautiful city in the world.

“These things will make it the greatest. Do you think when it is known
that this is the cleanest, the most beautiful, and the best governed
city in America, that any power can withhold people from coming here?
The American city that makes commercialism second to these three things
will in ten years outgrow all others. Humanity hungers for such civic
ideals and doesn’t know it.”

Then came the explanation of the flag competition and the announcement
of the winner. Billy thought the highest possible note of joy had been
sounded,—for his design had won.

There above them all, at the moment of Mr. Streeter’s announcement, the
banner was run up the tall pole and beneath the Stars and Stripes flung
out to the breeze, the official flag of the City of Green Hills.

Cheers upon cheers! And Billy was called. When he stepped to the
platform, his arm still in the sling, but otherwise rosy with health and
joy, the audience rose, and cheers from the men, and fluttering
handkerchiefs from the women, made Billy wonder if this was just plain
earth or some other more glorious planet.

After an almost imperceptible silence came the yell of his school, given
with a gusto that told him he had been reinstated in their favor.

He made his bow and a modest speech. In the crowd near the platform were
May Nell and Erminie. And as he finished, it was into May Nell’s eyes he
looked, and knew who held his heart.

The exercises were over, the crowd began to move. He went down and took
her hand. And at that moment came again a ringing cry, “What’s the
matter with Billy To-morrow? Billy To-morrow’s Billy To-day! He’s all
right! Rah, rah, rah, Billy!”



                                THE END



------------------------------------------------------------------------

               SOME OPINIONS OF MRS. CARR’S FIRST SUCCESS

                                -------

                            BILLY TO-MORROW

                                -------

“It is a powerful story, the scene of which is laid in California after
the great earthquake. It is admirably told, and makes a strong appeal to
all that is best in a young person’s nature.”—_Philadelphia Public
Ledger._

“A splendid story of a boy’s love and courage.”—_Hartford Courant._

“This is a good story of a California boy who learned lessons of
manliness and chivalry from a little refugee girl received by his mother
after the great fire. The boy reader may be trusted to enjoy it and
without having his pleasure spoiled by the suspicion of a moral.”—_The
Argonaut._

“All in all it is a splendid story for boys.”—_Education._

“Sarah Pratt Carr has invented a lovable young hero in her bright story,
‘Billy To-Morrow.’ So full of incident is the story that it will hold
the interest of boy and girl readers from the first chapter to the
last.”—_Des Moines Capital._

“The story is full of life and action and good sense.”—_Spokane
Spokesman-Review._

“Should appeal to every full-blooded youngster.”—_San Francisco
Bulletin._

                                -------

                    A. C. McCLURG & CO., PUBLISHERS

                                CHICAGO

------------------------------------------------------------------------


                  PRESS OPINIONS REGARDING MRS. CARR’S

                        Billy To-Morrow in Camp

“Here are a crowd of real boys in a delightful vacation camp. The
interest is sustained from the beginning to the end. The publishers
have done their part to make the book attractive, paper, type, binding
and illustrations are all of the best, and the picture of Billy on the
cover almost equals our ideal of him. Mrs. Carr is to be congratulated
on having given to American young people one of the best books which has
been written for them since the death of Miss Alcott and one which
places her in the very front rank of writers of juvenile fiction.”—_The
Week-End (Seattle)._

“A good, exciting, and wholesome story of a group of boys who ‘camp out’
on the shores of Puget Sound, and have lots of fun and some
troubles.”—_Cincinnati Times Star._

“It gives in an interesting style the adventures of a boy with a big
heart and unusual courage. The fascinations of camp life are well
portrayed. A good wholesome story for boys.”—_The United Presbyterian._

“A boy’s book, full of all the exciting incidents that belong to a
camping-out life by a group of bright lads who are bent on enjoyment of
the freedom of the woods. There are many things which would naturally
happen to a bright young lad in camp and which many bright young lads
not in camp will delight to read.”—_Journal of Education._

“A lively and vivacious story which will gladden any sort of boy.”—_The
Post Intelligencer (Seattle)._

“Here is a new hero in boy literature, though not entirely new, as this
is his second appearance between book covers. The popularity and success
of the earlier book, ‘Billy To-morrow,’ and its adoption as the title of
a series indicates that this manly, full-blooded, lovable young
character is to be with us some time. The story has much life, action,
and withal, good sense, and it carries the best sort of moral along with
an enjoyable story without the reader the least expecting it. ‘Billy’
has a promising career ahead of him.”—_The Normal Instructor._

“The story is a jolly one of outdoor camping experiences, with the boy’s
practical devices for comfort which young readers may find helpful for
similar occasions.”—_The Continent._

                    A. C. McCLURG & CO., PUBLISHERS

                                CHICAGO



------------------------------------------------------------------------



● Transcriber’s note:

    ○ Missing or obscured punctuation was corrected.

    ○ Unpaired quotation marks were left as the author intended.

    ○ Typographical errors were silently corrected.

    ○ Inconsistent spelling and hyphenation were made consistent only
      when a predominant form was found in this book.





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