Chapter XXVIII. The Way
 

Keith was still looking for "the way," when October came, bringing crisp days and chilly winds. When not too cold, the boys still sat out of doors. When it was too cold, John McGuire did not appear at all on his back porch, and Keith did not have the courage to make a bold advance to the McGuire door and ask admittance. There came a day, however, when a cold east wind came up after they were well established in their porch chairs for the morning. They were on the Burton porch this time, and Keith suddenly determined to take the bull by the horns.

"Brrr! but it's cold this morning," he shivered blithely. "What say you? Let's go in. Come on." And without waiting for acquiescence, he caught John McGuire's arm in his own and half pulled him to his feet. Before John McGuire knew then quite what was happening, he found himself in the house.

"No, no!--that is, I--I think I'd better be going home," he stammered.

But Keith Burton did not seem even to hear.

"Say, just try your hand at this puzzle," he was saying gayly. "I gave it up, and I'll bet you'll have to," he finished, thrusting a pasteboard box into his visitor's hands and nicely adjudging the distance a small table must be pushed in order to bring it conveniently in front of John McGuire's chair.

The quick tightening of John McGuire's lips and the proud lifting of his chin told that Keith's challenge had been accepted even before the laconic answer came.

"Oh, you do, do you? Well, we'll see whether I'll have to give it up or not."

John McGuire loved picture puzzles, as Keith Burton well knew.

It was easy after that. Keith took it so unhesitatingly for granted that they were to go indoors when it was cold that John McGuire found it difficult to object; and it was not long before the two boys were going back and forth between the two houses with almost as much ease as if their feet had been guided by the eye instead of by the tap of a slender stick.

John McGuire was learning a great deal from Keith these days, though it is doubtful if he realized it. It is doubtful, also, if he realized how constantly he was being made to talk of the war and of his experience in it. But Keith realized it. Keith was not looking for "the way" now. He believed he had found it; and there came a day when he deemed the time had come to try to carry it out.

They were in his own home living-room. It had been a wonderful story that John McGuire had told that day of a daring excursion into No Man's Land, and what came of it. Upstairs in the studio Daniel Burton was sitting alone, as Keith knew. Keith drew a long breath and made the plunge. Springing to his feet he turned toward the door that led into the hall.

"McGuire, that was a bully story--a corking good story. I want dad to hear it. Wait, I'll get him." And he was out of the room with the door fast closed behind him before John McGuire could so much as draw a breath.

Upstairs, Daniel Burton, already in the secret, heard Keith's eager summons and came at once. For some days he had been expecting just such an urgent call from Keith's lips. He knew too much to delay. He was down the stairs and at Keith's side in an incredibly short time. Then together they pushed open the door and entered the living-room.

John McGuire was on his feet. Very plainly he was intending to go home, and at once. But Daniel Burton paid no attention to that. He came straight toward him and took his hand.

"I call this mighty good of you, McGuire," he said. "My boy here has been raving about your stories of the war until I'm fairly green with envy. Now I'm to hear a bit of them myself, he says. I wish you would tell me some of your experiences, my lad. You know a chance like this is a real god-send to us poor stay-at-homes. Now fire away! I'm ready."

But John McGuire was not ready. True, he sat down--but not until after a confused "No, no, I must go home--that is, really, they're not worth repeating--those stories." And he would not talk at all--at first.

Daniel Burton talked, however. He talked of wars in general and of the Civil War in particular; and he told the stories of Antietam and Gettysburg as they had been told to him by his father. Then from Gettysburg he jumped to Flanders, and talked of aeroplanes, and gas- masks, and tanks, and trenches, and dugouts.

Little by little then John McGuire began to talk--sometimes a whole sentence, sometimes only a word or two. But there was no fire, no enthusiasm, no impetuous rush of words that brought the very din of battle to their ears. And not once did Daniel Burton thrust his fingers into his pocket for his pencil and notebook. Yet, when it was all over, and John McGuire had gone home, Keith dropped into his chair with a happy sigh.

"It wasn't much, dad, I know," he admitted, "but it was something. It was a beginning, and a beginning is something--with John McGuire."

And it was something; for the next time Daniel Burton entered the room, John McGuire did not even start from his chair. He gave a faint smile of welcome, too, and he talked sooner, and talked more--though there was little of war talk; and for the second time Daniel Burton did not reach for his pencil.

But the third time he did. A question, a comment, a chance word-- neither Keith nor his father could have told afterward what started it. They knew only that a sudden light as of a flame leaped into John McGuire's face--and he was back in the trenches of France and carrying them with him.

At the second sentence Daniel Burton's fingers were in his pocket, and at the third his pencil was racing over the paper at breakneck speed. There was no pause then, no time for thought, no time for careful forming of words and letters. There was only the breakneck race between a bit of lead and an impassioned tongue; and when it was all over, there were only a well-nigh hopeless-looking mass of hieroglyphics in Daniel Burton's notebook--and the sweat of spent excitement on the brows of two youths and a man.

"Gee! we got it that time!" breathed Keith, after John McGuire had gone home.

"Yes; only I was wondering if I had really--got it," murmured Daniel Burton, eyeing a bit ruefully the confused mass of words and letters in his notebook. "Still, I reckon I can dig it out all right--if I do it right away," he finished confidently. And he did dig it out before he slept that night.

If Daniel Burton and his son Keith thought the thing was done, and it was going to be easy sailing thereafter, they found themselves greatly mistaken. John McGuire scarcely said five sentences about the war the next time they were together, though Daniel Burton had his pencil poised expectantly from the start. He said only a little more the next time, and the next; and Daniel Burton pocketed his pencil in despair. Then came a day when a chance word about a new air raid reported in the morning paper acted like a match to gunpowder, and sent John McGuire off into a rapid-fire story that whipped Daniel Burton's pencil from his pocket and set it to racing again at breakneck speed to keep up with him.

It was easier after that. Still, every day it was like a game of hide- and-seek, with Daniel Burton and his pencil ever in pursuit, and with now and then a casual comment or a tactful question to lure the hiding story out into the open. Little by little, as the frank comradeship of Daniel Burton won its way, John McGuire was led to talk more and more freely; and by Christmas the eager scribe was in possession of a very complete record of John McGuire's war experiences, dating even from the early days of his enlistment.

Day by day, as he had taken down the rough notes, Daniel Burton had followed it up with a careful untangling and copying before he had had a chance to forget, or to lose the wonderful glow born of the impassioned telling. Then, from time to time he had sorted the notes and arranged them in proper sequence, until now he had a complete story, logical and well-rounded.

It was on Christmas Day that he read the manuscript to Keith. At its conclusion Keith drew a long, tremulous breath.

"Dad, it's wonderful!" he exclaimed. "How did you do it?"

"You know. You heard yourself."

"Yes; but to copy it like that--! Why, I could hear him tell it as you read it, dad. I could hear him."

"Could you, really? I'm glad. That makes me know I've succeeded. Now for a publisher!"

"You wouldn't publish it without his--knowing?"

"Certainly not. But I'm going to let a publisher see it, before he knows."

"Y-yes, perhaps."

"Why, Keith, I'd have to do that. Do you suppose I'd run the risk of its being turned down, and then have to tell that boy that he couldn't have the book, after all?"

"No, no, I suppose not. But--it isn't going to be turned down, dad. Such a wonderful thing can't be turned down."

"Hm-m; perhaps not." Daniel Burton's lips came together a bit grimly. "But--there are wonderful things that won't sell, you know. However," he finished with brisk cheerfulness, "this isn't one of my pictures, nor a bit of Susan's free verse; so there's some hope, I guess. Anyhow, we'll see--but we won't tell John until we do see."

"All right. I suppose that would be best," sighed Keith, still a little doubtfully.

They had not long to wait, after all. In a remarkably short time came back word from the publishers. Most emphatically they wanted the book, and they wanted it right away. Moreover, the royalty they offered was so good that it sent Daniel Burton down the stairs two steps at a time like a boy, in his eagerness to reach Keith with the good news.

"And now for John!" he cried excitedly, as soon as Keith's joyous exclamations over the news were uttered. "Come, let's go across now."

"But, dad, how--how are you going to tell him?" Keith was holding back a little.

"Tell him! I'm just going to tell him," laughed the man. "That's easy."

"I know; but--but---" Keith wet his lips and started again. "You see, dad, he didn't know we were taking notes of his stories. He couldn't see us. We--we took advantage of---"

But Daniel Burton would not even listen.

"Shucks and nonsense, Keith!" he cried. Then a little grimly he added: "I only wish somebody'd take advantage like that of me, and sell a picture or two when I'm not looking. Come, we're keeping John waiting." And he took firm hold of his son's arm.

Yet in the McGuire living-room, in the presence of John McGuire himself, he talked fully five minutes of nothing in particular, before he said:

"Well, John, I've got some good news for you."

"Good news?"

"That's what I'd call it. I--er--hear you're going to have a book out in the spring."

"I'm going to--what?"

"Have a book out--war stories. They were too good to keep to ourselves, John, so I jotted them down as you told them, and last week I sent them off to a publisher."

"A--a real publisher?" The boy's voice shook. Every trace of color had drained from his face.

"You bet your life--and one of the biggest in the country." Daniel Burton's own voice was shaking. He had turned his eyes away from John McGuire's face.

"And they'll--print it?"

"Just as soon as ever you'll sign the contract. And, by the way, that contract happens to be a mighty good one, for a first book, my boy."

John McGuire drew a long breath. The color was slowly coming back to his face.

"But I can't seem to quite--believe it," he faltered.

"Nonsense! Simplest thing in the world," insisted Daniel Burton brusquely. "They saw the stories, liked them, and are going to publish them. That's all."

"All! All!" The blind boy was on his feet, his face working with emotion. "When all my life I've dreamed and dreamed and longed for---" He stopped short and sat down. He had the embarrassed air the habitually reserved person usually displays when caught red-handed making a "scene." He gave a confused laugh. "I was only thinking--what a way. You see--I'd always wanted to be a writer, but I'd given it up long ago. I had my living to earn, and I knew I couldn't earn it--that way--not at first. I used to say I'd give anything if I could write a book; and I was just wondering if--if I'd been willing then to have given--my eyes!"