XII. Duncan's Grubstake
 

Like almost all business Radville, Duncan went home for his midday meal. It wasn't much of a walk from Sam Graham's store to Miss Carpenter's, and he didn't mind in the least.

On this particular day he was sincerely hungry, but he had much to think about besides, and between the two he just bolted his food and made off, hot-foot for the store, greatly to the distress of his landlady.

Naturally, knowing nothing about Sam's note, although he knew Pete Willing by sight as the sheriff and town drunkard in one, it didn't worry him at all to discover that gentleman tacking toward the store as he hurried up Beech Street, eager to get back to his job. The first intimation that he had of anything seriously amiss was when he entered, practically on Pete's heels.

Pete Willing is the best-natured man in the world, as a general rule; drunk or sober, Radville tolerates him for just that quality. On only two occasions is he irritable and unmanageable: when his wife gets after him about the drink (Mrs. Willing is an able-bodied lady of Irish descent, with a will and a tongue of her own, to say nothing of an arm a blacksmith might envy) and when he has a duty to perform in his official capacity. It is in the latter instance that he rises magnificently to the dignity of his position. The majesty of the law in his hands becomes at once a bludgeon and a pandemonium. No one has ever been arrested in Radville, since Pete became sheriff, without the entire community becoming aware of it simultaneously. Pete's voice in moments of excitement carries like a cannonade. Legrand Gunn said that Pete had only to get into an argument in front of the Bigelow House to make the entire disorderly population of the Flats, across the river, break for the hills. (This is probably an exaggeration.)

Tall, gaunt, gangling and loose-jointed, Duncan found Pete standing in the middle of the floor, hands in pockets and a noisome stogie thrust into a corner of his mouth, swaying a little (he was almost sober at the moment) and explaining his mission to old Sam in a voice of thunder.

"I'm sorry about this, Sam," he bellowed, "but there ain't no use wastin' words 'bout it. I'm here on business."

"But what's the matter, Sheriff?" Graham asked, his voice breaking.

"Ah, you know you got a note due at the bank, don't you?"

"Yes, but----"

"Well, it's protested. Y'un'erstand that, don't you?"

"Why, Pete!" Graham swayed, half-dazed.

"An' I'm here to serve the papers onto you."

"But--but there must be some mistake." Sam clutched blindly for his hat. "I'll step over and see Mr. Lockwood. He'll arrange to give me a little more time, I'm sure. He's always been kind, very kind."

"Naw!" Pete bawled, "Mr. Lockwood don't want to see you unless you can settle. Y'can save yourself the trouble. Y'gottuh put up or git out!"

"But, Pete--Mr. Lockwood said he didn't want to see me?"

"Yah, that's what he said, and I got orders from him, soon's I got judgment to close y'up. And that goes, see!"

"To--to turn me out of the store, Pete?" Graham's world had slipped from beneath his feet. He was overwhelmed, witless, as helpless as a child. And it was with a child's look of pitiful dismay and perplexity that he faced the sheriff.

The father who has fallen short of his child's trust and confidence knows that look. To Duncan its appeal was irresistible. He had his hand in his pocket, clutching the still considerable remains of what Kellogg had termed his grubstake, before he knew it.

"But--there must be some mistake," Graham repeated pleadingly. "It can't be--Mr. Lockwood surely wouldn't----"

"Now there ain't no use whinin' about it!" Willing roared him into silence. "Law is Law, and----" He ceased quickly, surprised to find Duncan standing between him and his prey. "What----!" he began.

"Wait!" Duncan touched him gently on the chest with a forefinger, at the same time catching and holding the sheriff's eye. "Are you," he inquired quietly, "labouring under the impression that Mr. Graham is deaf?"

"What----!"

Duncan turned to Sam, apologetically. "He said 'what.' Did you hear it, sir?"

But by this time Pete was recovering to some degree. "What've you got to say about this?" he demanded, crescendo.

"I'll show you," Duncan told him in the same quiet voice, "what I've got to say if you'll just put the soft pedal on and tell me the amount of that note."

Pete struggled mightily to regain his vanished advantage, but try as he would he could not escape Duncan's cool, inquisitive eye. Visibly he lost importance as he yielded and dived into his pocket. "With interest and costs," he said less stridently, "it figgers up three hundred 'n' eighty dollars 'n' eighty-two cents."

There's no use denying that Duncan was staggered. For the moment his poise deserted him utterly. He could only repeat, as one who dreams: "Three hundred and eighty dollars!..."

His momentary consternation afforded Pete the opening he needed. The room shook with his regained sense of prestige.

"Yes, three hundred 'n' eighty dollars 'n'--say, you look a-here!----"

Again the calm forefinger touched him, and like a hypnotist's pass checked the rolling volume of noise. "Listen," begged Duncan: "if you've got anything else to tell me, please retire to the opposite side of the street and whisper it. Meanwhile, be quiet!"

Pete's jaw dropped. In all his experience no one had ever succeeded in taming him so completely--and in so brief a time. He experienced a sensation of having been robbed of his spinal column, and before he could pull himself together was staring in awe, while with one final admonitory poke of his finger Duncan turned and made for the soda counter, beneath which was the till. His scanty roll of bills was in his right hand, and there concealed. He stepped behind the counter (old Sam watching him with an amazement no less absolute than Pete's), pulled out the till, bent over it with an assured air, and pushed back the coin slide. Then quite naturally, he produced--with his right hand--his four-hundred-and-odd dollars from the bill drawer, stood up and counted them with great deliberation.

"One ... two ... three ... four." He smiled winningly at Pete. "Four hundred dollars, Mr. Sheriff. Now will you be good enough to hand over that note and the change and then put yourself, and that pickle you're wearing in your face, on the other side of the door?"

Pete struggled tremendously and finally succeeded in producing from his system a still, small voice:

"I ain't got the note with me, Mr. Duncan."

"Then perhaps you won't mind going to the bank for it?"

Half suffocated, Pete assented. "Aw'right, I'll go and git it. Kin I have the money?"

"Certainly." Duncan extended the bills, then on second thought withheld them. "I presume you're a regular sheriff?" he inquired.

Very proudly Pete turned back the lapel of his coat and distended the chest on which shone his nickel-plated badge of office. Duncan examined it with grave admiration.

"It's beautiful," he said with a sigh. "Here."

Gingerly, Pete grasped the bills, thumbed them over to make sure they were real, and bolted as for his life, his coat-tails level on the breeze.

[Illustration: "Four hundred dollars, Mr. Sheriff"]

There floated back to Duncan and old Sam his valedictory: "Wal, I'll be damned!"

With a short, quiet laugh Duncan made as though to go out to the back-yard, where the new stock was being delivered, having been carted up from the station through the alley--thereby doing away with the necessity of cluttering up the store with a debris of packing. His primal instinct of the moment was to get right out of that with all the expedition practicable. He didn't want to be alone with old Sam another second. The essential insanity of which he had just done was patent; there was no excuse for it, and he was like to suffer severely as a consequence. But he wasn't sorry, and he did not want to be thanked.

"I'm going," he said hurriedly, "to find me a hatchet and knock the stuffing out of some of those packing-cases. Want to get all that truck indoors before nightfall, you know----"

But old Sam wasn't to be put off by any such obvious subterfuge as that. He put himself in front of Duncan.

"Nat, my boy," he said, tremulous, "I can't let this go through--I can't allow you----"

"There, now!" Duncan told him, unconcernedly yet kindly, "don't say anything more. It's over and done with."

"But you mustn't--I'll turn over the store to you, if----"

"O Lord!" Duncan's dismay was as genuine as his desire to escape Graham's gratitude. "No--don't! Please don't do that!"

"But I must do something, my boy. I can't accept so great a kindness-- unless," said Graham with a timid flash of hope--"you'll consider a partnership----"

"That's it!" cried Duncan, glad of any way out of the situation. "That's the way to do it--a partnership. No, please don't say any more about it, just now. We can settle details later. ... We've got to get busy. Tell you what I wish you'd do while I'm busting open those boxes: if you don't mind going down to the station to make sure that everything's----"

"Yes, I'll go; I'll go at once." Sam groped for Duncan's hand, caught and held it between both his own. "If--if fate--or something hadn't brought you here to-day--I don't know what would've happened to Betty and me. ..."

"Never mind," Duncan tried to soothe him. "Just don't you think about it."

Graham shook his head, still bewildered. "Perhaps," he stumbled on, "to a gentleman of your wealth four hundred dollars isn't much----"

"No," said Duncan gravely, without the flicker of an eyelash: "nothing." Then he smiled cheerfully. "There, that's all right."

"To me it's meant everything. I--I only hope I'll be able to repay you some day. God bless you, my boy, God bless you!"

He managed to jam his hat awry on his white old head and found his way out, his hands fumbling with one another, his lips moving inaudibly-- perhaps in a prayer of thanksgiving.

Motionless, Duncan watched him go, and for several minutes thereafter stood without stirring, lost in thought. Then his quaint, deprecatory grin dawned. He found a handkerchief and mopped his forehead.

"Whew!" he whistled. "I wouldn't go through that again for a million dollars."

Gradually the smile faded. He puckered his brows and drew down the corners of his mouth. Thoughtfully he ran a hand into his pocket and produced the little crumpled wad of bills of small denominations, representing all he had left in the world. Smoothing them out on the counter, he arranged them carefully, summing up; then returned them to his pocket.

"Harry," he observed--"Harry said I couldn't get rid of that stake in a year!...

"He doesn't know what a fast town this is!"