Chapter XII. A Surprise
 

No time must be lost. Booth lived but a short hundred feet from the jail, if such it might be called, and if his wife had dinner ready it would not take him long to bring it.

I surveyed the room in which I was incarcerated critically. Escape by either window was, as I have intimated, out of the question. On account of its height, the scuttle was also not to be considered.

Apparently nothing remained to try but the door. Running down the steps, I looked it over. It was of solid oak planking, an inch thick, and fastened at both top and bottom.

It was a hard thing to tackle, especially with no tools, and, after surveying it, I went upstairs again to search for something that might do as a pry.

I could see nothing but the empty nail keg, and I could discover no use at first in this until the idea struck me of wedging it between one of the lower steps and the door, and, by jumping upon it, forcing the bottom bolt.

With some difficulty I placed the keg in position and brought down my full weight upon it. The first time the bolt merely creaked, but the second there was a snap, and the lower part of the door burst outward several inches.

The bottom bolt had yielded, and now only the top one remained. But to reach this was a difficult matter, as no purchase could be had against it.

While considering the situation, I imagined I heard my jailer returning, and my heart jumped into my throat. What if Booth should see the damage I had done? I reckoned that things would go hard with me if it became known that I had attempted to break jail. Judge Penfold would surely give me the full penalty of the law.

But the approach of Booth was only imaginary, and, after a brief interval of silence, I breathed freer.

I ascends the stairs once more to see if I could not find something besides the keg to assist me. If only I had a plank or a beam, I might use it as a battering-ram.

The thought of a plank led me to examine the floor, and, going over it carefully, I soon came to a short board, one end of which was loose. Raising it, I pulled with all my might, and the board came up.

I was astonished to see that it made an opening into the shop below. I had imagined that the floor or ceiling was of double thickness.

This gave me a new idea. Why not escape through the floor? To pry up another board would perhaps be easier than to force the door.

I tried the board next to the opening. The end was somewhat rotted, and it came up with hardly an effort.

In another moment the opening would be large enough to allow the passage of my body. Putting the first board under the edge of the second, I bore down upon it.

As I did so I heard a noise that alarmed me greatly. It was the sound of Booth returning, and the next instant the carpenter had opened the outer door and entered.

In one hand he carried a tray containing my dinner. He crossed the floor directly under me without looking up. Then his eyes caught the shattered door and he gave a loud exclamation.

"By ginger! If that boy ain't gone and escaped!"

He set down the tray with a rattle and tried to pull the door open. But the top bolt had become displaced, and it was several seconds before it could be shot back.

Meanwhile I was not idle. As quietly as I could I tore up the second board. The deed was done just as Booth stumbled over the keg on his way up the stairs.

As my jailer appeared at the top, I let my body through the opening. It was a tight squeeze, especially when accomplished in a hurry. I landed in a heap on a pile of shavings.

"Stop! stop!" called out Booth. "Roger, don't you hear me?"

I certainly did hear him, but paid no attention to his words. My one thought was to get away as quickly as possible.

"If you don't stop, I'll shoot you," went on Booth at the top of his voice. "Don't you know breaking jail is a-- a felony?"

I did not know what kind of a crime it was. I had made up my mind to escape, and intended to do so, even if such a deed constituted manslaughter. I made a break for the door and passed out just as Booth came tramping down the stairs.

I ran across the yard that separated the carpenter shop from the house. As I did so, Mrs. Booth appeared at the back door. Upon seeing me she held up her hands in horror.

"Mercy on us! Roger Strong! Where be you a-running to? 'Zekel! 'Zekel! the prisoner's broke loose!"

"I know it, Mandy!" I heard Ezekiel Booth answer. "Dunno how he did it, though. Stop, Roger, it's best now; jest you mark my word!"

I heard no more. Jumping the side fence, I ran through a bit of orchard and across a stony lot until I reached the Pass River.

At this point this body of water was several hundred feet wide. The bank sloped directly to the water's edge. Near at hand were several private boat-houses, one belonging to Mr. Aaron Woodward, he having built it to please Duncan.

At the end of the boat-house pier lay a skiff, the oars resting upon the seats. I knew it was wrong to make use of the craft, but "necessity knows no law," and my need was great.

Running down to the end of the pier, I dropped into the boat and shoved off. As I did so, Duncan Woodward, accompanied by Pultzer, came out of the boat-house.

"Hi, there, what are you doing in my boat?" he sang out. "What, Roger Strong!" he continued as he came nearer.

"You must lend me the boat, Duncan," I returned. "I've got to cross the river in a hurry."

"Not much! I thought you were in jail."

"Not just now," I replied. "You can get your boat on the other side."

"Hold up! You shan't have her. Come back!"

But I was already pulling out into the stream. He continued to shout after me, and presently I saw the two joined by Booth, and all watched me in dismay as I made for the opposite shore.

Reaching the bank, I beached the boat high up and then climbed to the roadway that ran beside the stream. Trees and bushes were thick here, and I had but little difficulty in hiding from the view of those opposite.

For a moment I hesitated as to which way to proceed. A number of miles down the stream lay Newville, of which I have already spoken. Probably my pursuers would think I had gone in that direction. If so, they would hasten to the bridge below, with the intention of cutting me off.

I therefore started immediately on my way up the river road, resolved to put as much ground as possible between myself and my pursuers. I had no definite destination in view, but thought to gain some hiding-place where I might rest secure and think things over.

It was now going on to two o'clock in the afternoon, and as I had not had anything to eat since the noon previous, I began to feel decidedly hungry. I felt in my pocket and discovered that I was the possessor of sixty-five cents, and with this amount of cash I did not see any reason for my remaining hungry any longer.

Presently I came to a small, white cottage, upon the front porch of which was displayed the sign

BOARDING

Ascending the steps, I knocked at the door, and a comely, middle-aged woman answered my summons.

"I see that you take boarders here," I said, "I am hungry, and several miles from any restaurant. Can you furnish me with dinner?"

She looked me over rather sharply before replying. Then I realize for the first time that my appearance was not of the best. My clothes were considerably the worse for having rolled over and over in the old tool house, and in escaping from my prison I had made several rents in my coat.

"I will pay you whatever you charge," I added hastily, "and I would like to wash and brush up, too; I have had a tumble," which was literally true.

"I can let you have dinner for twenty-five cent," she said finally. "I won't charge you anything for cleaning up," she added, with something like a smile. "Will you mind paying in advance?"

"No, ma'am," and I handed over the money. "I suppose I won't have to wait very long."

"Oh, no, the regular boarders have just finished. You can sit right down."

"If you don't mind, I'll take a wash first."

The woman led the way to an ante-room, in which were placed a bowl of water, towel, and soap, as well as a dust brush. It did not take me long to fix myself up, and then I flattered myself I did not present an unbecoming appearance.

The dinner that the woman served was not as good as that which my sister Kate helped to prepare at the Widow Canby's, but it was wholesome food, and my sharpened appetite made it disappear rapidly.

As I ate I reflected upon my situation. For the life of me I did not know what to do next. I longed to see my sister and tell her that I was safe. This done, I intended to devote my time to hunting up the man who I firmly believed held my father's reputation in his hand. I was sure I would discover him sooner or later, and this accomplished, I would not let him out of my sight until he had confessed his secret. I wondered if Kate had succeeded in finding that precious statement I had lost. Heartily did I reproach myself for not having taken better care of it.

Having satisfied myself upon the substantial things set before me, I finished my meal with a small cut of apple pie.

As I was swallowing the last mouthful I glanced out of the window up the road, and gave a cry of surprise. And no wonder, for coming toward the house was Mr. Aaron Woodward, and beside him walked John Stumpy!