Chapter I. The Trouble in the Orchard
 

"Hi, there, Duncan Woodward!" I called out. "What are you doing in Widow Canby's orchard?"

"None of your business, Roger Strong," replied the only son of the wealthiest merchant in Darbyville.

"You are stealing her pears," I went on. "Your pockets are full of them."

"See here, Roger Strong, just you mind your own business and leave me alone."

"I am minding my business," I rejoined warmly.

"Indeed!" And Duncan put as much of a sneer as was possible in the word.

"Yes, indeed. Widow Canby pays me for taking care of her orchard, and that includes keeping an eye on these pear trees," and I approached the tree upon the lowest branch of which Duncan was standing.

"Humph! You think you're mighty big!" he blustered, as he jumped to the ground. "What right has a fellow like you to talk to me in this manner? You are getting too big for your boots."

"I don't think so. I'm guarding this property, and I want you to hand over what you've taken and leave the premises," I retorted, for I did not fancy the style in which I was being addressed.

"Pooh! Do you expect me to pay any attention to that?"

"You had better, Duncan. If you don't you may get into trouble."

"I suppose you intend to tell the widow what I've done."

"I certainly shall; unless you do as I've told you to."

Duncan bit his lip. "How do you know but what the widow said I could have the pears?" he ventured.

"If she did, it's all right," I returned, astonished, not so much over the fact that Widow Canby had granted the permission, as that such a high-toned young gentleman as Duncan Woodward should desire that privilege.

"You've no business to jump at conclusions," he added sharply.

"If I judged you wrongly, I beg your pardon, Duncan. I'll speak to the widow about it."

I began to move off toward the house. Duncan hurried after me and caught me by the arm.

"You fool you, what do you mean?" he demanded.

"I'm going to find out if you are telling the truth."

"Isn't my word enough?"

"It will do no harm to ask," I replied evasively, not caring to pick a quarrel, and yet morally sure that he was prevaricating.

"So you think I'm telling you a falsehood? I've a good mind to give you a sound drubbing," he cried angrily.

Duncan Woodward had many of the traits of a bully about him. He was the only son of a widower who nearly idolized him, and, lacking a mother's guiding influence, he had grown up wayward in the extreme.

He was a tall, well-built fellow, strong from constant athletic exercise, and given, on this account, to having his way among his associates.

Yet I was not afraid of him. Indeed, to tell the truth, I was not afraid of any one. For eight years I had been shoved in life from pillar to post, until now threats had no terrors for me.

Both of my parents were dead to me. My mother died when I was but five years old. She was of a delicate nature, and, strange as it may seem, I am inclined to believe that it was for the best that her death occurred when it did. The reason I believe this is, because she was thus spared the disgrace that came upon our family several years later.

At her death my father was employed as head clerk by the firm of Holland & Mack, wholesale provision merchants of Newville, a thriving city which was but a few miles from Darbyville, a pretty village located on the Pass River.

We occupied a handsome house in the centre of the village. Our family, besides my parents and myself, contained but one other member-- my sister Kate, who was several years my senior.

When our beloved mother died, Kate took the management of our home upon her shoulders, and as she had learned, during my mother's long illness, how everything should be done, our domestic affairs ran smoothly. All this time I attended the Darbyville school, and was laying the foundation for a commercial education, intending at some later day to follow in the footsteps of my father.

Two years passed, and then my father's manner changed. From being bright and cheerful toward us he became moody and silent. What the cause was I could not guess, and it did not help matters to be told by Duncan Woodward, whose father was also employed by Holland & Mack, that "some folks would soon learn what was what, and no mistake."

At length the thunderbolt fell. Returning from school one day, I found Kate in tears.

"Oh, Roger!" she burst out. "They say father has stolen money from Holland & Mack, and they have just arrested him for a thief!"

The blow was a terrible one. I was but a boy of fourteen, and the news completely bewildered me. I put on my cap, and together with Kate, took the first horse car to Newville to find out what it all meant.

We found my father in jail, where he had been placed to await the action of the grand jury. It was with difficulty that we obtained permission to see him, and ascertained the facts of the case.

The charge against him was for raising money upon forged cheeks, eight in number, the total amount being nearly twelve thousand dollars. The name of the firm had been forged, and the money collected in New York and Brooklyn. I was not old enough to understand the particulars.

My father protested his innocence, but it was of no avail. The forgery was declared to be his work, and, though it was said that he must have had an accomplice to obtain the money, he was adjudged the guilty party.

"Ten years in the State's prison." That was the penalty. My father grew deadly white, while as for me, my very heart seemed to stop beating. Kate fainted, and two days later the doctor announced that she had an attack of brain fever.

Two months dragged slowly by. Then my sister was declared to be out of danger. Next the house was sold over our heads, and we were turned out upon the world, branded as the children of a thief, to get a living as best we could.

Both of us would willingly have left Darbyville, but where should we go? The only relation we had was an uncle,-- Captain Enos Moss,-- and he was on an extended trip to South America, and when he would return no one knew.

All the friends we had had before deserted us. The girls "turned up their noses" at Kate,-- which made my blood boil,-- and the boys fought shy of me.

I tried to find work, but without success. Even in places where help was wanted excuses were made to me-- trivial excuses that meant but one thing-- that they did not desire any one in their employ who had a stain upon his name.

Kate was equally unsuccessful; and we might have starved but for a lucky incident that happened just as we were ready to give up in despair.

Walking along the road one day, I saw Farmer Tilford's bull tearing across the field toward a gate which had been accidentally left open. The Widow Canby, absorbed in thought and quite unconscious of the danger that threatened her, was just passing this gate, when I darted forward and closed it just a second before the bull reached it. I did not consider my act an heroic one, but the Widow Canby declared it otherwise.

"You are a brave boy," she said. "Who are you?"

I told her, coloring as I spoke. But she laid a kindly hand upon my shoulder.

"Even if your father was guilty, you are not to blame," she said, and she made me tell her all about myself, and about Kate, and the hard luck we were having.

The Widow Canby lived in an old-fashioned house, surrounded on three sides by orchards several acres in extent. She was well to do, but made no pretence to style. Many thought her extremely eccentric but that was only because they did not know her.

The day I came to her assistance she made me stay to supper, and when I left it was under promise to call the next day and bring my sister along.

This I did, and a long conversation took place, which resulted in Kate and myself going to live with the widow-- I to take care of the garden and the orchards, and my sister to help with the housekeeping, for which we received our board and joint wages of fifteen dollars per month.

We could not have fallen into better hands. Mrs. Canby was as considerate as one would wish, and had it not been for the cloud upon our name we would have been content.

But the stain upon our family was a source of unpleasantness to us. I fully believed my father innocent, and I wondered if the time would ever come when his character would be cleared.

My duties around Widow Canby's place were not onerous, and I had plenty of chance for self-improvement. I had finished my course at the village school in spite of the calumny that was cast upon me, and now I continued my studies in private whenever the opportunity offered.

I was looked down upon by nearly every one in the village. To strangers I was pointed out as the convict's son, and people reckoned that the "Widder Canby wasn't right sharp when she took in them as wasn't to be trusted."

I was not over-sensitive, but these remarks, which generally reached my ears sooner or later, made me very angry. What right had people to look down on my sister and myself? It was not fair to Kate and me, and I proposed to stand it no longer.

It was a lovely morning in September, but I was in no mood to enjoy the bright sunshine and clear air that flooded the orchard. I had just come from the depot with the mail for Mrs. Canby, and down there I had heard two men pass opinions on my father's case that were not only uncharitable but unjust.

I was therefore in no frame of mind to put up with Duncan Woodward's actions, and when he spoke of giving me a good drubbing I prepared to defend myself.

"Two can play at that game, Duncan," I replied.

"Ho! ho! Do you mean to say you can stand up against me?" he asked derisively.

"I can try," I returned stoutly. "I'm sure now that you have no business here."

"Why, you miserable little thief--"

"Stop that! I'm no thief, if you please."

"Well, you're the son of one, and that's the same thing."

"My father is innocent, and I won't allow any one, big or little, to call him a thief," I burst out. "Some day he will be cleared."

"Not much!" laughed Duncan. "My father knows all about the case. I can tell you that."

"Then perhaps he knows where the money went to," I replied quickly. "I know he was very intimate with my father at that time."

Had I stopped to think I would not have spoken as I did. My remark made the young man furious, and I had hardly spoken before Duncan hit me a stinging blow on the forehead, and, springing upon me, bore me to the ground.