Chapter II. An Assault on the Road
 

I knew Duncan Woodward would not hesitate to attack me. He was a much larger fellow than myself, and always ready to fight any one he thought he could whip.

Yet I was not prepared for the sudden onslaught that had been made. Had I been, I might have parried his blow.

But I did not intend to be subdued as easily as he imagined. The blow on my forehead pained not a little, and it made me mad "clear through."

"Get off of me!" I cried, as Duncan brought his full weight down upon my chest.

"Not much! Not until you promise to keep quiet about this affair," he replied.

"If you don't get off, you'll be mighty sorry;" was my reply, as I squirmed around in an effort to throw him aside.

Suddenly he caught me by the ear, and gave that member a twist that caused me to cry out with pain.

"Now will you do as I say?" he demanded.

"No"

Again he caught my ear. But now I was ready for him. It was useless to try to shake him off. He was too heavy and powerful for that. So I brought a small, but effective weapon into play. The weapon was nothing more than a pin that held together a rent in my trousers made the day previous. Without hesitation I pulled it out and ran it a good half-inch into his leg.

The yell be gave would have done credit to a wild Indian, and he bounded a distance of several feet. I was not slow to take advantage of this movement, and in an instant I was on my feet and several yards away.

Duncan's rage knew no bounds. He was mad enough to "chew me up," and with a loud exclamation he sprang after me, aiming a blow at my head as he did so.

I dodged his arm, and then, gathering myself together, landed my fist fairly and squarely upon the tip of his nose, a blow that knocked him off his feet and sent him rolling to the ground.

To say that I was astonished at what I had done would not express my entire feelings. I was amazed, and could hardly credit my own eyesight. Yet there he lay, the blood flowing from the end of his nasal organ. He was completely knocked out, and I had done the deed. I did not fear for consequences. I felt justified in what I had done. But I wondered how Duncan would stand the punishment.

With a look of intense bitterness on his face he rose slowly to his feet. The blood was running down his chin, and there were several stains upon his white collar and his shirt front. If a look could have crushed me I would have been instantly annihilated.

"I'll fix you for that!" he roared. "Roger Strong, I'll get even with you, if it takes ten years!"

"Do what you please, Duncan Woodward," I rejoined. "I don't fear you. Only beware how you address me in the future. You will get yourself into trouble."

"I imagine you will be the one to get into trouble," he returned insinuatingly.

"I'm not afraid. But-- hold up there!" I added, for Duncan had begun to move off toward the fence.

"What for?"

"I want you to hand over the pears you picked."

"I won't."

"Very well. Then I'll report the case to Mrs. Canby."

Duncan grew white.

"Take your confounded fruit," he howled, throwing a dozen or more of the luscious pears at my feet. "If I don't get even with you, my name isn't Duncan Woodward!"

And with this parting threat he turned to the fence, jumped over, and strode down the road.

In spite of the seriousness of the affair I could not help but laugh. Duncan had no doubt thought it a great lark to rob the widow's orchard, never dreaming of the wrong he was doing or of the injury to the trees. Now his nose was swollen, his clothes soiled, and he had suffered defeat in every way.

I had no doubt that he would do all in his power to get even with me. He hated me and always had. At school I had surpassed him in our studies, and on the ball field I had proved myself a superior player. I do not wish to brag about what I did, but it is necessary to show why Duncan disliked me.

Nor was there much love lost on my side, though I always treated him fairly. The reason for this was plain.

As I have stated, his father, Aaron Woodward, was at one tune a fellow-clerk with my father. At the time my father was arrested, Woodward was one of his principal accusers. Duncan had, of course, taken up the matter. Since then Mr. Woodward had received a large legacy from a dead relative in Chicago, or its suburbs, and started the finest general store in Darbyville. But his bitterness toward us still continued.

That the man knew something about the money that had been stolen I did not doubt, but how to prove it was a difficult problem that I had pondered many times without arriving at any satisfactory conclusion.

I watched Duncan out of sight and then turned and walked slowly toward the house.

"Roger!"

It was Mrs. Canby who called me. She stood on the side porch with a letter in her hand.

"You want me?"

"Yes, I have quite important news," she continued. "My sister in Norfolk is very ill, and I must go to her at once. I have spoken to Kate about it. Do you think you can get along while I am gone?"

"Yes, ma'am. How long do you expect to be away?"

"If she is not seriously ill I shall be back by day after to-morrow. You can hitch up Jerry at once. The train leaves in an hour."

"I'll have him at the door in five minutes."

"And, Roger, you and Kate must take good care of things while I am gone. There are several hundred dollars locked up in my desk. I would take the money to the bank in Newville, only I hate to lose the time."

"I reckon it will be safe," I replied; "I'll keep good watch against burglars."

"Do you think you can handle a pistol?" she went on.

"I think I could," I replied, with all the interest of the average American boy in firearms.

"There is a pistol upstairs in my bureau that belonged to Mr. Canby. I will let you have that, though of course I trust you won't need it."

"Is it loaded?"

"Yes; I loaded it last week. I will lay it out before I go. Be very careful with it."

"I will," I promised her.

I hurried down to the barn, and in a few moments had Jerry hooked up to the family turnout. As I was about to jump in and drive to the house, a man confronted me.

He was a stranger, about forty years of age, with black hair and shaggy beard and eyebrows. He was seedily dressed, and altogether looked to be a disreputable character.

"Say, young man, can you help a fellow as is down on his luck?" he asked in a hoarse tone.

"Who are you?" I responded.

"I'm a moulder from Factoryville. The shop's shut down, and I'm out of money and out of work."

"How long have you been out?"

"Two weeks."

"And you haven't found work anywhere?"

"Not a stroke."

"Been to Newville?"

"All through it, and everything full."

I thought this was queer. I had glanced at the Want column of a Newville newspaper and had noted that moulders were wanted in several places.

The man's appearance did not strike me favorably, and when he came closer to me I noted that his breath smelt strongly of liquor.

"I don't think I can help you," said I. "I have nothing for you to do."

"Give me a quarter, then, will you? I ain't had nothing to eat since yesterday."

"But you've had something to drink," I could not help remark.

The man scowled, "How do you know?"

"I can smell it on you."

"I only had one glass,-- just to knock out a cold I caught. Come, make it half a dollar. I'll pay you back when I get work."

"I don't care to lend."

"Make it ten cents."

"Not a cent."

"You're mighty independent about it," he sneered.

"I have to be when such fellows as you tackle me," I returned with spirit.

"You're mighty high toned for a boy of your age."

"I'm too high toned to let you talk to me in this fashion. I want you to leave at once."

The tramp-- for the man was nothing else-- scowled worse than before.

"I'll leave when I please," he returned coolly.

I was nonplussed. I was in a hurry to get away to drive Widow Canby to the station. To leave the man hanging about the house with no one but my sister Kate home was simply out of the question.

Suddenly an idea struck me. Like most people who live in the country, Mrs. Canby kept a watch-dog-- a large and powerful mastiff called Major. He was tied up near the back stoop out of sight, but could be pressed into service on short notice.

"If you don't go at once, I'll set the dog on you."

"Huh! You can't fool me!"

"No fooling about it. Major! Major!" I called.

There was a rattling of chain as the animal tried to break away, and then a loud barking. The noise seemed to strike terror to the tramp's heart.

"I'll get even with you, young fellow!" he growled, and running to the fence he scrambled over and out of sight. I did not wait to see in what direction he went.

When I reached the porch I found Mrs. Canby bidding my sister good-by. A moment more and she was on the seat. I touched up Jerry and we were off.

"It took you a long time to hitch up," the widow remarked as we drove along.

"It wasn't that," I replied, and told her about the tramp.

"You must be very careful of those men," she said anxiously. "Some of them will not stop at anything."

"I'll be wide awake," I rejoined reassuringly.

It was not a long drive to the station. When we arrived there, Mrs. Canby had over five minutes to spare, and this time was spent in buying a ticket and giving me final instructions.

At length the train came along and she was off. I waited a few moments longer and then drove away.

I had several purchases to make in the village-- a pruning-knife, a bag of feed, and some groceries, and these took some time to buy, so it was nearly noon when I started home.

Several times I imagined that a couple of the village young men noticed me very closely, but I paid no attention and went on my way, never dreaming of what was in store for me.

The road to the widow's house ran for half a mile or more through a heavy belt of timber land. We were jogging along at a fair pace, and I was looking over a newspaper I had picked up on the station platform. Suddenly some one sprang out from the bushes and seized Jerry by the bridle.

Astonished and alarmed, I sprang up to see what was the matter. As I did so I received a stinging blow on the side of the head, and the next instant was dragged rudely from the carriage.