Chapter VIII. The Struggle

I was deeply chagrined at the unexpected turn affairs had taken, and I felt decidedly uncomfortable as John Stumpy levelled the weapon at my head. I could readily see that the battle of words was at an end. Action was now the order of the day. I wondered what the fellow would do next; but I was not kept long in suspense.

"Now, it's my turn, young fellow," he remarked, with a shrewd grin, as I fell back.

"Well, what do you want?" I asked, as coolly as I could recognizing the fact that nothing was to be gained by "stirring him up."

"You'll see fast enough. In the first place, hand over that paper."

I was silent. I did not intend to tell a falsehood by saying I did not have it, nor did I intend to give it up if it could possibly be avoided.

"Did you hear what I said?" continued Stumpy, after a pause.

"I thought you said the paper wasn't valuable," I returned, more to gain time than anything else.

"Neither it ain't, but, just the same, I want it. Come, hand it over."

He was getting ugly now, and no mistake. What was to be done?

As I have mentioned before, it would have been useless to call for help, as no one would have heard the calls.

Suddenly the thought struck me to try a bit of deception. I put my hand in my pocket and drew out the empty envelope.

"Is that what you want?" I asked, holding it up.

"Reckon it is," he returned eagerly. "Just toss it over."

Somewhat disappointed that he did not approach me and thus give me a chance of attacking him, I did as requested. It fell at his feet, and he was not long in transferring it to his pocket.

"Next time don't try to walk over a man like me," he said sharply. "I know a thing or two, and I'm not to be downed by a boy."

"Are you satisfied?" I asked calmly, though secretly exultant that he had not discovered my trick.

"Not yet. You followed me when you had no business to, and now you've got to take the consequences."

"What are you going to do?"

"You'll see soon enough. I ain't the one to make many mistakes. Years ago I made a few, but I ain't making no more."

"You knew my father quite well, didn't you?" I inquired in deep curiosity.

"As the old saying goes, 'Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies.' Maybe I didn't; maybe I did."

"I know you did."

"Well, what of it? So did lots of other people."

"But not quite as well as you and Nicholas Weaver and Mr. Aaron Woodward," I continued, determined to learn all I could.

"Ha! What do you know of them?" He scowled at me. "Reckon you've been reading that paper of Nick's putty closely. I was a fool for not tearing it up long ago."

"Why did you keep it-- to deliver it to Mr. Wentworth?"

It was a bold stroke and it told. Stumpy grew pale in spite of the dirt that covered his face, and the hand that held the pistol trembled.

"Say, young fellow, you know too much, you do. I suppose you read that paper clear through, did you?"

"As you say: Maybe I didn't; maybe I did."

"Perhaps you wasn't careful of it. Maybe I'd better examine it," he added.

My heart sank within me. In another moment the deception I had practised would be known-- and then?

He fumbled in his pocket and drew forth the envelope. He could not extract the letter he supposed it contained with one hand very well, and so lowered the pistol for a moment.

This was my chance. Unarmed I was evidently in his power. If I could only escape from the tool house!

The door still stood partly open, and the darkness of night-- for the moon had gone down-- was beyond. A dash and I would be outside. Still the tramp stood between me and liberty. Should I attack him or endeavor to slip to one side?

I had but an instant to think; another, and it would be too late. John Stumpy was fumbling in the envelope. His eyes were searching for the precious document.

With a single bound I sprang against him, knocking him completely off his feet. Then I made another jump for the door.

But he was too quick for me. Dropping the envelope and the pistol, he caught me by the foot, and in an instant both of us were rolling on the floor.

It was an unequal struggle. Strong as I was for a boy of my age, I was no match for this burly man. Turn and twist all I could, he held me in his grip while he heaped loud imprecations upon my head.

In our movements on the floor we came in contact with the lantern and upset it, smashing the frame as well as the glass.

For a moment darkness reigned. Then a tiny light from the corner lit up the place. The flames had caught the shavings.

"The place is on fire!" I cried in horror.

"Yes, and you did it," replied the tramp.

"It was you!" I returned stoutly, and, as a matter of fact, it may be as well to state that John Stumpy's foot had caused the accident.

"Not much; it was your fault, and you've got to take the blame."

As the rascal spoke, he caught me by the throat, squeezing it so tightly that I was in great danger of being choked to death.

"Let-- let up!" I gasped.

The choking continued. My head began to grow dizzy, and strange lights danced before my eyes. I protested against this proceeding as vigorously as I could by kicking the man sharply and rapidly.

But Stumpy now meant to do me real injury. He realized that I knew too much for his future welfare. In fact, he, no doubt, imagined I knew far more than I really did. If I was out of the way for all time so much the better for him.

"Take that!" he suddenly cried, and springing up he brought his heel down with great force on my head.

I cannot describe the sensation that followed. It was as if a sharp, blinding pain had stung me to the very heart. Then my senses forsook me.

How long I lay in a comatose state I do not know. Certainly it could not have been a very long time-- probably not over five or six minutes.

In the meantime the fire rapidly spread igniting the barrels that were stored in the tool house, and climbing up the walls of the building to the roof.

When I recovered my senses, my face was fairly scorched, and no sooner had I opened my eyes than they were blinded by smoke and flame.

By instinct rather than reason I staggered to my feet. I was so weak I could hardly stand, and my head spun around like a top. Where was the door?

I tottered to one side and felt around. There was the window tightly closed. The door I knew was opposite.

Reeling, I made my way through the smoke that now seemed to fill my lungs, to where I knew the door to be. Oh, horror! it was closed and secured!

"Heaven help me now!" burst from my parched lips. "Am I to be roasted alive?"

With all my remaining strength I threw myself against the door. Once, and again, and still it did not budge.

"Help! help!" I called at the top of my voice.

No answer came to my cry. The fire behind me became hotter and hotter. The roof had now caught, and the sparks fell down upon me in a perfect shower.

Another moment and it would be all over. With a brief prayer to God for help in my dire need, I attacked the door for the last time.

At first it did not budge. Then there was a creaking, a sharp crack, and at last it flew wide open.

Oh, how grateful was the breath of fresh air that struck me! I stumbled out into the clearing and opened wide my throat to take in the pure draught.

Then for the first time I realized how nearly I had been overcome. I could no longer stand, and swooning, sank in a heap to the ground.