Chapter XIII. The County Fair
 

The big amphitheater at the fair grounds was filled as completely and evenly as a new paper of pins. Through the air floated that sweetest of all music to the childish ear--the unceasing wail of expiring balloons; and childish souls were held together in one sticky ecstasy of molasses candy and pop-corn balls.

Behind the highest row of seats was a promenade, and in front of the lowest was another. Around these circled a procession which, though constantly varying, held certain recurring figures like the charging steeds on a merry-go-round. There was Dr. Fenton, in his tight Confederate suit; he had been circling in that same procession at every fair for twenty years. There was the judge, lank of limb and loose of joint, who stopped to shake hands with all the strangers and invite them to take dinner in his booth, where Mrs. Hollis reveled in a riot of pastry. A little behind him strutted Mr. Moseley, sending search-lights of scrutiny over the crowd in order to discover the academy boys who might be wasting their time upon unlettered femininity.

At one side of the amphitheater, raised to a place of honor, was the courting-box. Here the aristocratic youth of the country-side met to measure hearts, laugh at the rustics, and enjoy the races.

In previous years Sandy had watched the courting-box from below, but this year he was in the center of it. Jests and greetings from the boys, and cordial glances from maidens both known and unknown, bade him welcome. But, in spite of his reception, and in spite of his irreproachable toilet, he was not having a good time. With hands in pockets and a scowl on his face, he stared gloomily over the crowd. Twice a kernel of pop-corn struck his ear, but he did not turn.

Above him, Annette Fenton was fathoms deep in a flirtation with Carter Nelson; while below him, Ruth, in the daintiest of gowns and the largest of hats, was wasting her sweetness on the desert countenance of Sid Gray.

Sandy refused to seek consolation elsewhere; he sat like a Spartan hero, and calmly watched his heart being consumed in the flames.

This hour, for which he had been living, this longed-for opportunity of being near Ruth and possibly of speaking to her, was slipping away, and she did not even know he was there.

He became fiercely critical of Sid Gray. He rejoiced in his stoutness and took grim pleasure in the fact that his necktie had slipped up at the back. He looked at his hand as it rested on the back of the seat; it was plump and white. Sandy held out his own broad, muscular palm, hardened and roughened by work. Then he put it in his pocket again and sighed.

The afternoon wore gaily on. Louder grew the chorus of balloons and stickier grew the pop-corn balls. The courting-box was humming with laughter and jest. The Spartan hero began to rebel. Why should he allow himself to be tortured thus when there might be a way of escape? He recklessly resolved to put his fate to the test. Rising abruptly, he went down to the promenade and passed slowly along the courting-box, scanning the occupants as if in search of some one. It was on his fourth round that she saw him, and the electric shock almost lost him his opportunity. He looked twice to make sure she had spoken; then, with a bit of his heart in his throat and the rest in his eyes, he went up the steps and awkwardly held out his hand.

The world made several convulsive circuits in its orbit and the bass drum performed a solo inside his head during the moment that followed. When the tumult subsided he found a pair of bright brown eyes smiling up at him and a small hand clasped in his.

This idyllic condition was interrupted by a disturbance on the promenade, which caused them both to look in that direction. Some one was pushing roughly through the crowd.

"Hi, there, Kilday! Sandy Kilday!"

A heavy-set fellow was making his way noisily toward them. His suit of broad checks, his tan shoes, and his large diamond stud were strangers, but his little close-set eyes, protruding teeth, and bushy hair were hatefully familiar.

Sandy started forward, and those nearest laughed when the stranger looked at him and said:

"My guns! Git on to his togs! Ain't he a duke!"

Sandy got Ricks out of the firing-line, around the corner of the courting-box. His face was crimson with mortification, but it never occurred to him to be angry.

"What brought you back?" he asked huskily.

"Hosses."

"Are you going to drive this afternoon?"

"Yep. One of young Nelson's colts in the last ring. Say," he added, "he's game, all right. Me and him have done biz before. Know him?"

"Carter Nelson? Oh, yes; I know him," said Sandy, impatient to be rid of his companion.

"Me and him are a winnin' couple," said Ricks. "We plays the races straight along. He puts up the dough, and I puts up the tips. Say, he's one of these here tony toughs; he won't let on he knows me when he's puttin' on dog. What about you, Sandy? Makin' good these days?"

"I guess so," said Sandy, indifferently.

"You ain't goin' to school yet?"

"That I am," said Sandy; "and next year, too, if the money holds out."

"Golly gosh!" said Ricks, incredulously. "Well, I got to be hikin' back. The next is my entry. I'll look you up after while. So-long!"

He shambled off, and Sandy watched his broad-checked back until it was lost in the crowd.

That Ricks should have turned up at that critical moment seemed a wilful prank on the part of fate. Sandy bit his lip and raged inwardly. He had a wild impulse to rush back to Ruth, seize her hand, and begin where he had left off. He might have done it, too, had not the promenade happened to land Dr. Fenton before him at that moment.

The doctor was behaving in a most extraordinary and unmilitary way. He had stepped out of the ranks, and was performing strange manoeuvers about a knothole that looked into the courting-box. When he saw Sandy he opened fire.

"Look at her! Look at her!" he whispered. "Whenever I pass she talks to Jimmy Reed on this side; but the moment she thinks I'm not looking, sir, she talks to Nelson on the other! Kilday," he went on, shaking his finger impressively, "that little girl is as slick as--a blame Yankee! But she'll not outwit me. I'm going right up there and take her home."

Sandy laughingly held his arm. It was not the first time the doctor had confided in him. "No, no, doctor," he said; "I'll be the watch-dog for ye. Let me go and stay with Annette, and if Carter Nelson gets a word in her ear, it'll be because I've forgotten how to talk."

"Will you?" asked the doctor, anxiously. "Nelson's a drunkard. I'd rather see my little girl dead than married to him. But she's wilful, Kilday; when she was just a baby she'd sit with her little pink toes curled up for an hour to keep me from putting on her shoes when she wanted to go barefoot! She's a fighter," he added, with a gruff chuckle that ended in a sigh, "but she's all I've got."

Sandy gripped him by the hand, then turned the corner into the courting-box. Instantly his eager eyes sought Ruth, but she did not look up as he passed.

He unceremoniously took his seat beside Annette, to the indignation of little Jimmy Reed. It was hard to accept Carter's patronizing tolerance, but a certain curve to his eyebrows and the turn of his head served as perpetual reminders of Ruth.

Annette greeted Sandy effusively. She had found Jimmy entirely too limber a foil to use with any degree of skill, and she knew from past experience that Sandy and Carter were much better matched. If Sid Gray had been there also, she would have been quite happy. In Annette's estimation it was all a mistake about love being a game for two.

"Who was your stylish friend?" she asked Sandy.

"Ricks Wilson," said Sandy, shortly.

Carter smiled condescendingly. "Your old business partner, I believe?"

"Before he was yours," said Sandy.

This was not at all to Annette's taste. They were not even thinking about her.

"How m-many dances do you want for to-night?" she asked Sandy.

"The first four."

She wrote them on the corner of her fan. "Yes?"

"The last four."

"Yes?"

"And the four in between. What's that on your fan?"

"Nothing."

"But it is. Let me see."

"Will you look at it easy and not tell?" she whispered, taking advantage of Carter's sudden interest in the judges' stand.

"Sure and I will. Just a peep. Come!"

She opened the fan half-way, and disclosed a tiny picture of himself sewed on one of the slats.

"And it's meself that you care for, Annette!" he whispered. "I knew it, you rascal, you rogue!"

"Let g-go my hand," she whispered, half laughing, half scolding. "Look, Carter, what I have on my fan!" and, to Sandy's chagrin, she opened the fan on the reverse side and disclosed a picture of Nelson.

But Carter had neither eyes nor ears for her now. His whole attention was centered on the ring, where the most important event of the day was about to take place.

It was a trial of two-year-olds for speed and durability. There were four entries--two bays, a sorrel, and Carter's own little thoroughbred "Nettie." He watched her as she pranced around the ring under Ricks's skilful handling; she had nothing to fear from the bays, but the sorrel was a close competitor.

"Oh, this is your race, isn't it?" cried Annette as the band struck up "Dixie." "Where's my namesake? The pretty one just c-coming, with the ugly driver? Why, he's Sandy's friend, isn't he?"

Sandy winced under her teasing, but he held his peace.

The first heat Nettie won; the second, the sorrel; the third brought the grand stand to its feet. Even the revolving procession halted breathless.

"Now they're off!" cried Annette, excitedly. "Mercy, how they g-go! Nettie is a little ahead; look, Sandy! She's gaining! No; the sorrel's ahead. Carter, your driver is g-going too close! He's g-going to smash in--Oh, look!"

There was a crash of wheels and a great commotion. Several women screamed, and a number of men rushed into the ring. When Sandy got there, the greater crowd was not around the sorrel's driver, who lay in a heap against the railing with a broken leg and a bruised head; it was around Ricks Wilson in angry protest and indignation.

The most vehement of them all was Judge Hollis,--the big, easy-going judge,--whose passion, once roused, was a thing to be reckoned with.

"It was a dastardly piece of cowardice," he cried. "You all saw what he did! Call the sheriff, there! I intend to prosecute him to the full extent of the law."

Ricks, with snapping eyes and snarling mouth, glanced anxiously around at the angry faces. He was looking for Carter Nelson, but Carter had discreetly departed. It was Sandy whom he spied, and instantly called: "Kilday, you'll see me through this mess? You know it wasn't none of my fault."

Sandy pushed his way to the judge's side. He had never hated the sight of Ricks so much as at that moment.

"It's Ricks Wilson," he whispered to the judge--"the boy I used to peddle with. Don't be sending him to jail, sir. I'll--I'll go his bail if you'll be letting him go."

"Indeed you won't!" thundered the judge. "You to take money you've saved for your education to help this scoundrel, this rascal, this half murderer!"

The crowd shouted its approval as it opened for the sheriff. Ricks was not the kind to make it easy for his captors, and a lively skirmish ensued.

As he was led away he turned to the crowd back of him and shook his fist in the judge's face.

"You done this," he cried. "I'll git even with you, if I go to hell fer it!"

The judge laughed contemptuously, but Sandy watched Ricks depart with troubled eyes. He knew that he meant what he said.