Chapter XX. The Irony of Chance
 

The snow, which had begun as an insignificant flurry in the morning, developed into a storm by afternoon.

Four miles from town, in a dreary stretch of country, a dejected-looking object tramped along the railroad-track. His hat was pulled over his eyes and his hands were thrust in his pockets. Now and again he stopped, listened, and looked at his watch.

It was Sandy Kilday, and he was waiting for the freight-train with the fixed intention of committing suicide.

The complications arising from Jimmy Reed's indiscretion had resulted disastrously. When Sandy found that Ruth had read his letter, his common sense took flight. Instead of a supplicant, he became an invader, and stormed the citadel with such hot-headed passion and fervor that Ruth fled in affright to the innermost chamber of her maidenhood, and there, barred and barricaded, withstood the siege.

His one desire in life now was to quit it. He felt as if he had read his death-warrant, and it was useless ever again to open his eyes on this gray, impossible world.

He did not know how far he had come. Everything about him was strange and unfriendly: the woods had turned to gaunt and gloomy skeletons that shivered and moaned in the wind; the sunny fields of ragweed were covered with a pall; and the river--his dancing, singing river--was a black and sullen stream that closed remorselessly over the dying snowflakes. His woods, his fields, his river,--they knew him not; he stared at them blankly and they stared back at him.

A rabbit, frightened at his approach, jumped out of the bushes and went bounding down the track ahead of him. The sight of the round little cottontail leaping from tie to tie brought a momentary diversion; but he did not want to be diverted.

With an effort he came back to his stern purpose. He forced himself to face the facts and the future. What did it matter if he was only twenty-one, with his life before him? What satisfaction was it to have won first honors at the university? There was but one thing in the world that made life worth living, and that was denied him. Perhaps after he was gone she would love him.

This thought brought remarkable consolation. He pictured to himself her remorse when she heard the tragic news. He attended in spirit his own funeral, and even saw her tears fall upon his still face. Meanwhile he listened impatiently for the train.

Instead of the distant rumble of the cars, he heard on the road below the sound of a horse's hoofs, quickly followed by voices. Slipping behind the embankment, he waited for the vehicle to pass. The horse was evidently walking, and the voices came to him distinctly.

"I'm not a coward--any s-such thing! We oughtn't to have c-come, in the first place. I can't go with you. Please turn round, C-Carter,--please!"

There was no mistaking that high, childlike voice, with its faltering speech.

Sandy's gloomy frown narrowed to a scowl. What business had Annette out there in the storm? Where was she going with Carter Nelson?

He quickened his steps to keep within sight of the slow-moving buggy.

"There's nothing out this road but the Junction," he thought, trying to collect his wits. "Could they be taking the train there? He goes to California in the morning, but where's he taking Nettie to-day? And she didn't want to be going, either; didn't I hear her say it with her own lips?"

He moved cautiously forward, now running a few paces to keep up, now crouching behind the bushes. Every sense was keenly alert; his eyes never left the buggy for a moment.

When the freight thundered up the grade, he stepped mechanically to one side, keeping a vigilant eye on the couple ahead, and begrudging the time he lost while the train went by. It was not until an hour later that he remembered he had forgotten to commit suicide.

Stepping back on the ties, he hurried forward. He was convinced now that they meant to take the down train which would pass the Clayton train at the Junction in half an hour. Something must be done to save Annette. The thought of her in the city, at the mercy of the irresponsible Carter, sent him running down the track. He waited until he was slightly in advance before he descended abruptly upon them.

Annette was sitting very straight, talking excitedly, and Carter was evidently trying to reassure her.

As Sandy plunged down the embankment, they started apart, and Carter reached for the whip. Before he could urge the horse forward, Sandy had swung himself lightly to the step of the buggy, and was leaning back against the dash-board. He looked past Carter to Annette. She was making a heroic effort to look unconcerned and indifferent, but her eyelids were red, and her handkerchief was twisted into a damp little string about her fingers. Sandy wasted no time in diplomacy; he struck straight out from the shoulder.

"If it's doing something you don't want to, you don't have to, Nettie. I'm here."

Carter stopped his horse.

"Will you get down?" he demanded angrily.

"After you," said Sandy.

Carter measured his man, then stepped to the ground. Sandy promptly followed.

"And now," said Carter, "you'll perhaps be good enough to explain what you mean."

Sandy still kept his hand on the buggy and his eyes on Annette; when he spoke it was to her.

"If it's your wish to go on, say the word."

The tearful young person in the buggy looked very limp and miserable, but declined to make any remarks.

"Miss Fenton and I expect to be married this evening," said Carter, striving for dignity, though his breath came short with excitement. "We take the train in twenty minutes. Your interference is not only impudent--it's useless. I know perfectly well who sent you: it was Judge Hollis. He was the only man we met after we left town. Just return to him, with my compliments, and tell him I say he is a meddler and a fool!"

"Annette," said Sandy, softly, coming toward her, "the doctor'll be wanting his coffee by now."

"Let me pass," cried Carter, "you common hound! Take your foot off that step or I'll--" He made a quick motion toward his hip, and Sandy caught his hand as it closed on a pearl-handled revolver.

"None of that, man! I'll be going when I have her word. Is it good-by, Annette? Must I be taking the word to your father that you've left him now and for always? Yes? Then a shake of the hand for old times' sake."

Annette slipped a cold little hand into his free one, and feeling the solid grasp of his broad palm, she clung to it as a drowning man clings to a spar.

"I can't go!" she cried, in a burst of tears. "I can't leave dad this way! Make him take me b-back, Sandy! I want to go home!"

Carter stood very still and white. His thin body was trembling from head to foot, and the veins stood out on his forehead like whip-cord. He clenched his hands in an effort to control himself. At Annette's words he stepped aside with elaborate courtesy.

"You are at perfect liberty to go with Mr. Kilday. All I ask is that he will meet me as soon as we get back to town."

"I can't go b-back on the train!" cried Annette, with a glance at her bags and boxes. "Every one would suspect something if I did. Oh, why d-did I come?"

"My buggy is at your disposal," said Carter; "perhaps your disinterested friend, Mr. Kilday, could be persuaded to drive you back."

"But, Carter," cried Annette, in quick dismay, "you must come, too. I'll bring dad r-round; I always do. Then we can be married at home, and I can have a veil and a r-ring and presents."

She smiled at him coaxingly, but he folded his arms and scowled.

"You go with me to the city, or you go back to Clayton with him. You have just three minutes to make up your mind."

Sandy saw her waver. The first minute she looked at him, the second at Carter. He took no chances on the third. With a quick bound, he was in the buggy and turning the horse homeward.

"But I've decided to go with Carter!" cried Annette, hysterically. "Turn b-back, Sandy! I've changed my mind."

"Change it again," advised Sandy as he laid the whip gently across the horse's back.

Carter Nelson flung furiously off to catch the train for town, while the would-be bride shed bitter tears on the shoulder of the would-be suicide.

The snow fell faster and faster, and the gray day deepened to dusk. For a long time they drove along in silence, both busy with their own thoughts.

Suddenly they were lurched violently forward as the horse shied at something in the bushes. Sandy leaned forward in time to see a figure on all fours plunging back into the shrubbery.

"Annette," he whispered excitedly, "did you see that man's face?"

"Yes," she said, clinging to his arm; "don't leave me, Sandy!"

"What did he look like? Tell me, quick!"

"He had little eyes like shoe-buttons, and his teeth stuck out. Do you suppose he was hiding?"

"It was Ricks Wilson, or I am a blind man!" cried Sandy, standing up in the buggy and straining his eyes in the darkness.

"Why, he's in jail!"

"May I never trust me two eyes to speak the truth again if that wasn't Ricks!"

When they started they found that the harness was broken, and all efforts to fix it were in vain.

"It's half-past five now," cried Annette. "If I don't get home b-before dad, he'll have out the fire department."

"There's a farm-house a good way back," said Sandy; "but it's too far for you to walk. Will you be waiting here in the buggy until I go for help?"

"Well, I guess not!" said Annette, indignantly.

Sandy looked at the round baby face beside him and laughed. "It's not one of meself that blames you," he said; "but how are we ever to get home?"

Annette was not without resources.

"What's the matter with riding the horse b-back to the farm?"

"And you?" asked Sandy.

"I'll ride behind."

They became hilarious over the mounting, for the horse bitterly resented a double burden.

When he found he could not dispose of it he made a dash for freedom, and raced over the frozen road at such a pace that they were soon at their destination.

"He won the handicap," laughed Sandy as he lifted his disheveled companion to the ground.

"It was glorious!" cried Annette, gathering up her flying locks. "I lost every hair-pin but one."

At the farm-house they met with a warm reception.

"Jes step right in the kitchen," said the farmer. "Mommer'll take care of you while I go out to the stable for some rope and another hoss."

The kitchen was a big, cheerful room, full of homely comfort. Bright red window-curtains were drawn against the cold white world outside, and the fire crackled merrily in the stove.

Sandy and Annette stood, holding out their hands to the friendly warmth. She was watching with interest the preparations for supper, but he had grown silent and preoccupied.

The various diversions of the afternoon had acted as a temporary narcotic, through which he struggled again and again to wretched consciousness. A surge of contempt swept over him that he could have forgotten for a moment. He did not want to forget; he did not want to think of anything else.

"They smell awfully g-good," whispered Annette.

"What?"

"The hoe-cakes. I didn't have any dinner."

"Neither did I."

Annette looked up quickly. "What were you d-doing out there on the track, Sandy?"

The farmer's wife fortunately came to the rescue.

"Hitch up yer cheers, you two, and take a little snack afore you go out in the cold ag'in."

Annette promptly accepted, but Sandy declared that he was not hungry. He went to the window and, pulling back the curtain, stared out into the night. Was all the rest of life going to be like this? Was that restless, nervous, intolerable pain going to gnaw at his heart forever?

Meanwhile the savory odor of the hoe-cakes floated over his shoulder and bits of the conversation broke in upon him.

"Aw, take two or three and butter 'em while they are hot. Long sweetening or short?"

"Both," said Annette. "I never tasted anything so g-good. Sandy, what's the matter with you? I never saw you when you weren't hungry b-before. Look! Won't you try this s-sizzly one?"

Sandy looked and was lost. He ate with a coming appetite.

The farmer's wife served them with delighted zeal; she made trip after trip from the stove to the table, pausing frequently to admire her guests.

"I've had six," said Annette; "do you suppose I'll have time for another one?"

"Lemme give you both a clean plate and some pie," suggested the eager housewife.

Sandy looked at her and smiled.

"I'll take the clean plate," he said, "and--and more hoe-cakes."

When the farmer returned, and they rode back to the buggy, Annette developed a sudden fever of impatience. She fidgeted about while the men patched up the harness, and delayed their progress by her fire of questions.

After they started, Sandy leaned back in the buggy, lost in the fog of his unhappiness. Off in the distance he could see the twinkling lights of Clayton. One was apart from the rest; that was Willowvale.

A sob aroused him. Annette, left to herself, had collapsed. He patiently put forth a fatherly hand and patted her shoulder.

"There, there, Nettie! You'll be all right in the morning."

"I won't!" she declared petulantly. "You don't know anything ab-b-bout being in love."

Sandy surveyed her with tolerant sadness. Little her childish heart knew of the depths through which he was passing.

"Do you love him very much?" he asked.

She nodded violently. "Better than any b-boy I was ever engaged to."

"He's not worth it."

"He is!"

A strained silence, then he said:

"Nettie, could you be forgiving me if I told you the Lord's truth?"

"Don't you suppose dad's kept me p-posted about his faults? Why, he would walk a mile to find out something b-bad about Carter Nelson."

"He wouldn't have to. Nelson's a bad lot, Nettie. It isn't all his fault; it's the price he pays for his blue blood. Your father's the wise man to try to keep you from being his wife."

"Everyb-body's down on him," she sobbed, "just because he has to d-drink sometimes on account of his lungs. I didn't know you were so mean."

"Will you pass the word not to see him again before he leaves in the morning?"

"Indeed, I won't!"

Sandy stopped the horse. "Then I'll wait till you do."

She tried to take the lines, but he held her hands. Then she declared she would walk. He helped her out of the buggy and watched her start angrily forth. In a few minutes she came rushing back.

"Sandy, you know I can't g-go by myself; I am afraid. Take me home."

"And you promise?"

She looked appealingly at him, but found no mercy. "You are the very m-meanest boy I ever knew. Get me home before d-dad finds out, and I'll promise anything. But this is the last word I'll ever s-speak to you as long as I live."

At half-past seven they drove into town. The streets were full of people and great excitement prevailed.

"They've found out about me!" wailed Annette, breaking her long silence. "Oh, Sandy, what m-must I do?"

Sandy looked anxiously about him. He knew that an elopement would not cause the present commotion. "Jimmy!" He leaned out of the buggy and called to a boy who was running past. "Jimmy Reed! What's the matter?"

Jimmy, breathless and hatless, his whole figure one huge question-mark, exploded like a bunch of fire-crackers.

"That you, Sandy? Ricks Wilson's broke jail and shot Judge Hollis. It was at half-past five. Dr. Fenton's been out there ever since. They say the judge can't live till midnight. We're getting up a crowd to go after Wilson."

At the first words Sandy had sprung to his feet. "The judge shot! Ricks Wilson! I'll kill him for that. Get out, Annette. I must go to the judge. I'll be out to the farm in no time and back in less. Don't you be letting them start without me, Jimmy."

Whipping the already jaded horse to a run, he dashed through the crowded streets, over the bridge, and out the turnpike.

Ruth stood at one of the windows at Willowvale, peering anxiously out into the darkness. Her figure showed distinctly against the light of the room behind her, but Sandy did not see her.

His soul was in a wild riot of grief and revenge. Two thoughts tore at his brain: one was to see the judge before he died, and the other was to capture Ricks Wilson.