Chapter IV. Side-Tracked
 

The next morning, at the nearest railroad station, an irate cattleman was trying to hire some one to take charge of a car of live stock which was on its way to a great exposition in a neighboring city. The man he had counted on had not appeared, and the train was about due.

As he was turning away in desperation he felt a tug at his elbow. Looking around, he saw a queer figure with a countenance that resembled a first attempt at a charcoal sketch from life: one cheek was larger than the other, the mouth was sadly out of drawing, the eyes shone out from among the bruises like the sun from behind the clouds. But if the features were disfigured, the smile was none the less courageous.

Sandy had found a friendly sympathizer at a neighboring farm-house, had been given a good breakfast, had made his toilet, and was ready for the next round in the fight of life.

"I'll be doin' yer job, sir, whatever it is," he said pleasantly.

The man eyed him with misgiving, but his need was urgent.

"All you have to do is to stay in the car and look after the cattle. My man will meet you when you reach the city. Do you think you can do it?"

"Just keep company with the cows?" cried Sandy. "Sure and I can!"

So the bargain was struck, and that night found him in the great city with a dollar in his pocket and a promise of work in the morning.

Tired and sore from the experiences of the night before, he sought a cheap lodging-house near by. A hook-nosed woman, carrying a smoking lamp, conducted him to a room under the eaves. It was small and suffocating. He involuntarily lifted his hands and touched the ceiling.

"It's like a boilin' potato I feel," he said; "and the pot's so little and the lid so tight!"

He went to the window, and taking out the nail that held down the sash, pushed it up. Below him lay the great, bustling city, cabs and cars in constant motion, long lines of blazing lights marking the thoroughfares, the thunder of trains in the big station, and above and below and through it all a dull monotonous roar, like the faraway unceasing cry of a hungry beast.

He sank on his knees by the window, and a restless, nervous look came into his eyes.

"It presses in, too," he thought. "It's all crowdin' over me. I'm just me by myself, all alone." A tear made a white course down his grimy cheek, then another and another. He brushed them impatiently away with the cap he still held in his hand.

Rising abruptly, he turned away from the window, and the hot air of the room again smote him. The smoking lamp had blackened the chimney, and as he bent to turn it down, he caught his reflection in a small mirror over the table. What the bruises and swelling had left undone the cheap mirror completed. He started back. Was that the boy he knew as himself? Was that Sandy Kilday who had come to America to seek his fortune? He stared in a sort of fascinated horror at that other boy in the mirror. Before he had been afraid to be by himself, now he was afraid of himself.

He seized his cap, and blowing out the lamp, plunged down four flights of steep narrow steps and out into the street. A number of people were crowding into a street-car marked "Exposition." Sandy, ever a straw in the current, joined them. Once more down among his fellow-men, he began to feel more comfortable. He cheerfully paid his entrance fee with one of the two silver coins in his pocket.

The first building he entered was the art gallery, and the first picture that caught his eye held him spellbound. He sat before it all the evening with fascinated eyes, devouring every detail and oblivious to the curious interest he was attracting; for the huge canvas represented the Knights of the Round Table, and he had at last found friends.

All the way back he thought about the picture; it was not until he reached his room that the former loneliness returned.

But even then it was not for long. A pair of yellow eyes peered around the window-sill, and a plaintive "meow" begged for admittance. It was plainly Providence that guided that thin and ill-treated kitten to Sandy's window. The welcome it received must have completely restored its shaken faith in human nature. Tired as he was, Sandy went out and bought some milk. He wanted to establish a firm friendship; for if he was to stay in this lonely city, he must have something to love, if only a prodigal kitten of doubtful pedigree.

During the long, hot days that followed Sandy worked faithfully at the depot. The regular hours and confinement seemed doubly irksome after the bohemian life on the road.

The Exposition was his salvation. No sacrifice seemed too great to enable him to get beyond that magic gate. For the "Knights of the Round Table" was but the beginning of miles and miles of wonderful pictures. He even bought a catalogue, and, prompted by a natural curiosity for anything that interested him, learned the names of the artists he liked best, and the bits of biography attached to each. He would recite these to the yellow kitten when he got back to his little hot-box of a room.

One night the art gallery was closed, and he went into another big building where a crowd of people were seated. At one end of it was a great pipe-organ, and after a while some one began to play. With his cap tightly grasped in both hands, he tiptoed down the center aisle and stood breathlessly drinking in the wonderful tones that seemed to be coming from his own heart.

"Get out of the way, boy," said an usher. "You are blocking the aisle."

A queer-appearing lady who looked like a man touched his elbow.

"Here's a seat," she said in a deep voice.

"Thank you, sir," said Sandy, absently. He scarcely knew whether he was sitting or standing. He only wanted to be let alone, so that he could listen to those strange, beautiful sounds that made a shiver of joy go down his back. Art had had her day; it was Music's turn.

When the last number had been played, he turned to the queer lady:

"Do they do it every night?"

She smiled at his enthusiasm: "Wednesdays and Saturdays."

"Say," said Sandy, confidentially, "if you come first do you save me a seat, and I'll do the same by you."

From that time on he decided to be a musician, and he lived on two scanty meals a day in order to attend the concerts.

But this exalted scheme of high thinking and plain living soon became irksome. One day, when his loneliness weighed most heavily upon him, he was sent with a message out to the switch-station. As he tramped back along the track he spied a familiar figure ahead of him. There was no mistaking that short, slouching body with the peddler's pack strapped on its back. With a cry of joy, Sandy bounded after Ricks Wilson. He actually hugged him in his joy to be once more with some one he knew.

Ricks glanced uneasily at the scar above his eye.

Sandy clapped his hand over it and laughed. "It's all right, Ricks; a miss is as good as a mile. I ain't mad any more. It's straight home with me you are goin'; and if we can get the two feet of you into me bit of a room, we'll have a dinner that's fit for a king."

On the way they laid in a supply of provisions, Sandy even going to the expense of a bottle of beer for Ricks.

The yellow kitten arched her back and showed general signs of hostility when the stranger was introduced. But her unfriendly demonstrations were ignored. Ricks was the honored guest, and Sandy extended to him the full hospitality of the establishment.

"Put your pack on the floor and yerself in the chair, and I'll get ye filled up in the blink of an eyelash. Don't be mindin' the cat, Ricks. She's just lettin' on she don't take to you. She give me the wink on the sly."

Ricks, expanding under the influence of food and drink, became eloquent. He recounted courageous adventures of the past, and outlined marvelous schemes for the future, by which he was going to make a short cut to fame and glory.

When it was time for him to go, Sandy heaved a sigh of regret. For two hours he had been beguiled by Ricks's romances, and now he had to go back to the humdrum duties at the depot, and receive a sound rating for his belated appearance.

"Which way might you be goin', Ricks?" he asked wistfully.

"Same place I started fer," said Ricks. "Kentucky."

The will-o'-the-wisp, which had been hiding his light, suddenly swung it full in the eyes of Sandy. Once more he saw the little maid of his dreams, and once more he threw discretion to the winds and followed the vision.

Hastily collecting his few possessions, he rolled them into a bundle, and slipping the surprised kitten into his pocket, he gladly followed Ricks once more out into the broad green meadows, along the white and shining roads that lead over the hills to Kentucky.