Chapter XXIX
 

The Flathers' family was indulging in a birthday party. The table, set in the bedroom so that Chick might participate, was decorated at one end by a gorgeous pink cake, bearing a single candle, and at the other by Loreny herself, blue of eye, and chubby of cheek, who crawled triumphantly about among the dishes, bestowing equal attention on the sugar bowl and the molasses jug, only pausing to emit ecstatic screams when a rough, red head appeared above the table rim.

In the bed, propped on pillows and with throat bandaged, Chick executed a lively tune with knife and fork on his plate, while Maria Flathers dedicated herself to the task of preventing Loreny May from putting her blue-slippered foot in the butter.

Without, the sleet pelted the windows, and the red top of Mr. Iseling's wagon waiting at the gate. It whistled and rattled down Bean Alley and converted the telegraph wires into cables of ice. But the Flathers family, luxuriating in the unusual extravagance of an open fire, and cheered by the hilarity of the occasion, was happily oblivious to the storm until a sharp rap at the door brought the redheaded bear from under the table to answer the summons.

"Well, if it ain't Mis' Squeerington!" cried Phineas Flathers effusively. "Out in all this storm! But I ain't surprised. Didn't I tell you, Maria, that I knowed she'd bring the baby a birthday present? Come up to the fire, mam. Maria git her a rocker."

"No, no!" cried Miss Lady breathlessly. "I can't stay. I must get to town. My horse broke down in the bridge, and I'm on my way to the Junction to see if I can't get on the next train when it stops for water. I want you to go over and help me on."

"Next train don't stop. It's a express. The local ain't due fer a hour an' a half. You ain't fit to go on yit, mam, nohow. I never seen you all in like this before! Maria, can't you fix her up a cup of coffee or somethin'?"

Miss Lady shook her head, and leaned wearily against the mantel.

"I'll be all right. Are you sure about the trains?"

"Sure az the taxes. You're in fer a wait, an' we'll git a nice little visit out of you. Guess you are 'sprised to see me home this time of day?"

"I hadn't thought about it."

"Well, you see it's her birthday, an' tormadoes couldn't 'a' kept me from bringin' her a cake. Ain't she the purties' object you ever set yer two optics on? Say 'Da-da,' Loreny,--leave off talkin' to her, Chick. Go on, Loreny, say, 'Da-da' fer de purty lady!"

"He's that silly about her," said Maria Flathers, trying to conceal her own pride. "He won't leave me put anything but white dresses and blue shoes on her, an' he works extra time to pay fer 'em. Myrtella says there ain't no fools like old ones."

"That's all right," said Phineas; "she'll have more to say when I give Loreny a diamond ring on her next birthday. Iseling'll be givin' me a raise soon. He's as good as said so. He knows I'm good fer everything from bossin' a big job to drivin' a wagon; then look at the trade I command! Why, Mis' Squeerington, them Ladies' Aiders in the Immanuel Church, follered me solid, an' Mrs. Ivy an' the Anti-Tobacs--Shoo, I could start out fer myself tomorrow."

"It's one o'clock!" warned Maria, anxious to speed her master on his way in order that she might come in for a few conversational crumbs.

"One o'clock! Holy Moses! I must be hiking, if I want to hear the rest of the trial."

"The trial?" repeated Miss Lady instantly alert; "were you at the courthouse this morning?"

"Yes, mam, I was. Everybody was. Court room packed to the doors. I sez to Iseling this morning, I sez, 'I'll make the noon delivery all right, but the rest of the day's my own. It ain't only because of my former connection with the Sequin family,' sez I; 'it's because Mr. Don Morley is a personal friend of mine. He's white an' he's square,' sez I, 'an' the open-handedest young gent I ever done a favor for. If it's a case of standin' by him in trouble, or losin' my job,' I sez, 'why ta-ta to the job!'"

"But when you left," urged Miss Lady, "what were they doing? How did people feel about it?"

"Mighty shaky, mam. They ain't got a scrap of good evidence fer him, an' enough ag'in him to sink a ship. Old man Wicker's son is puttin' up a stiff fight, but he's up aginst Kinner, an' Kinner could convict St. Peter hisself!"

"But can't they get the truth out of Sheeley? Can't they force him to tell what happened?"

Phineas shrugged contemptuously: "Sheeley lost his memory when he lost his eye. One was put out with lead, an' the other with silver. Says now he wasn't in the fight at all."

"It's a lie! He wuz!" Chick had risen from his pillow, and was leaning forward excitedly.

"What do you mean, Chick? How do you know?"

"He wuz in the fight!" he cried huskily. "It was 'tween him an' the drunk. Sheeley ketched him fakin' a ace, an' he calls Sheeley a liar, an' they fit all over the floor. The big one wasn't in it! He kep' tryin' to stop 'em, buttin' in with his whip."

"But how do you know all this, Chick?" cried Miss Lady almost fiercely; "did the Sheeley boy tell you?"

"Skeeter? Shucks, he don't know nothin' 'ceptin' what his paw tole him."

"But who told you?"

Chick closed his lips and shook his head: "He'll set the cop on me."

"Who?"

"Skeeter's paw. Fer smashin' the slot machine. But I never took none of his money, Mis' Squeerington; it was mine!" His lips began to tremble.

"The cop won't get you, Chick," said Miss Lady, now on her knees beside him, coaxing out each statement, and trying to keep down her excitement. "Tell me, quick! How do you know about the shooting?"

"'Cause," said Chick fearfully, "I--I seen it!"

"Well, if that ain't the limit!" said Phineas, while Maria gathered Loreny up under the impression that Chick had lost his mind, and might become dangerous.

"I got shut up in the saloon," continued Chick, evidently torn between the desire to be a hero and the fear of the consequences, "an' it was night, an' I went to sleep."

"Yes, yes!" pressed Miss Lady; "go on."

"Then they come in an' got to rough-housin' an' I crawl up-stairs an' lay on me stommick an' peek through the crack. An' Sheeley an' the Drunk they got to scrappin' like I tole you. An' then while the big one was tryin' to git Sheeley to quit, the Drunk he come over to the door right where I was layin' at, an' he steady hisself aginst the wall an' bang loose at Sheeley with a pistol."

"Would you know the Big One again? Oh, Chick, try to remember what he looked like!"

Chick shook his head, "Naw, I don't 'member what none of 'em looked like. But you know which one he was; he gimme the silver knob offen his whip."

Miss Lady sprang to her feet: "We must get him to the courthouse, Mr. Flathers. Quick! Help me with his clothes. I'll put on his shoes and stockings."

"But the train--" began Phineas.

"We can't wait for it!" cried Miss Lady. "You must drive us in the wagon." In a surprisingly few minutes Chick, bewildered but interested, was fully clothed. "Give me the blankets off the bed and help me wrap them around him," said Miss Lady. "There! You carry him and I'll hold the umbrella. Keep your mouth shut, Chick; don't you dare open it until I tell you."

The bewildered Chick, encased like a mummy, was rushed out to the wagon and deposited between two ice-cream freezers, while Miss Lady knelt beside him, trying to shield him from the wind. Just as Phincas was driving away there was a call from the cottage.

For the first and only time in her life Maria Flathers had collided with an idea. In vain she reversed her mental engines and tried to back off, but the collision was head on, and she and the idea were firmly welded together.

"Here's the whip han'le!" she called wildly, as the wind caught her skirts and twisted them about her. "I been usin' it fer a thimble. An' here's the whip itself--Take'em along! Take'em fer a witness!"

Once again the red-topped wagon got started, this time in earnest. Through the mud and slush of Bean Alley, past the Dump Heap, across the Common, the sturdy little mare dashed furiously.

"Don't breathe through your mouth, Chick!" implored Miss Lady. "And don't be afraid. All you have to do is to tell what you saw. Don't keep back anything, tell it just as you told it to me."

"'Bout the slot machine?" queried an anxious voice from the blankets.

"About everything. Nobody is going to hurt you, or blame you. You aren't catching cold, are you? Here put on my gloves, and you mustn't talk, not another word."

For an interminable time they splashed through the slush of the road, before they came to the pavements of the city. Looking out of the wagon, they could see the broad yellow waters of the river with its long, black coal barges, and the dim outline of Billy-goat Hill, growing fainter in the distance.

"Faster, Mr. Flathers, drive faster!" implored Miss Lady.

Phineas willingly laid the whip across the flank of the little mare, and they dashed along, through the crowded thoroughfare into a broad street of warehouses, where they followed the tramway straight across the murky city. All the while the sleet beat on the red top of the wagon and rattled under the horse's hoofs, and Miss Lady sat clasping Chick, counting the passing moments.

At last the dark courthouse loomed up ahead of them, and Phineas rounding a curb by a fraction, dashed for the open square.

"Morley case gone to the jury?" he hung half out of the wagon to shout to a man coming down the wide steps.

"Not yet."

Miss Lady was already frantically pulling the blankets from the submerged Chick.

"Wait for Mr. Flathers to carry you," she cried, springing to the ground and looking up at him anxiously. "Remember you are going to tell them everything. You are helping to save Mr. Morley, and you're doing it for me."

The eyes of the pale, spindle-legged child, standing in the end of the wagon, flashed past the courthouse to the barred windows of the adjoining jail. Suddenly his legs fell to shaking harder even than they had shaken at the hospital, and his lips quivered threateningly.

"Chick!" cried Miss Lady despairingly. "You aren't going to fail me-- you are going to stand by me, aren't you?"

For a moment he shut his eyes very tight, then he transferred the small quid of tobacco which had been his one solace in the past hour, from his right cheek to his left.

"Sure!" he said resolutely.