Chapter IV
 

When Miss Lady had championed the cause of the oppressed that afternoon, she had unknowingly spoiled a criminal in the making. Chick Flathers, at the advanced age of eleven, had been so impressed by the injustice of social conditions that he had dedicated himself to a life of crime. He had already achieved two appearances in the Juvenile Court, and two days in the Detention Home. He was now fully decided to be a burglar.

To be sure there were extenuating circumstances for Chick. It was unquestionably a handicap to have opened his eyes for the first time in an ash barrel, and in Mr. Flathers' ash barrel at that. The transfer in a patrol wagon to an incubator in the City Hospital had been the next move, hence back to Mr. Flathers' who, inasmuch as it was his ash barrel, felt called upon by Providence to adopt the foundling.

The next misfortune that befell him was in being dropped out of the window on his head, during one of Maria Flathers' absent-minded moments. This apparently did not affect his head, but in time it seriously affected his speech. The fact that he had so much to say, without being able to say it, resulted in a dammed-up current that sometimes overflowed in temper and viciousness. He talked a great deal, but nobody was able, or took the pains to try, to understand him. That is, not until Skeeter Sheeley gave him his nickname and became his official interpreter.

Their friendship dated from a memorable day when Skeeter had for the first time heard of the incubator incident, and had promptly accosted the Flathers' foundling as "Chicken." The insult had been instantly resented in a battle so fierce and so bloody, that the details of it became historic in the annals of Billy-goat Hill. Chick, though of lighter weight, and feeble muscle, was armed with righteous indignation. He observed no rules, but fought with arms, legs, teeth and nails. The odds were against him however, and he had to be assisted from the field, a vanquished hero.

From that time on, by one of those mysterious laws that govern boydom, the two were inseparable companions, waging open war on all adjoining neighborhoods, engaging in predatory expeditions in their own, and, when interest in life flagged, fighting each other.

Skeeter interpreted all that Chick said, interpreted it freely, and with imagination, and Chick apparently considered himself honor bound to accept the interpretation and stand for it, no matter how far it came from expressing his meaning.

Eleven years of wickedness had thus been swaggered through when Chick suddenly and unexpectedly fell in love. It was when the beautiful young lady at the railroad crossing had bent above him like a succoring angel, that he had been forced to change his classification of the human race. Hitherto it had been divided into grown people and children, henceforth it was divided into men and women!

All that Sunday afternoon he went about in a dream. He could not get over the fact that she had taken his part, that she had put her arm around him, and smiled at him. Once or twice when nobody was looking, he put his very dirty hand on his cheek and felt the spot where her fingers had rested.

But this new and tender emotion was not allowed to interfere with the special project that Chick had in mind. It was a project so colossal in its nature, that not even Skeeter was to be admitted to the secret. For six weeks Chick had been the victim of a gaming system, and to- night he was to take his revenge.

At supper time Skeeter recognized a convention of civilization and repaired to the bosom of his family, but Chick being accountable to nobody, and recognizing no conventions, stole a couple of apples from a passing cart, and repaired to the dump heap to wait for the dark.

He had not long to wait, for great black clouds were covering the sky, and he could no longer see the houses at the end of the alley. Carefully storing his apple cores in his pocket for future trades, he picked his way over the tin cans and debris, until he reached the Junction. Here he hesitated. It was there that he and Skeeter had tussled for the whip. It was here that the young lady had come to his rescue, and said she didn't believe he was so very bad. Gee! but she was a pretty young lady, and her hand was so soft, and her voice--

Chick rammed his hands in his pockets and pulled his cap over his eyes. This was no way for a cove to be feeling when he had a job to do! With watchful eyes for passers-by, he slipped through an opening in the fence, and entered the switch-yard. When he emerged he staggered under the weight of a crowbar which he vainly tried to hide under his ragged jacket.

Just at the intersection of Bean Alley and the switch-yard, where the dusk banked up densely in the corners, he stopped again. He was watching his chance to get across the wide common, undetected. Twice he started, and twice he shrank back and flattened himself against the wall as some one passed.

If, to the casual observer, Chick was but a dirty, ragged little boy, undersized and underfed, and rather frightened, to himself at least he was a bold desperado, about to avenge himself for a wrong committed.

Thunder muttered ominously, and a drop of rain fell on his face as he skirted the common, and reached the big, dark saloon at the cross- roads. Skirting the side wall, he crept to the rear, and felt for the open window which he had discovered earlier in the day. It was a low window and easy of access, and he lost no time in climbing in.

The passage was in utter darkness, but he felt his way along the wall until he reached a door. Here he fumbled for the knob and opened it. A street lamp outside threw a dim, wavering light into the room, revealing the long bar with its shining fixtures. Chick put down his crowbar and tremblingly removed his coat. According to the moving pictures of criminals, that was the first move. Then he resolutely grasped his weapon and with thumping heart approached his enemy.

It appeared a very innocent enemy as it stood there in the half light, announcing in printed letters across its face, that seven out of every ten persons who put a nickel in the slot, received a prize in money. But Chick knew that it lied! Had it not eaten up his nickels week after week? Had he not worked for it, fought for it, and bled for it, confidently believing that the prize would be his? And there it stood gorged with his precious nickels, mysterious and fascinating still, but treacherous through and through!

In a blaze of wrath Chick dealt it a sounding blow with the crowbar, then crouched in terror for what might happen. There was no sound but the dash of rain against the windows, and the heavy rumble of thunder overhead. Once more Chick grasped his heavy weapon and began the attack in earnest. Blow followed blow, as fast as his small arms could swing the crowbar. Suddenly a spring seemed to snap, and out poured a stream of money that rolled about his feet, and off into the farthest corners of the room.

Chick crouched on the floor, overcome by his exertions and the success of his venture. Wealth was within his reach, more wealth than he had ever dreamed of! Not unintelligible gold and silver, but dear, familiar nickels, whose purchasing power he knew. But no thought of appropriation crossed his mind as he knelt there, fingering the glittering pile. He was carefully counting out his rightful share, the eleven nickels that the slot machine had stolen from him, and his hesitation came from the fact that he was trying to select the shiniest ones!

Having gotten what he came for, he once more shouldered his crowbar, and let himself out into the dark passage. Here he stopped in terror! Something was snorting and hissing without, something that sounded as if it might be the Devil!

In Chick's creed there was but one affirmation. He believed absolutely in the Devil. He knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was red, and cloven-footed and that his tail ended in a hard, sharp, spike, like Mammy Flathers' ice-pick. He also knew that when he breathed, it was in groans and hisses, such as he was hearing at the present moment. Chick's hair would have risen on his head, it wanted to, but it was not long enough.

For a moment he stood breathless, then he drew a sigh of relief. It wasn't anything but an automobile after all! He tiptoed to a window and peered out. The lamps from the machine threw long lights across the shining wet street, but nothing else was visible.

After a long while he heard voices at the side door. Somebody was coming into the saloon! He could hear the doorknob turning, and a key in the latch. He started back to the barroom, then remembering a little closet under the steps where he and Skeeter used to play, he felt along the wall. There it was! And just in time for him to stumble in and pull the door to, leaving enough crack to breathe through, in case his breath ever came back.

The side door was flung open, and the sputter of a match was followed by the feeble light from a gas-jet at the end of the passage.

"Here, I'll take the umbrella!" said a voice he dreaded next to the Devil's. It was Sheeley; he would go into the barroom, and discover the wreckage of the slot-machine! Chick was beginning to feel the handcuffs on his wrists, when he became aware of ascending footsteps overhead. What were they going up-stairs for? Was it a sparring match? Forgetting his precarious position he leaned forward to listen, upsetting a box on the shelf beside him.

"Who's that?" came in Sheeley's fiercest tones from the stairway above, and Chick cowered back into the dark with chattering teeth. Then he heard him say something about the window, and followed the sound of his heavy footsteps down the stairs and up again.

Now was his chance to escape while they were up-stairs. With utmost caution he pushed open the closet door, and on hands and knees began his perilous journey to the window. It was at that moment that he decided positively that he would not be a burglar. A plumber took fewer risks, and made more money. Once at the window he was unable to budge the lock. Standing on the sill, whimpering with fear, he wrestled with it frantically, bruising his fingers, and tearing his nails, but he could not move it. Then he tried the door but Sheeley had evidently locked it and taken out the key.

A blinding flash of lightning sent him scurrying back to his hiding- place, where he sank on the floor, shivering and cringing. Nearer and nearer roared the thunder, and the wind seemed as anxious to get into the house as he was eager to get out of it. Gradually his arms and legs ceased jerking, his head relaxed against an empty box, he laid his hand against the cheek that had been patted and forgot his troubles in sleep.

When he awoke he heard loud voices overhead. At first he supposed he was at home, and that the voice was only Mr. Flathers enjoying one of his periodical backslidings. But Dick Sheeley's voice recalled him; Dick was mad at somebody, and when Dick got mad he fought. Not a boy on Billy-goat Hill but would have faced death to see the ex- prizefighter in a row. It was a distinction that placed one at a bound in the front ranks of juvenile aristocracy.

Chick crept from his hiding-place and listened. The voices grew louder and more excited. Drawn as by a magnet he slipped up the stairs step by step. At the top was an off-set in the hall, a corner in which he could hide, unseen from the open door beyond. There he lay on his stomach and wriggled forward until his eye was on a line with the crack in the half-open door.

Three men were sitting around a card table, two of them with their backs to him; and Dick facing them with his jaw set and his teeth showing. All three were talking at once, and Dick was the most excited of the three.

"You didn't have no ace of spades to show down! You discarded it. You know you did, you--cheat!" He had risen and was shaking his fist in the face of the thin young man.

"It's a lie, you common cur!" cried the other wildly, but before the words were well out of his mouth, Sheeley's mighty right arm had shot out across the table and struck him in the face.

"Sheeley! For God's sake, don't you see Dillingham's drunk?" protested the other young man whom Chick recognized as his friend of the afternoon.

"Drunk or no drunk, he can't call me a liar!" yelled Sheeley, and the next instant Chick, with his heart pounding madly between him and the floor, was in his element. It was a fight! A real one, in which the hero of Billy-goat Hill held his own against two opponents.

The tumblers and the whisky bottles went first, the liquor dripping from the table to floor; then a chair was overturned, and a window- pane shattered to the ground below.

The thin young man hadn't sense to stop; again and again he flung his insults at the infuriated Sheeley, impatiently fighting off the efforts of his companion who sought to part them. Suddenly Chick saw him step back, while the others were grappling, and fumble in his rear pocket. He saw him steady himself against the door jamb, not four feet away, and raise a pistol. There was a sharp report, a smothered groan, then a heavy fall.

The man with the pistol flung it through the broken window, then staggered to the table where he sank down with his head on his arms.

What had happened in the corner, Chick could not tell, but in a few minutes his young man came swiftly into his line of vision, and shook the limp figure half lying on the table.

"Get up, Dill! For God's sake! Are you too drunk to crank up your machine? As soon as I can get that blood stopped I must go for a doctor."

The dazed eyes of the drunken man looked at him in helpless terror!

"I can't stay here!"

"You've got to stay here! Can't you see you are in no fix to run a machine? Brace up, you idiot; we've got to do something and do it quick. Go down and try to crank up. Here's the door key! I'll be there as soon as I can get the blood stopped!"

The man at the table staggered to the door, passed through the hall, so close to Chick that he almost trod upon him, then went swaying down the stairs, steadying himself by wall and banister. Chick heard the side door slam, and the chug of the machine, then realized that it was turning the corner.

The young man in the room rushed frantically to the window and leaned out, then he said something savage under his breath, and plunged out into the passage and headlong down the steps. Chick heard the side door bang again, and a moment later the gallop of a horse.

Then everything was still, but the noisy beating of his heart that threatened to burst its confines. Through the crack he saw the table with its broken tumblers, and the whisky drip, dripping on the floor; he saw the chairs overturned, and the gas-jet flickering in the wind from the broken window.

The thing he could not see was what lay in the corner, the huddled-up, blood-stained hulk of a something for which a smiling, fat woman and six tow-headed youngsters were waiting across the common. Chick crawled to the head of the stairs, and as he reached the top step his hand touched a hard object. He picked it up and held it to the light, and as he did so, the joy that often blossoms on the brink of tragedy was his for a moment. It was the riding whip whose handle he had fallen heir to that afternoon!

Down the steps, through the door and out into the rain-soaked night he sped; across the common, through the switch-yard, and down the narrow, noisome darkness of Bean Alley. Over a ram-shackled fence, and up a dilapidated porch he clambered like a cat, until he reached the small loft in the Flathers' two-roomed mansion which he called home.

Here the hardened criminal, the breaker of laws, and of slot machines, the would-be burglar, threw himself upon an old mattress, and with two grimy fists in his eyes sobbed out his heart to the rafters above.

It was not repentance for his sins, neither was it terror of the secret that was locked behind his inarticulate lips, although both of them had a part. It was because a beautiful young lady had taken his part, and put her arms about him, and refused to believe that he was as bad as Skeeter Sheeley said he was.