Chapter XIV. An Exciting Encounter
 

To understand the scene in which Walter became an actor a brief explanation is necessary.

The occupant of the house was a woman of perhaps thirty-five. Her husband, Ephraim Gregory, was employed in Chicago, and went to and from the city every day. It was somewhat inconvenient to live at Elm Bank, but both he and his wife were fond of the country, and were willing to submit to some inconvenience for the sake of the sweet, pure air and rural surroundings. They had one child, a little girl of five.

Twenty minutes previous Mrs. Gregory had been sitting at her sewing, with little Rosa on the floor beside her, when, without the ceremony of a knock, the outer door was opened and a tall, powerful man, whose garb and general appearance indicated that he was a tramp, entered the room.

"What do you want?" asked Mrs. Gregory, rising in alarm.

"I'm hungry," answered the tramp, in a hoarse voice.

He might be hungry, but his breath indicated that he had been drinking. Mrs. Gregory would gladly have dismissed him, but she was afraid to do so. If only her husband had been at home!

"Sit down," she said, "and I will find you something."

She went to the pantry and returned with some bread and cold meat, which she set before her uncouth visitor.

"If you will wait five minutes I will make you some tea," she said.

"I don't want any slops," said her visitor, scornfully. "Give me brandy."

"I have none."

"Then whisky, gin--anything!"

"We don't keep liquors in the house. My husband and I never drink them."

At this he swore in a manner that terrified his unwilling hostess, and anathematized her for a temperance crank. This aroused her spirit.

"If you want liquor," she said, "you may go where it is sold. I won't supply it to you or anybody else. If you want hot tea you can have it."

"Give it to me, then."

Mrs. Gregory hastened to steep some tea--she had hot water all ready-- and set it before the ruffian. He ate and drank eagerly, voraciously, and did not leave a crumb behind him. He had certainly spoken the truth when he said he was hungry. Then he arose, and she hoped he would go. But he turned to her with a significant look.

"I want money," he said.

"I can give you none," she answered, her heart sinking.

"Oh, yes, you can."

"Are you a thief?" she demanded, with a flash of spirit.

"You can call me that if you like."

There was little hope of shaming him, she saw.

"Look here, missis," he went on roughly, "you've got money in the house, and I must have it."

"How do you know that I have money in the house?"

"Your husband brought some home last night. It is here now."

This was true, and she was startled to find how much this man knew.

"Do you know my husband?" she asked.

"Yes, I know him. His name is Ephraim Gregory. He had some money paid him yesterday and it is here. I don't know where it is, but you do. Get it, and be quick about it!"

Mrs. Gregory saw by this time that her visitor was a desperate villain and that she was in a critical position. He might, since he knew so much, know the amount of money which her husband had entrusted to her for safekeeping. If she could buy him off for five dollars she would do so.

"Will you go if I give you five dollars?" she asked.

He laughed.

"No, I won't. Why should I take five dollars when you have a hundred here?"

She turned pale. The worst was true, then. This man had in some mysterious manner discovered the exact sum which she had in charge. Why had not her husband kept it in his own possession? It would have been more prudent.

"I can't give you the money," she said, pale but resolute.

"Oh, yes, you will!" he answered mockingly.

"Go away, please," she said in a pleading tone. "I have given you a meal, though you had no claim on me. Let that be sufficient."

"You can't fool me!" he replied roughly. "Bring me the money, or it will be the worse for you."

"I cannot!" she gasped.

"Then, by Heaven, I'll brain you!"

As he spoke he raised the chair on which he had been sitting and held it in position above his head, ready to bring it down upon the helpless woman.

Then it was that she uttered the piercing scream which brought Walter into the house.

His astonished glance rested on the terrified woman, with her little girl clinging in alarm to her dress, cowering beneath the chair which seemed ready to descend upon her.

Walter did not hesitate a moment. Though the tramp was possessed of twice his strength, he darted forward and grasped him by the arm.

"What are you about?" he demanded sternly.

The tramp turned at the unexpected interference and partially lowered the chair.

"What business is it of yours, you impudent young jackanapes?" he growled.

"I will make it my business," said Walter, bravely. "I won't see a lady struck down by a ruffian!"

"Take care how you talk. I can twist you round my finger, you manikin!" "What does this man want?" asked Walter, turning to Mrs. Gregory.

"He demands money," was her answer.

"So he is a thief!" exclaimed Walter, contemptuously.

"I'll fix you for that!" growled the tramp, with a frown.

Walter quickly explored the room in search of a weapon, for he saw that he would have to defend himself.

There was a fireplace in the apartment, and resting beside it was a poker of large size. Walter sprang for this, and, grasping it firmly, brandished it in a threatening manner.

"Go upstairs, madam," he said, "and lock yourself in. I will attend to this man."

The tramp burst into a contemptuous laugh.

"Why, you young whippersnapper!" he said, "I could handle half a dozen boys like you."

"I don't like to leave you in the power of this man," said Mrs. Gregory. "He will kill you."

"Right you are, ma'am!"' growled the giant. "That's just what I am going to do."

The lady turned pale. She was frightened, but her concern for Walter's safety overcame her fear for herself.

"I shall stay here," she said, "It would be cowardly to leave you."

"Take my advice, boy," growled the tramp, "and clear out of here. It is no concern of yours."

Walter did not answer, but, keen, alert, vigilant, he fixed his eye warily on his formidable opponent.

"Well, youngster," said the tramp impatiently, "did you hear me?"

"Yes, I heard you."

"Leave this room, or I'll smash you!"

"Smash away!" retorted Walter.

Though he was barely five feet six inches in height, while the tramp was fully six feet, his muscles had been toughened by exercise in the college gymnasium and by rowing in the college crew, and he was wonderfully quick in his motions.

Feeling that the time for forbearance was over, and irritated beyond measure by Walter's audacity, the tramp prepared to carry out his threat. He raised the chair and with a downward sweep aimed at Walter's head.

Had the blow taken effect, this story would never have been written. But Walter's quick eye foresaw the movement, and, springing aside, he dodged the blow and brought down the poker on the muscular part of the giant's arm with what force he could command. There was a howl of pain, and the tramp's arm hung limp and lifeless at his side, while with the other he clasped it in evident suffering.

"You murderous young villain!" he shrieked. "I'll kill you for that!"

Walter felt that he was in a dangerous position.

"Leave the room, please!" he said to Mrs. Gregory. "You will be in my way." She obeyed, for her champion had shown himself worthy to command, and Walter sprang to the other side of the table, placing it between him and his foe.

By this time the tramp had got ready for an attack. He dashed round the table after Walter, and finally succeeded, in spite of the boy's activity, in grasping him by the shoulder.

"Ah!" he said, with a deep sigh of content, "I've got you now. I'll pay you for that blow!"

Walter felt that he had never been in such a tight place before.