Chapter XXXIII. Given His Choice
 

Junior had good reason for bringing Merton to a sudden halt in his impetuous and hostile advance. The man coming up the lane, with a savage dog, was the father of the ill-nurtured children. He had felt a little uneasy as to the results of their raid upon our fruit, and had walked across the fields to give them the encouragement of his presence, or to cover their retreat, which he now did effectually.

It took Junior but a moment to explain to my boy that they were no match "for the two brutes," as he expressed himself, adding, "The man is worse than the dog."

Merton, however, was almost reckless from anger and a sense of unprovoked wrong, and he darted into the house for his gun.

"See here, Merton," said Junior, firmly, "shoot the dog if they set him on us, but never fire at a human being. You'd better give me the gun; I am cooler than you are."

They had no occasion to use the weapon, however. The man shook his fist at them, while his children indulged in taunts and coarse derision. The dog, sharing their spirit and not their discretion, started for the boys, but was recalled, and our undesirable neighbors departed leisurely.

All this was related to me after nightfall, when I returned with my wife and younger children from the Maizeville Landing. I confess that I fully shared Merton's anger, although I listened quietly.

"You grow white, Robert, when you are angry," said my wife. "I suppose that's the most dangerous kind of heat--white-heat. Don't take the matter so to heart. We can't risk getting the ill-will of these ugly people. You know what Mr. Jones said about them."

"This question shall be settled in twenty-four hours!" I replied. "That man and his family are the pest of the neighborhood, and everyone lives in a sort of abject dread of them. Now, the neighbors must say 'yes' or 'no' to the question whether we shall have decency, law, and order, or not. Merton, unharness the horse. Junior, come with me; I'm going to see your father."

I found Mr. Jones sleepy and about to retire, but his blue eyes were soon wide open, with an angry fire in them.

"You take the matter very quietly, Mr. Durham;" he said; "more quietly than I could."

"I shall not fume about the affair a moment. I prefer to act. The only question for you and the other neighbors to decide is, Will you act with me? I am going to this man Bagley's house to-morrow, to give him his choice. It's either decency and law-abiding on his part, now, or prosecution before the law on mine. You say that you are sure that he has burned barns, and made himself generally the terror of the region. Now, I won't live in a neighborhood infested by people little better than wild Indians. My feelings as a man will not permit me to submit to insult and injury. What's more, it's time the people about here abated this nuisance."

"You are right, Robert Durham!" said Mr. Jones, springing up and giving me his hand. "I've felt mean, and so have others, that we've allowed ourselves to be run over by this rapscallion. If you go to- morrow, I'll go with you, and so will Rollins. His hen-roost was robbed t'other night, and he tracked the thieves straight toward Bagley's house. He says his patience has given out. It only needs a leader to rouse the neighborhood, but it ain't very creditable to us that we let a new-comer like you face the thing first."

"Very well," I said, "it's for you and your neighbors to show now how much grit and manhood you have. I shall start for Bagley's house at nine to-morrow. Of course I shall be glad to have company, and if he sees that the people will not stand any more of his rascality, he'll be more apt to behave himself or else clear out."

"He'll have to do one or the other," said Mr. Jones, grimly. "I'll go right down to Rolling's. Come, Junior, we may want you."

At eight o'clock the next morning, a dozen men, including the constable, were in our yard. My wife whispered, "Do be prudent, Robert." She was much reassured, however, by the largeness of our force.

We soon reached the dilapidated hovel, and were so fortunate as to find Bagley and all his family at home. Although it was the busiest season, he was idle. As I led my forces straight toward the door, it was evident that he was surprised and disconcerted, in spite of his attempt to maintain a sullen and defiant aspect. I saw his evil eye resting on one and another of our group, as if he was storing up grudges to be well paid on future dark nights. His eldest son stood with the dog at the corner of the house, and as I approached, the cur, set on by the boy, came toward me with a stealthy step. I carried a heavy cane, and just as the brute was about to take me by the leg, I struck him a blow on the head that sent him howling away.

The man for a moment acted almost as if he had been struck himself. His bloated visage became inflamed, and he sprang toward me.

"Stop!" I thundered. My neighbors closed around me, and he instinctively drew back.

"Bagley," I cried, "look me in the eye." And he fixed upon me a gaze full of impotent anger. "Now," I resumed, "I wish you and your family to understand that you've come to the end of your rope. You must become decent, law-abiding people, like the rest of us, or we shall put you where you can't harm us. I, for one, am going to give you a last chance. Your children were stealing my fruit last night, and acting shamefully afterward. You also trespassed, and you threatened these two boys; you are idle in the busiest time, and think you can live by plunder. Now, you and yours must turn the sharpest corner you ever saw. Your two eldest children can come and pick berries for me at the usual wages, if they obey my orders and behave themselves. One of the neighbors here says he'll give you work, if you try to do it well. If you accept these terms, I'll let the past go. If you don't, I'll have the constable arrest your boy at once, and I'll see that he gets the heaviest sentence the law allows, while if you or your children make any further trouble, I'll meet you promptly in every way the law permits. But, little as you deserve it, I am going to give you and your family one chance to reform, before proceeding against you. Only understand one thing, I am not afraid of you. I've had my say."

"I haven't had mine," said Rollins, stepping forward excitedly. "You, or your scapegrace boy there, robbed my hen-roost the other night, and you've robbed it before. There isn't a man in this region but believes that it was you who burned the barns and hay-stacks. We won't stand this nonsense another hour. You've got to come to my hay-fields and work out the price of those chickens, and after that I'll give you fair wages. But if there's any more trouble, we'll clean you out as we would a family of weasels."

"Yes, neighbor Bagley," added Mr. Jones, in his dry, caustic way, "think soberly. I hope you are sober. I'm not one of the threatening barkin' sort, but I've reached the p'int where I'll bite. The law will protect us, an' the hull neighborhood has resolved, with Mr. Durham here, that you and your children shall make no more trouble than he and his children. See?"

"Look-a-here," began the man, blusteringly, "you needn't come threatenin' in this blood-and-thunder style. The law'll protect me as well as--"

Ominous murmurs were arising from all my neighbors, and Mr. Jones now came out strong.

"Neighbors," he said, "keep cool. The time to act hasn't come yet. See here, Bagley, it's hayin' and harvest. Our time's vallyble, whether yours is or not. You kin have just three minutes to decide whether you'll take your oath to stop your maraudin' and that of your children;" and he pulled out his watch.

"Let me add my word," said a little man, stepping forward. "I own this house, and the rent is long overdue. Follow neighbor Jones's advice or we'll see that the sheriff puts your traps out in the middle of the road."

"Oh, of course," began Bagley. "What kin one feller do against a crowd?"

"Sw'ar, as I told you," said Mr. Jones, sharply and emphatically. "What do you mean by hangin' fire so? Do you s'pose this is child's play and make-believe? Don't ye know that when quiet, peaceable neighbors git riled up to our pitch, they mean what they say? Sw'ar, as I said, and be mighty sudden about it."

"Don't be a fool," added his wife, who stood trembling behind him. "Can't you see?"

"Very well, I sw'ar it," said the man, in some trepidation.

"Now, Bagley," said Mr. Jones, putting back his watch, "we want to convert you thoroughly this mornin'. The first bit of mischief that takes place in this borough will bring the weight of the law on you;" and, wheeling on his heel, he left the yard, followed by the others.