Part One
Chapter XI
 

Bob left the office and tramped blindly out of town. His feet naturally led him to the River Trail. Where the path finally came out on the banks of the river, he sat down and delivered himself over to the gloomiest of reflections.

He was aroused finally by a hearty greeting from behind him. He turned without haste, surprise or pleasure to examine the new comer.

Bob saw surveying him a man well above sixty, heavy-bodied, burly, big, with a square face, heavy-jowled and homely, with deep blue eyes set far apart, and iron gray hair that curled at the ends. With the quick, instinctive sizing-up developed on the athletic field, Bob thought him coarse-fibred, jolly, a little obtuse, but strong--very strong with the strength of competent effectiveness. He was dressed in a slouch hat, a flannel shirt, a wrinkled old business suit and mud-splashed, laced half-boots.

"Well, bub," said this man, "enjoying the scenery?"

"Yes," said Bob with reserve. He was in no mood for casual conversation, but the stranger went on cheerfully.

"Like it pretty well myself, hereabouts." He filled and lighted a pipe. "This is a good time of year for the woods; no mosquitos, pretty warm, mighty nice overhead. Can't say so much for underfoot." He lifted and surveyed one foot comically, and Bob noticed that his shoes were not armed with the riverman's long, sharpened spikes. "Pretty good hunting here in the fall, and fishing later. Not much now. Up here to look around a little?"

"No, not quite," said Bob vaguely.

"This ain't much of a pleasure resort, and a stranger's a pretty unusual thing," said the big man by way of half-apology for his curiosity. "Up buying, I suppose--or maybe selling?"

Bob looked up with a beginning of resentment against this apparent intrusion on his private affairs. He met the good-humoured, jolly eyes. In spite of himself he half smiled.

"Not that either," said he.

"You aren't in the company's employ?" persisted the stranger with an undercurrent of huge delight in his tone, as though he were playing a game that he enjoyed.

Bob threw back his head and laughed. It was a short laugh and a bitter one.

"No," said he shortly, "--not now. I've just been fired."

The big man promptly dropped down beside him on the log.

"Don't say!" he cried; "what's the matter?"

"The matter is that I'm no good," said Bob evenly, and without the slightest note of complaint.

"Tell me about it," suggested the big man soberly after a moment. "I'm pretty close to Fox. Perhaps----."

"It isn't a case of pull," Bob interrupted him pleasantly. "It's a case of total incompetence."

"That's a rather large order for a husky boy like you," said the older man with a sudden return to his undertone of bantering jollity.

"Well, I've filled it," said Bob. "That's the one job I've done good and plenty."

"Haven't stolen the stove, have you?"

"Might better. It couldn't be any hotter than Collins."

The stranger chuckled.

"He is a peppery little cuss," was his comment. "What did you do to him?"

Bob told him, lightly, as though the affair might be considered humorous. The stranger became grave.

"That all?" he inquired.

Bob's self-disgust overpowered him.

"No," said he, "not by a long shot." In brief sentences he told of his whole experience since entering the business world. When he had finished, his companion puffed away for several moments in silence.

"Well, what you going to do about it?" he asked.

"I don't know," Bob confessed. "I've got to tell father I'm no good. That is the only thing I can see ahead to now. It will break him all up, and I don't blame him. Father is too good a man himself not to feel this sort of a thing."

"I see," said the stranger. "Well, it may come out in the wash," he concluded vaguely after a moment. Bob stared out at the river, lost in the gloomy thoughts his last speech had evoked. The stranger improved the opportunity to look the young man over critically from head to foot.

"I see you're a college man," said he, indicating Bob's fraternity pin.

"Yes," replied the young man listlessly. "I went to the University."

"That so!" said the stranger, "well, you're ahead of me. I never got even to graduate at the high school."

"Am I?" said Bob.

"What did you do at college?" inquired the big man.

"Oh, usual classical course, Greek, Latin, Pol Ec.----"

"I don't mean what you learned. What did you do?"

Bob reflected.

"I don't believe I did a single earthly thing except play a little football," he confessed.

"Oh, you played football, did you? That's a great game! I'd rather see a good game of football than a snake fight. Make the 'varsity?"

"Yes."

"Where did you play?"

"Halfback."

"Pretty heavy for a 'half,' ain't you?"

"Well--I train down a little--and I managed to get around."

"Play all four years?"

"Yes."

"Like it?"

Bob's eye lit up. "Yes!" he cried. Then his face fell. "Too much, I guess," he added sadly.

For the first time the twinkle, in the stranger's eye found vocal expression. He chuckled. It was a good, jolly, subterranean chuckle from deep in his throat, and it shook all his round body to its foundations.

"Who bossed you?" he asked, "--your captain, I mean. What sort of a fellow was he? Did you get along with him all right?"

"Had to," Bob grinned wryly; "you see they happened to make me captain."

"Oh, they happened to, did they? What is your name?"

"Orde."

The stranger gurgled again.

"You're just out then. You must have captained those big scoring teams."

"They were good teams. I was lucky," said Bob.

"Didn't I see by the papers that you went back to coach last fall?"

"Yes."

"I've been away and couldn't keep tab. How did you come out?"

"Pretty well."

"Win all your games?"

"Yes."

"That's good. Thought you were going to have a hard row to hoe. Before I went away the papers said most of the old men had graduated, and the material was very poor. How did you work it?"

"The material was all right," Bob returned, relaxing a trifle in the interest of this discussion. "It was only a little raw, and needed shaking into shape."

"And you did the shaking."

"I suppose so; but you see it didn't amount to much because I'd had a lot of experience in being captain."

The stranger chuckled one of his jolly subterranean chuckles again. He arose to his feet.

"Well, I've got to get along to town," said he.

"I'll trot along, too," said Bob.

They tramped back in silence by the River Trail. On the pole trail across the swamp the stranger walked with a graceful and assured ease in spite of his apparently unwieldy build. As the two entered one of the sawdust-covered streets, they were hailed by Jim Mason.

"Why, Mr. Welton!" he cried, "when did you get in and where did you come from?"

"Just now, Jim," Welton answered. "Dropped off at the tank, and walked down to see how the river work was coming on."