Under Sealed Orders by H. A. Cody
Chapter V. Unmasked
All the morning Jasper Randall was busy hoeing potatoes in the large field near the main highway. He liked the work, for he was alone and could give himself up to thought as he drove the hoe into the yielding earth. His task suited him well, and as he tore out innumerable weeds, slashing down a big one here and another there, he was in reality overcoming and defeating opponents of the brain. They were all there between the rows, and he could see them so plainly. The lesser ones he could sweep away at one stroke, but that quitch grass was more difficult to conquer. He could cut it off, but its roots would remain firmly embedded in the ground and would spring forth again. It was a nasty, persistent weed. Little wonder that he attacked it most fiercely, for it reminded him of the weed of injustice with which he had been contending for years. Other enemies, like the smaller weeds, he could overcome, but injustice, that quitch grass of life, was what stung him to fury. Little did Simon Squabbles, the tight old skin-flint, realise that the lone man working in his potato field was doing the work of two men that morning, and at the same time slaying a whole battalion of bitter enemies. The contest was continued during the afternoon. The quitch grass was thicker now, and the struggle harder. With savage delight Jasper had just torn out a whole handful and had shaken it free from its earth as a dog would shake a rat, when the honk of an auto caused him to look toward the road. As he did so, his face underwent a marvellous transformation. The car was only a few seconds in passing, but it was sufficient for him to recognise the occupants, see the amused expression upon their faces, and hear their salutation of "Spuds," as they sped by. His strong, supple body trembled as he leaned for a while upon his hoe and gazed down the road after the rapidly disappearing car. He must have remained thus for several minutes oblivious to everything else. Neither did he see his hard taskmaster watching him in the distance. But when he again resumed his hoeing he worked more fiercely than ever, and there was danger at times lest the frail hoe should break beneath his tremendous strokes. Up one row and down another he moved all the afternoon. He seemed like a giant tearing up the earth, rather than a man performing a prosaic task. When toward evening the sky darkened, the wind began to blow and the rain to fall, he hardly noticed it at first. Only when the earth became mucky and stuck constantly to his hoe, did he leave his work and go across the field toward the barn. It was time, anyway, to help with the chores. He was anxious to get through that he might go home. He was glad that it was Saturday, for he would have the next day free.
It was dark by the time his tasks were done, and then he went to the house for his week's pay. He had agreed to work for a dollar and a half a day, and get his own breakfast and supper at home. Thus he had nine dollars coming to him for his week's work. He was surprised, therefore, when Simon Squabbles handed him out only eight dollars and fifty cents.
"There is some mistake here," Jasper remarked as he counted over the money. "I want fifty cents more."
"That's all you're goin' to get," Simon replied. "I saw ye loafin' this afternoon when ye should have been workin', an' 'no work, no pay' is my motto."
"Loafing, do you say?" Jasper asked, thinking that he had not heard aright.
"Sure. Didn't I see ye leanin' on yer hoe watchin' that car which went down the road? An' ye stood there a long time, too."
Into Jasper's eyes leaped an angry fire. He understood now the man he had to deal with. So he had been watching him, and he had taken no account of the work he had done all day.
"You were spying upon me, eh?" he retorted. "Didn't you see how I did the work of two men to-day?"
"All I know is that you were loafin' when I saw ye, an' that was enough."
"Look here, Simon Squabbles," and Jasper stepped close to his employer, "if you were not as old as you are, I'd tie you into a bowknot in the twinkling of an eye. You're not fit to be called a man, and not another stroke of work do you get from me. Keep the fifty cents, if it will do you any good. I am trying to make an honest living, but creatures such as you are the ones who make it almost impossible."
The blood surged through Jasper's veins as he plodded along the muddy road towards his humble cabin. The rain beat upon him and soaked his clothes, but he did not seem to heed it, so filled was his mind with the contemptible meanness of old Squabbles. He was in no pleasant mood, and his hands often clenched hard together as he moved through the darkness. What he was to do in the future, he did not know. Neither did he much care. A reckless spirit was upon him. The whole world was seething with injustice, so he believed. He had tried to be honest, to make his way, but he had been foiled at every step. Why should he try any longer? Simon Squabbles prospered through injustice; Dick Sinclair could ride along in his car, dressed in the height of fashion, while he had to eke out a precarious living by hoeing potatoes. Dick's father had made his money in an unscrupulous manner, and was held up as a shrewd business man. Would it not be as well for him to hurl himself into the game and win out, no matter how?
Thinking thus, he came near his cabin, when a light arrested his attention. He stopped short in his tracks and peered through the darkness. At first he believed that he must be mistaken. But no, it shone steadily before him, and he knew that some one was there. The thought made him angry, and he hurried forward, determined to make an example of the one who had dared to meddle with his property.
Reaching the building, he peered cautiously through the uncurtained window. As he did so, his anger suddenly ceased when he beheld the pathetic scene within, of an old man lying asleep upon the couch and a young girl patiently watching by his side. Why they were there he did not know, though he felt certain that great necessity must have driven them to take refuge in a strange cabin. He recognised old David as the man he had met that night on the road listening to the voice of Break Neck Falls. He knew that he had been sold to Jim Goban for one year, and the transaction had rankled in his soul for days. The girl he did not know, but she seemed to him like a ministering angel watching over the slumber of the sleeping man. This thought caused him to study her more intently, for notwithstanding his strength and independence of mind, he could not forget the pictures he had seen and the stories he had heard as a child of angels coming to earth on special deeds of mercy. He banished this idea, however, in an instant, and even smiled at his own foolishness as he turned away from the window and moved around the corner of the cabin.
He was about to push open the door and enter when a sudden notion came into his mind which caused him to pause. He stood there with the rain beating upon him as he thought over the idea. Then he stepped toward the door and gave a gentle tap. In a few seconds Betty stood before him, peering into the darkness. The sight of the large man standing there caused her to start and draw somewhat back.
"Excuse me," Jasper began, "but could you give me shelter? It is a rough night and I am wet and hungry. I am sorry to disturb you, but I saw the light from the road and knew that some one was living here."
"Come in," the girl at once replied. "We have a good fire and supper is all ready, such as it is," and she gave a little laugh as she moved back into the room. "We are strangers, too, and I do not know what the owner will say when he comes back and finds us here."
"Oh, I shall take care of you," Jasper returned. "He won't make a fuss when he sees me. If he does, we'll pitch him out of the door, eh?"
"I guess you could do it all right," and Betty smiled as she looked at him. "Mr. David will be so pleased to see you when he wakes. He likes good company."
"How do you know I am good company?" Jasper asked. "Maybe I'm as cross as two sticks."
"Well, then, you can't stay if you are."
"You couldn't put me out, could you?"
"Couldn't I, though? I guess you don't know me. Jim Goban once said that I could beat the devil with my tongue alone, and I guess Jim ought to know by this time what I'm like when I get my ginger up. But you're not that kind of a man. I can tell by your eyes that you're all right. If you're a little cranky now, it's because you're hungry. As soon as you get something to eat you'll be as sweet as molasses candy. Most men are that way."
The sound of voices woke old David, and sitting suddenly up he looked inquiringly around the room as if uncertain where he was.
"Don't be afraid, Mr. David," Betty assured him. "Supper's all ready, and we have a visitor as hard up as we are to share it with us. So come at once and let us get through."
Jasper was greatly amused at the way Betty took full possession of everything in the place. There was nothing forward about her, for she seemed more like a grown-up woman than a girl. He admired her confident and buoyant manner, as well as the thoughtful and deferential way she looked after the old man. The best on the table was for him and he had to be served first. She treated him sometimes as a child, but more often as a superior being. He noted the look of reverential respect in her eyes as she turned them upon him, and he wondered.
During the meal David acted the part of a perfect gentleman. His manners could not have been better had he been at a royal banquet instead of a most humble repast in a rude cabin. He asked Jasper no questions but talked merely about his experience upon the river that afternoon. He was somewhat anxious lest the owner of the cabin should return and resent their intrusion. Jasper endeavoured to allay his fears, reminding him that no one in his senses would be angry at people seeking refuge on such a night.
During the meal Betty had been observing Jasper quite closely, and once the semblance of a twinkle might have been detected in her eyes. She made no remark, however, as to what she was thinking, but while the men smoked when supper was over, she busied herself washing up the few dishes.
Under the soothing influence of the tobacco David became talkative. He was pleased to have so attentive a listener as Jasper, and unfolded to him his wonderful secret.
"Mr. David is going to be a very rich man some day," Betty remarked, as she paused in wiping the dishes.
"I am pleased to hear that," Jasper replied. "Money is the only thing that counts these days."
"Yes," the girl continued, "he is going to be very rich, and I am going to look after him. We shall have such a nice little house and be so very, very happy."
While Betty was talking, the old man fumbled in an inside pocket and brought forth several papers.
"See," and he held one of them up so the light of the lamp would fall upon it, "it is all here. You can understand my plan much better from this. Here is Break Neck Falls, and just below it the plant will be placed. From there power will radiate throughout the entire country. The whole thing is so simple that it is a wonder to me that it has not been thought of before."
"Isn't it great!" Betty exclaimed, looking over the old man's shoulder. "And to think that Mr. David worked it all out himself."
As Jasper sat and watched the two animated faces before him, he had not the heart to say a word that would in any way dampen their enthusiasm. Nevertheless, it seemed to him so ridiculous that old David's scheme could ever meet with any success. How was he to interest people who had the means to carry his plan into effect? But if the thought of doing great things would give him any happiness, he would be the last one to remove such a hope.
The storm raged outside and the wind beat against the window as the three sat and talked. The room was warm and cosy, and Jasper was pleased to have these two visitors on such a lonely night. Simon Squabbles and his meanness he forgot for awhile as he listened to Betty as she told him of her home life. It was just what he needed to take him out of himself, and to make him think of others. But when the girl spoke of Lois and how she had been with them that afternoon on the river, he became doubly interested.
"Oh, you must see her," Betty exclaimed. "She is the most wonderful person I ever saw. Isn't it strange that you have never met her!"
"Why, what chance have I had?" Jasper asked. "Anyway, she wouldn't want anything to do with such a rough fellow as I am."
"Indeed she would. She's not that kind; there's nothing stuckup about her. Maybe you'll see her passing some day. She might call, too, for she is so friendly."
"Call! What do you mean? How could she call upon me if I am miles away from this place?"
"Oh, but you won't be. You'll be right here where you have been for some time."
Into Jasper's eyes came a look of surprise, and he felt his face flush under the girl's keen scrutiny.
"There, I knew I was right," she laughed in glee.
"You thought you could deceive me, did you?"
"Why, how in the world did you know that I live here?" Jasper asked. "Did anybody tell you?"
"No, certainly not. But the Lord didn't give Betty Bean eyes and a mind for nothing. Who else would be poking around this place on a night like this but the owner? And didn't you know where your dry coat was when you came in? and your slippers? and your pipe and tobacco? and----"
"There, there, you have produced evidence enough, and I plead guilty," Jasper laughed. He was greatly amused at the girl's quickness. "You are not offended, are you, at the little joke I played upon you?"
"Oh, no, not all. But next time you do anything like that try it upon a man. A woman's eyes are pretty sharp, and it's hard to deceive her. Mine are, anyway."
David had listened to this conversation and slowly the truth dawned upon him that the owner of the cabin was before him.
"I wish to apologise, sir," he began, "for our rudeness in entering your house. It was only necessity which compelled us to do so, I assure you, and when I am in a position, I shall recompense you handsomely for the entertainment to-night."
"Please do not say a word about it," Jasper replied. "I am very thankful that you have been able to make use of my humble abode. I have enjoyed your company very much. But I think it is time for us to retire, as you need rest. The girl can use that room there, while you can sleep upon that cot."
"But what about yourself?" David inquired.
"Oh, I shall make a place for myself right by the stove. I shall be very comfortable there."
David at first refused to listen to such an arrangement, but Jasper was determined and claimed a host's privilege of making his guests as comfortable as possible. He sat for some time at the little table after David and Betty had gone to sleep. He dwelt long and carefully upon the rude plan the old man had shown him. The more he studied it, the more convinced he became that there was a great deal in it after all. But it would mean much money, and he sighed as he at length blew out the light, stretched himself upon the floor, and drew a great coat over his body.