Chapter XXIV. The Prodigal Son
 

Captain Josh and the doctor were enjoying the tea which Mrs. Britt had ready for them, when the scouts arrived bringing the man they had found in the snow. He was a heavy load, and the boys were almost exhausted by the time they reached the house. In a few brief words Rod explained how they had discovered him, and then the doctor at once examined the unfortunate man. Soon all was in a bustle about the place, and not until the unconscious man was attended to and in bed, did the boys leave to begin once more their battle against the storm.

The stranger was a man of about thirty years of age, heavily bearded. His face had the appearance of one who had experienced much suffering, and his staring eyes were deep-sunken in their sockets. Mrs. Britt had given him only a brief glance, but that was sufficient to remind her of one who was constantly in her mind. When the captain and the doctor were again back in the kitchen discussing the stranger, she stole to his side, and looked intently upon his face. She held the light close, and as she did so she trembled so violently that she almost let the lamp fall from her hand. Recovering herself, she went immediately to her husband's side and touched his shoulder.

"It's Jimmy!" she cried, clasping her hands before her. "It's our own boy!"

With a startled exclamation, the captain sprang to his feet, and looked questioningly at his wife.

"Jimmy, did you say? In there?"

"Yes, I am sure of it. Come, see for yourself," and Mrs. Britt led her half-dazed husband into the little bed-room.

The doctor remained behind in the kitchen. His thoughts, however, were not upon his pipe, which was sending wreaths of blue smoke into the air. He was thinking of far deeper things. His brief career as a medical man had already brought him into close touch with many strange circumstances. He liked to ponder them over very carefully. But this was altogether different, and as he sat there, he endeavoured to imagine the life of the son who had gone from home years before, and had returned in such a sad condition.

He was aroused by the captain's hand laid heavily upon his shoulder.

"It's him, doc! My God, it's Jimmy!" It was all the old man could say. He shook like a leaf, and sitting suddenly down upon a splint-bottom chair, he buried his face in his hands.

"Are you sure?" the doctor asked, not knowing what else to say.

"Sure," was the low reply. "Strange I didn't know him at first. But it's him all right. And, say, doc, ye'll bring him around, won't ye?" and the captain raised his eyes appealingly to his companion's face.

"I shall do all I can, captain, never fear."

"May the Lord bless ye, doc, fer them words. Isn't it lucky that ye're here to-night? Jist think what the scouts have done. But fer them my Jimmy would be lyin' out there in the storm. And, say, d'ye believe in God?"

"Y-yes, I suppose so," was the somewhat doubtful response.

"But ye'll be sure now, dead certain, won't ye, doc?"

"Why? I don't catch the drift of your meaning."

"Ye don't? Why, that's queer, after what He's done fer my Jimmy. Who else sent them scouts out there to bring my boy in but Him? And to think that all of these years I've been scoffin' at Him and religion, and then fer Him to do so much fer me and my Jimmy!"

The doctor knew not how to reply, and so continued his smoke, while the captain sat nearby with bent head, deep in thought. The storm still raged without, but there was silence in the kitchen, save for the kettle which sang upon the stove. But a more intense silence reigned within the little bed-room adjoining, where a mother knelt by the side of her only child, holding his cold right hand in hers, and offering up wordless prayers that he might be spared.

News of Jimmy Britt's return soon spread throughout the parish, and everywhere there was the buzz of gossip as to the strange way he had come home. Some thought he must have been drunk, which caused him to fall upon the road. Others believed that he was so poor that he could not afford to be driven from the train. But all were of one mind that his not writing to his parents for years was most mysterious.

While all this talking was going on, Jimmy was being slowly restored to life through the doctor's skill, and the mother's careful nursing. Mrs. Britt now found the work of looking after two patients almost beyond her power of endurance. It was then that Miss Arabella offered her assistance, and proved a veritable angel of mercy in her attention to Whyn, and doing what she could about the house.

During the weeks which followed the night of the great storm the scouts did not meet at Headquarters. They knew that the captain had little or no heart for anything now but the care of his son. They accordingly met from house to house, but most often at the rectory, where Mrs. Royal always made them welcome. They were all greatly interested in the captain's son, of whom they had heard so much, and they longed to see him. Nearly every day Rod went to the Anchorage to see Whyn, and they talked very much about Jimmy. The latter, however, he never saw, as no visitor was allowed in his room.

To the scouts the winter seemed very long, and delighted were they when spring at last set in. The days lengthened rapidly, the snow disappeared, and the ice was fast weakening in the river. It was a fine afternoon when Rod was making his regular visit to Whyn that he saw Jimmy. He was sitting in a sunny spot right in front of the house. His thick beard had been removed, and his face was very pale after his illness. Rod recognised him in an instant, and it was with difficulty that he kept back a cry of astonishment. With fast-beating heart he rushed into Whyn's room, much to the girl's surprise, for he was in the habit of entering quietly.

"Why, Rod, what's the matter?" she inquired.

"You look half frightened to death."

"It's him, Whyn!" he exclaimed. "I'm sure of it."

"Who is it? What do you mean?" the girl asked. "Sit down, and be sensible."

"He's the very man who was knocked down and robbed in the city, Whyn."

"What man?"

"Jimmy. He's out there. His whiskers are all off, and I knew him the instant I got my eyes on him."

"Does the captain know that?" Whyn questioned, after a moment's thought. "Isn't it strange that Jimmy should have been helped twice by our troop? How delighted Captain Josh will be."

"You tell him, Whyn," Rod suggested. "He ought to know, but if I say anything it will seem like boasting. It was only our good turn, and we are not supposed to say anything about what we do."

Whyn had no scruples, however, and that very afternoon she spoke to the captain. She told him all that Rod had said, how that he was sure that Jimmy was the very man who had been attacked and robbed. The captain said very little, but later he had a long talk with his son, who, up to the present, had been very reticent about the past few years of his life. Jimmy was sitting on a log near the shore when the captain spoke to him about the matter. For a few moments the younger man remained very silent, as he whittled a piece of cedar wood with his sharp knife.

"What's wrong with ye, lad?" the captain asked. "Why can't ye answer a straight question?"

"Sit down, dad, and don't get excited," was the reply. "There, that's better. There's something I want to tell you, and it's been on my mind for weeks past, so it might as well be now as any other time. When I left home I wrote to you quite often. But when I got away north, and mixed up with a rough crowd, I somehow got out of the way of writing. I was a long way from the post-office, and mails were very irregular, which perhaps had something to do with my neglect. I struck it rich there, dad, and made my pile, which, thank God, is now safe in the bank. When I came 'outside,' it was to have, as I thought, a good time. I did several of the big cities on the Pacific coast, and then drifted to New York. I need not tell you of my life there, as it wouldn't do any good. I had the money, and so there was no trouble about seeing the seamy side of life. But one night, I don't know yet how it happened, I drifted into a place to hear a famous singer. She was great, and her voice, oh, dad, I wish you could have heard it. But what got me was the closing piece. It was called, 'My Little Lad, God Bless Him.' I can't begin to tell how that song affected me. It seemed like the cry of a broken-hearted mother for her only boy, who was away from her. In an instant I thought of mother and you, and when I left the place that night I was all broken up. I tried to shake the feeling off, but every night it came upon me stronger than ever.

"As the weeks went by I became very wretched. I saw what a brute I had been, and how you at home must have suffered. The upshot of it was, that I left New York, landed in St. John, got waylaid, was in the hospital unconscious for a long time, unknown to all. When I got out, I took the evening train, intending to hire a team at Greenside to drive me home. I couldn't get any one to bring me at that time of the night, and so I began to foot it. When the storm overtook me I fought hard, but I was very weak, and--oh, well, you know the rest."

When Jimmy was through, the captain sat for some time without saying a word. He looked straight before him, as if watching the ice, and wondering when it would go out. But he saw nothing there, for his mind was upon more important things.

"Jimmy," he at last remarked, "this is all His doin's. I kin see that now. He has protected you, and brought ye back to us."

"Who?" Jimmy asked in surprise. "It was that song which did it."

"Ah, yes, Jimmy. But back of that was Another, the very One I've been neglectin' fer years. It's wonderful, lad! it's wonderful, and don't ye fergit it."

The very next Sunday morning, Parson Dan, and all those at church, were astonished to see the scouts march in, accompanied by their scout-master. It was the first time in years that the captain had been there, and all noted how thoughtful and reverent he was. He had ordered the scouts to attend Headquarters that morning, without telling them of his plans. From there he had marched them straight to church, with orders to behave themselves, and do credit to the troop.

That day there was no one in all the parish as pleased as Parson Dan at the great change which had come over the careless and indifferent captain.