Chapter V. Captain Josh Takes a Hand
 

Rodney did not attend the country school until he was over seven years of age. It was more than a mile away, and the Royals could not bear the thought of the little lad walking the whole of that distance when he was but six. He had lost nothing, however, by not attending before. In fact he had gained much, for both Parson Dan and Mrs. Royal had carefully instructed him so that when he did go to school he was far ahead of boys and girls of his own age.

Rodney got on well with all the scholars except Sammie Dunker, who was eight years old, and a bully to all younger children. When boys of his own age and older were around, Sammie was very quiet. But when they were not present he tyrannised over the little ones to such an extent that existence, especially during the dinner hour, became almost unbearable. He had knocked out several boys younger and smaller than himself, until at last there was no one left to dispute his authority.

Rodney Royal, accordingly, was a new and choice victim. Sammie knew all about him, as he had been freely and severely discussed at his home almost every day as far back as he could remember. Here, then, was a lawful prey, and he gloated over the stories he would have to tell to his father of what he had done to the waif.

At noon-hour, the first day, Sammie made himself very objectionable. He centred his attention upon Rod, for thus his name had now become shortened by every one except the Royals. Rod bore these attacks and insulting remarks as well as he could, and refrained from open hostility. But what Sammie had done and said rankled in his heart and mind for the rest of the day, causing him to lie awake for some time that night thinking it all over.

He confided his thoughts to no one, however, but the next morning as he left for school, there was a new look of determination in his eyes, and he trudged along the road with head held high, and his shoulders thrown back, while occasionally his hands clenched hard together.

For the first half of the noon-hour nothing happened. Whether Sammie divined Rod's purpose is hard to say. Anyway, he devoted his attention to others, especially the little girls, whom he teased unmercifully.

Rod watched this performance with interest, mingled with indignation. Twice he was tempted to interfere, but each time he hesitated and went on with his play. But when at length one little girl began to scream with pain, he could control himself no longer. With flashing eyes he sprang toward the tormentor, and demanded that he should leave Nancy alone.

For an instant only Sammie stared, amazed to think that any one would dare to be so bold with him. He then gave a laugh of contempt, and hit Rod full in the face.

"That's what ye git fer meddlin'," he cried. "Want some more, eh?"

Rod staggered back at the blow, but immediately regaining himself, he sprang swiftly upon his antagonist. So unexpected was the attack, that Sammie was caught off guard, and ere he could raise a hand he received two black eyes, while his nose began to bleed profusely. With a howl of pain and rage, he tried to defend himself, but he could do nothing against that whirlwind of fists which was swirling against him. He endeavoured to dodge and run away, but, catching his foot in the leg of a desk, he fell sprawling to the floor.

By this time some of the older boys had arrived, who cheered lustily as they saw Sammie go down before his young opponent. They looked upon Rod with much interest, and worthy of their attention. In fact, he became quite a hero for the remainder of the day, while the defeated bully, with black eyes, and swollen nose, sat sullenly in his seat, keeping his head bent over his desk, and not daring to look any one in the face. When school was out he did not wait for his usual pranks, but hurried away home as speedily as possible.

Rod said nothing at home about the incident at the school. He was afraid that Parson Dan and Mrs. Royal would be angry if they learned that he had been fighting, especially with Sammie Dunker. And, besides, if he told he would have to explain what had led him into the affray, and he did not wish to tell that he had taken Nancy's part. It would seem too much like boasting, and he had always disliked boasters who figured in some stories Mrs. Royal had read to him.

Next morning as he walked along the road to school carrying his lunch-basket, he was in a different mood from the previous day. Then he had the feeling of a soldier, with nerves high strung going into battle; now he was the victor, with the danger past and trouble over. He believed that Sammie would not bother him again, and that the little girls would look up to him as their natural protector.

He was thinking of these things as he drew near the store. Behind him lumbered a large wagon, drawn by two horses. Tom Dunker, big and burly, held the reins, and as he caught sight of the little boy ahead, a scowl overspread his heavy face. Sammie had given his version of the fight in which Rod was entirely in the wrong. This his parents believed, and, accordingly, were very angry. So as Tom now beheld Rod, he thought it would be a smart thing to give him a great scare.

Rod was walking at one side of the road, and just as the horses' heads were abreast of him, Tom drew them sharply to the left, at the same time yelling at the boy to get out of the way.

Taken by surprise, Rod sprang into the ditch for safety, dropping his basket in his fright, which rolled beneath the horses' feet. This so startled the nervous animals that they leaped quickly forward, and swerved to the right, thus bringing the hind wheel of the wagon against the sharp ends of a pile of cordwood near the road. There was a crash as two of the spokes were ripped from the hub by the impact, while the wood came tumbling down into the road.

With much difficulty Tom checked the horses, and then wild with rage, he turned upon the innocent lad, charging him with having frightened his team.

"I didn't," Rod sturdily replied, coming close to the wagon, his eyes flaming with indignation. "You tried to drive over me, that's what you did."

"How dare ye answer me!" Tom cried, white with wrath. "Ye young villain, ye're nothin' but a pauper, an' should be in the Poor House, instead of livin' with decent people. Ye don't know who yer father an' mother are, do ye? An' no one else does, fer that matter. Ye wouldn't own 'em if ye did."

Rod stood for an instant as if turned to stone. The flush left his cheeks, and his face grew very white. Then his small brown hands clenched hard, and he took a step closer to the wagon.

"You lie!" he shouted. "How dare you say that!"

With a roar Tom clutched the handle of his whip, and the lash suddenly cut the air with a swish. It circled Rod's shoulders, sharply flicking his face, leaving a crimson streak upon the white left cheek.

The lash had scarcely fallen ere a big form hurled itself from the store platform, and bounded along the road. It was Captain Josh who had been an interested spectator of all that had taken place. His eyes gleamed with a dangerous light, and the heavy stick in his right hand struck the ground harder than usual as he strode up to the wagon.

"Ye coward!" he roared, coming between Rod and the irate teamster. "How dare ye strike a little lad like that!"

"He scared me horses on purpose, an' then sassed me," was the surly answer.

"None of yer lyin', Tom Dunker," said the captain laid his left hand upon the top of the side-board, and shook it vehemently. "I saw the whole affair, and don't ye try any of yer lies on me."

"What business is it of yourn, anyway, Josh Britt? It ain't your funeral, is it? You git out of this, an' leave me alone!"

"Not my funeral, eh? It might have been one fer the lad here, though, if you had yer way. I saw ye pull yer horses over to scare him, and when he spoke up to ye like a man, ye slashed him with yer whip. He didn't sass ye, not a bit of it."

"Well, you'll git the same, then, ye old fool," and once more Tom raised his whip to strike.

He was not dealing with a boy now, however, but with the strongest man in Hillcrest. Tom knew this, but in his rage he had thrown reason to the wind. With lightning rapidity Captain Josh reached up, caught Tom by the arm, and in a twinkling brought him sprawling upon the side of the road. With an ugly oath, the teamster tried to regain his feet, but he was helpless in the grip of the captain's powerful arm. He writhed and cursed, but all in vain, and at length was forced to give up the struggle, and sat panting upon the road completely cowed.

By this time several men from the store surrounded the contestants, who watched with much interest the subjection of Tom Dunker. To them Captain Josh paid no heed, but stood glowering over his victim. When he saw that he was subdued he let go his grip, and stepped back a couple of paces.

"Now, git up!" he demanded.

As Tom made no effort to obey, the captain leaned forward, caught him once more in his mighty grip, and lifted him to his feet.

"Stand there, ye wobbly-kneed cur!" he cried.

"I'll have the law of ye," Tom wailed. "If there's B-b-british justice, you'll git it!"

"H'm," the captain snorted. "Ye talk about British justice. Ye may thank yer stars at this very minute that the law hasn't its grip upon ye fer tryin' to kill a harmless boy. But I'll do it instead. I'll be the British justice, judge, lawyers, jury, and the whole dang concern combined. Now, look here, Tom Bunker, you apologise to that youngster fer what ye did to him this mornin'."

Tom's face, livid with rage, took a darker tinge at this command. More on-lookers had now arrived, who jeered and hooted the unfortunate man. It was a great joke to see the boaster at length brought low by quaint old Captain Josh. Such a thing didn't happen every day, and they could well afford to lose any amount of time to see the fun. But it was far from fun for the victim of their sport. He made one more effort to assert himself, and turned furiously upon his captor with words and fists. But two hands gripped him now instead of one, and he was brought down upon the road with such a bang that he yelled with pain, and pleaded for mercy.

"Mercy, d'ye ask?" the captain growled. "There'll be no mercy shown to the like of you till ye do what I say. Yer son got settled yesterday fer actin' the bully, and you'll git far worse to-day if ye don't hurry and do as I tell ye."

"What d'ye want me to say?" Tom moaned.

"Say? Say what ye like, only let it be a decent apology. Tell the boy that ye're sorry, and that sich a thing won't happen again, that's all."

Rod had been a silent and interested spectator of all that had taken place. At first he could not understand the meaning of the captain's words. But when it suddenly dawned upon his mind, he sprang quickly forward.

"I don't want him to do it!" he cried.

"Don't want him to do what?" exclaimed the astonished captain.

"'Pologise. I don't want him to say he's sorry."

"Why not, lad?"

"'Cause he isn't."

"How d'ye know that?"

"His face and eyes say he isn't. If I was sorry for anything, you wouldn't have to make me 'pologise. I'd be only too glad to do it."

There was a dead silence when Rod finished speaking, for all were now anxiously waiting to see what would follow. Even Captain Josh, always so ready with his tongue, was at a loss for words. He stared first at Rod and then at Tom.

"Well, I never!" he at length ejaculated. "What d'ye want me to do with him, then?" and he pointed to the man upon the ground.

"Let him go," Rod quickly replied, "He doesn't want to 'pologise, and I don't want him to do it, so there."

"All right, then," the captain assented, "I'll do as ye say. Git up, Tom Bunker, and git out of this. When ye say yer prayers to-night--that is, if ye say them, which I doubt--thank the Lord that ye got out of this scrape without any bones broken."

With that, Captain Josh picked up his stick, and started for home, while the on-lookers went back to the store to discuss Tom Bunker's defeat.