Chapter XIX. Judy's Confession.
 

In spite of all their care, Brian and Betty Jo did not wholly convince Auntie Sue that there was no more in Judy's disappearance than the report from the neighbors indicated. The dear old lady felt that there was something known to the young people that they were keeping from her; and, while she did not question their motives, and certainly did not worry,--for Auntie Sue never worried,--she was not satisfied with the situation. When she retired to her room for the night, she told herself, with some spirit, that she would surely go to the bottom of the affair the next morning.

It happened that Auntie Sue went to the bottom of the affair much sooner than she expected.

It must have been about that same hour of the night when Betty Jo, after reaching her decision to go away, retired to her bed, that Auntie Sue was aroused by a low knocking at the open window of her room.

The old teacher listened without moving, her first thought being that her fancy was tricking her. The sound came again, and, this time, there could be no mistake. Sitting up in her bed, Auntie Sue looked toward the window, and, at the sound of her movement, a low whisper came from without.

"Don't be scared, Auntie Sue. Hit ain't nobody but just me."

As she recognized Judy's voice, she saw the mountain girl's head and twisted shoulders outlined above the window-sill. A moment more, and Auntie Sue was at the window.

"Sh-h-h!" cautioned Judy. "Don't wake 'em up. I just naturally got ter tell you-all somethin', Auntie Sue; but, I ain't a-wantin' Mr. Burns an' that there Betty Jo woman ter hear. I reckon I best come through the winder."

Acting upon the word, she climbed carefully into the room.

"Judy, child! What--?"

The mountain girl interrupted Auntie Sue's tremulous whisper with: "I'll tell hit ter you, ma'm, in a little bit, if you'll just wait. I got ter see if they are sure 'nough a-sleepin' first, though."

She stole silently from the room, to return a few minutes later. "They are plumb asleep, both of 'em," she said in a low tone, when she had cautiously closed the door. "I done opened the doors ter their rooms, an' listened, an' shet 'em again 'thout ary one of 'em a-movin' even. I'll fix the winder, now, an' then we kin make a light."

Carefully, she closed the window and drew down the shade. Then she lit the lamp.

Auntie Sue, who was sitting on the bed, looked at the girl in bewildered amazement.

With a nervous laugh, Judy fingered her torn dress and dishevelled hair. "I sure am a sight, ain't I, ma'm? I done hit a-comin' through the bresh in the dark. But, don't--don't--look so kinder lost like; you-all ain't got no call ter be scared of me."

"Why, Judy, dear, I'm not afraid of you. Come, child; tell me what is the trouble."

At the kindly manner and voice of the old gentlewoman, those black eyes filled with tears, which, for the moment, the mountain girl stoically permitted to roll down her thin sallow cheeks unheeded. Then, with a quick resolute jerk of her twisted body, she drew her dress sleeve across her face, and said: "I--I--reckon I couldn't hate myself no worse'n I'm a-doin'. Hit seems like I been mighty nigh plumb crazy; but, I just naturally had ter come back an' tell you-all, 'cause you-all been so good ter me."

She placed a chair for Auntie Sue, and added: "You-all best make yourself comfertable, though, ma'm. I'm mighty nigh tuckered out myself. Hit's a right smart way from where pap's a-livin' ter here, an' I done come in a hurry."

She dropped down on the floor, her back against the bed, and clasped her knees in her hands, as Auntie Sue seated herself.

"Begin at the beginning, Judy, and tell me exactly what has happened," said Auntie Sue.

"Yes, ma'm, I will,--that's what I was aimin' ter do when I made up ter come back."

And she did. Starting with her observation of Brian and Betty Jo, and her conviction of their love, she told of her interview with Brian the night she warned him not to let Betty Jo return, and finished with the account of her attack on Betty Jo that morning.

Auntie Sue listened with amazement and pity. Here, indeed, was a wayward and troubled life-current.

"But, Judy, Judy!" exclaimed the gentle old teacher, "you would not really have pushed Betty Jo into the river. She would have been drowned, child. Surely, you did not mean to kill her, Judy."

The girl wrung her hands, and her deformed body swayed to and fro in the nervous intensity of her emotions. But she answered, stubbornly: "That there was just what I was aimin' ter do. I'd a-killed her, sure, if Mr. Burns hadn't a-come just when he did. I can't rightly tell how hit was, but hit seemed like there was somethin' inside of me what was a-makin' me do hit, an' I couldn't, somehow, help myself. An'--an'--that ain't all, ma'm; I done worse'n that," she continued in a low, moaning wail. "Oh, my God-A'mighty! Why didn't Mr. Burns sling me inter the river an' let me be smashed an' drowned at Elbow Rock while he had me, 'stead of lettin' me git away ter do what I've gone an' done!"

Auntie Sue's wonderful native strength enabled her to speak calmly: "What is it you have done, Judy? You must tell me, child."

The older woman's voice and manner steadied the girl, and she answered more in her usual colorless monotone, but still guarded so as not to awaken the other members of the household: "Hit seemed like Mr. Burns ketchin' me, like he did, an' me a-seein' him with her in his arms, made me plumb crazy-mad, an' I 'lowed I'd fix hit so's he couldn't never have her nohow, so I--I--done told pap 'bout him bein' Brian Kent what had robbed that there bank, an' how there was er lot of reward-money a-waitin' for anybody that'd tell on him."

Auntie Sue was too shocked to speak. Was it possible that, now, when the real Brian Kent was so far removed from the wretched bank clerk; when his fine natural character and genius had become so established, and his book was--No, no! It could not be! God could not let men be so cruel as to send Auntie Sue's Brian Kent to prison because that other Brian Kent, tormented by wrong environment, and driven by an evil combination of circumstances, had taken a few dollars of the bank's money! And Betty Jo--No, no! Auntie Sue's heart cried out in protest. There must be some way. She would find some way. The banker--Homer Ward! Auntie Sue's mind, alert and vigorous as the mind of a woman of half her years, caught at the thought of her old friend and pupil. She leaned forward in her chair over the girl who sat on the floor at her feet, and her voice was strong and clear with the strength of the spirit which dominated her frail body.

"Judy, did you tell any one else besides your father?"

"There wasn't nobody else ter tell," came the answer. "An' pap, he 'lowed he'd kill me if I said anythin' ter anybody 'fore he'd got the money. He aims ter git hit all for hisself."

"What will he do? Will he go to Sheriff Knox?"

"No, ma'm; pap, he 'lowed if he done that a-way, the Sheriff he'd take most of the money. Pap's a-goin' right ter that there bank feller hisself."

"Yes, yes! Go on, Judy!"

"You see, ma'm, I done remembered the name of the bank an' where hit was an' Mr. Ward's name an' all, on 'count of that there money letter what you done sent 'em an' us bein' so worried 'bout hit never gittin' there an' all that. An' pap, he knows er man over in Gardner what's on the railroad, you see, what'll let him have money enough for the trip,--a licker-man, he is,--an' pap's aimin' ter make hit over ter Gardner ter git the money in time ter ketch that there early mornin' train. Hit's a right smart way over the mountains, but I reckon's how pap'll make hit. Soon's pap left, I got ter thinkin' what I'd done, an' the more I studied 'bout hit,--'bout Mr. Burns a-havin' ter go ter prison, an' 'bout you-all a-carin' for him the way you does, an' 'bout how happy you was over his book, an'--an'--how good you'd been ter me,--the sorrier I got, 'til I just couldn't stand a-thinkin' 'bout hit no longer; an'--an'--so I come fast as I could ter tell you. I 'lowed you'd make out ter fix hit some way so--Mr. Burns won't have ter go ter prison. Couldn't you-all send--send a telegraph ter the bank man, er somethin'? I'd git it inter Thompsonville for you, ma'm; an' Mr. Burns, he needn't never know nothin' 'bout hit."

Auntie Sue was dressing when Judy finished speaking. With a physical strength that had its source in her indomitable spirit, she moved about the room making the preparations necessary to her plan, and as she worked she talked to the girl.

"No, Judy, a telegram won't do. I must go to Homer Ward myself. That morning train leaves Thompsonville at six o'clock. You must slip out of the house, and harness 'Old Prince' to the buggy as fast as you can. You will drive with me to Thompsonville, and bring 'Prince' back. You can turn him loose when you get near home, and he will come the rest of the way alone. You must not let Mr. Burns nor Betty Jo see you, because they mustn't know anything about what you have done. Do you understand, child?"

"Yes, ma'm," said Judy, eagerly. She was on her feet now.

"You can go to the neighbors and find some place to stay until I return," continued Auntie Sue.

"You don't need ter worry none 'bout me," said Judy. "I kin take care of myself, I reckon. But ain't you plumb seared ter go 'way on the cars alone an' you so old?"

"Old!" retorted Auntie Sue. "I have not felt so strong for twenty years. There is nothing for me to fear. I will be in St. Louis to-morrow night, and in Chicago the next forenoon. I guess I am not so helpless that I can't make a little journey like this. Homer Ward shall never send my boy to prison,--never,--bank or no bank! Go on, now, and get 'Prince' and the buggy ready. We must not miss that train." She pushed Judy from the room, and again cautioned her not to awaken Brian or Betty Jo.

When she had completed her preparations for the trip, Auntie Sue wrote a short note to Betty Jo, telling her that she had been called away suddenly, and that she would return in a few days, and that she was obliged to borrow Betty Jo's pocket-book. Grave as she felt the situation to be, Auntie Sue laughed to herself as she pictured the consternation of Betty Jo and Brian in the morning.

Silently, the old lady stole into the girl's room to secure the money she needed and to leave her letter. Then, as silently, she left the house, and found Judy, who was waiting with "Old Prince" and the buggy, ready to start.

The station agent at Thompsonville was not a little astonished when Auntie Sue and Judy appeared, and, with the easy familiarity of an old acquaintance greeted her with, "Howdy, Auntie Sue! What in thunder are you doin' out this time of the day? No bad news, I hope?"

"Oh, no, Mr. Jackson," Auntie Sue answered easily. "I'm just going to Chicago for a little visit with an old friend."

"Sort of a vacation, eh?" returned the man behind the window, as he made out her ticket. "Well, you sure have earned one, Auntie Sue. It's gittin' to be vacation time now, too. Bunch of folks come in yesterday to stay at the clubhouse for a spell. Pretty wild lot, I'd say,--wimmen as well as the men. I reckon them clubhouse parties don't disturb you much, though, if you be their nearest neighbor,--do they?"

"They never have yet, Mr. Jackson," she returned. "Their place is on the other side of the river, and a mile above my house, you know. I see them in their boats on The Bend, though, and once in a while they call on me. But the Elbow Rock rapids begin in front of my place, and the clubhouse people don't usually come that far down the river."

She turned to Judy, and, with the girl, went out of the waiting room to the platform, where she whispered: "You must start back right away, Judy. If your father is on the train, he might see you."

"What if pap ketches sight of you-all?" Judy returned nervously.

"He will not be so apt to notice me as he would you," she returned, "even if he does catch a glimpse of me. And it can't be helped if he does. I'll be in Chicago as quick as he will, and I know I will see Mr. Ward first. Go on now, dear, and don't let Mr. Burns or Betty Jo see you, and be a good girl. I feel sure that everything will be all right."

With a sudden awkward movement, poor Judy caught the old gentlewoman's hand and pressed it to her lips; then, turning, ran toward the buggy.

When the train arrived, the station agent came to help Auntie Sue with her handbag aboard, and she managed to keep her friend between herself and the coaches, in case Jap Taylor should be looking from a window. As the conductor and the agent assisted her up the steps, the agent said: "Mind you take good care of her, Bill. Finest old lady God-Almighty ever made! If you was to let anything happen to her, you best never show yourself in this neighborhood again; we'd lynch you, sure!"

The conductor found a good seat for his lovely old passenger, and made her as comfortable as possible. As he punched her ticket, he said, with a genial smile, which was the voluntary tribute paid to Auntie Sue by all men: "You are not much like the passengers I usually carry in this part of the country, ma'm. They are mostly a rather rough-lookin' lot."

She smiled back at him, understanding perfectly his intended compliment. "They are good people, though, sir,--most of them. Of course, there are some who are a little wild, sometimes, I expect."

The railroad man laughed again, shaking his head. "I should say so. You ought to see the specimen I've got in the smoker. I picked him up back there at Gardner. Perhaps you have heard of him--Jap Taylor. He is about the worst in the whole country, I reckon."

"I have heard of him," she returned. "I do hope he won't come into this coach."

"Oh, he won't start anything on my train," laughed the man in blue reassuringly. "He would never come in here, anyhow. Them kind always stay in the smoker. Seems like they know where they belong. He is half-scared to death himself, anyway; he is going to Chicago, too, and I'll bet it's the first time in his life he has ever been farther from these hills than Springfield."