Chapter XII
 

The sun sank into the prairie and tinted the sky all red and green and gold where it shone through the rents in the ragged clouds of purple black. The glowing colors touching dull, weather-beaten steeples and factory stacks, changed them to objects of interest and beauty. The poisonous smoke from smelter and engine, that hung always over the town like a heavy veil, shot through with the brilliant rays, became a sea of color that drifted here and there, tumbled and tossed by the wind, while above, the ball of the newly painted flag-staff on the courthouse tower gleamed like a signal lamp from another world. And through it all, the light reflected from a hundred windows flashed and blazed in wondrous glory, until the city seemed a dream of unearthly splendor and fairy loveliness, in which the people moved in wonder and in awe. Only for a moment it lasted. A heavy cloud curtain was drawn hurriedly across the west as though the scene in its marvelous beauty was too sacred for the gaze of men whose souls were dwarfed by baser visions. For an instant a single star gleamed above the curtain in the soft green of the upper sky; then it too vanished, blotted out by the flying forerunners of the coming storm.

About nine o'clock, when the first wild fury of the gale had passed, a man, muffled in a heavy coat and with a soft hat pulled low over his face, made his way along the deserted streets. In front of the Goodrich hardware and implement store, he stopped and looked carefully about as though in fear of some observer. Then taking a key from his pocket, he unlocked the door and entered. Walking quickly through the room to the office, as though familiar with the place, he knelt before the big safe, his hand upon the knob that worked the combination. A moment later the heavy door yielded to his hand. Taking a bunch of keys from his pocket, he selected one without hesitation, and upon applying it, the cash box opened, revealing a large sum of money. Catching up a package of bills, he placed it in his side coat pocket, and locking the cash box again, was closing the safe, when he paused as though struck with a sudden thought. The storm without seemed to be renewing its strength. The dashing of sleet and snow against the windows, the howling of the wind, the weird singing of the wires, and the sharp banging of swinging signs and shutters, carried terror to the heart of the man kneeling in the dimly lighted office. Sinking on the floor, he buried his face in his hands and moaned aloud, "My God--What am I doing? What if I should fail?"

Again there came a lull in the storm; everything grew hushed and still, almost as if the very spirit of the night waited breathlessly the result of the battle fought in the breast of the tempted man. Rising slowly to his knees, he swung back the heavy doors and once more unlocking the cash box reached out to replace the package of bills; but with the money before his eyes he paused again. Then with a sudden exclamation, "I won't fail this time; I can't lose always," he quickly closed the safe, and with the money in his pocket, sprang to his feet and hurried out of the building, where the storm met him in all its fury, as though striving to wrest from him that which he had taken from another. But with set face and clenched fists, he pushed into the gale, and a few minutes later knocked at the door of a room on the top floor of a big hotel. He was admitted and greeted cordially by two men who were drinking and smoking.

"Hello Frank," they exclaimed; "We thought you had crawfished this time sure. What makes you so late; it is nearly ten?"

"Oh, the old man had some work for me, of course. What a beastly night. Where's Whitley?" He tried to speak carelessly, but his eyes wavered and his hands trembled as he unbuttoned his heavy coat.

"You're right; this storm's a ripper. Jim will be back in a minute; he just stepped down to the corner drug-store to see a man. Here he is now;" as another low knock sounded on the door, and the fourth man entered, shaking the snow from his fur-trimmed coat.

"Pile out of your duds, boys, and have a drink. Good liquor hits the spot a night like this."

Whitley grasped the proffered glass eagerly and emptied it without a word, but Frank refused.

"You know I don't drink," he said, shortly; "take it yourself if you need it, and let's get to work." He drew a chair to the table in the center of the room.

The others laughed as they took their places, and one said, as he shuffled a deck of cards: "We forgot you were a church member." And the other added, with a sneer, "Maybe you'd like to open the services with a song and prayer."

"You drop that and mind your own business," retorted young Goodrich, angrily. "I'll show you tonight that you can't always have your own way. Did you bring my papers with you?" The others nodded and one said, "Whitley here told us you wanted a chance to win them back before we were obliged to collect. It's to be cash tonight though," added the other; "good cold cash, against the notes we hold."

"For God's sake, shut up and play," growled Frank in reply. "I guess there's cash enough," and he laid the package of bills on the table. Four eyes gleamed in triumph. Whitley looked at the young man keenly and paused with the cards in his hands. Then he dealt and the game began.

Meanwhile Adam Goodrich and his wife were entertaining the whist club, of which they were enthusiastic members, for it was the regular weekly meeting; and though the weather was so rough not a few of the devoted lovers of the game were present.

In the conversation that preceded the play, the Young People's Society, with Dick Falkner's plan of work, was mentioned. Nearly all of the guests being members of different churches, expressed themselves quite freely, with a variety of opinions, until the host, with annoyance plainly expressed on his proud face and in his hard cold voice, said: "You must not think, ladies and gentlemen, that because I and my family are members of the Jerusalem Church, that we agree with Rev. Cameron in his outlandish ideas. We have never been accustomed to associating with such low characters as he delights in forcing us to meet in the congregation; and if he don't change his line of work some, he will drive all the best people to other churches."

The guests all nodded emphatic approval and each silently resolved to send his pastor to interview the Goodrich's without delay.

Adam continued: "As for that tramp printer and his fool plan, I say that it's just such stuff that causes all the discontent among the lower classes and makes them unfit to serve their betters, and that my children shall have nothing to do with it. I have not brought them up to follow the lead of a vagabond and a nobody."

Amy's face flushed painfully and she lifted her head as though to speak, when Mrs. Goodrich silenced her with a look, and skilfully changed the subject by saying: "It's too bad Frank won't be here to-night. He enjoys these evenings so much and plays so well. But he and Mr. Whitley are spending the evening with a sick friend. The dear boy is so thoughtful of others and is always ready to give up his own pleasures. And Mr. Whitley too; he will miss the game so much, and Amy loses a strong partner." The company took the hint and talked of other things until the all-absorbing game began.

And so, while the son played with his friend Whitley, and the two professional gamblers at the hotel, played with fear in his face and a curse in his heart, to save himself from sure disgrace, his fond parents and beautiful sister at home, forgot his absence in their eager efforts to win with the cards the petty prize of the evening, a silver-mounted loving cup.

One, two, three hours passed. The storm had spent its strength; Mr. Goodrich had won the coveted prize, and the guests of the evening had returned to their homes. The last of the pile of ills before Frank was placed in the center of the table. The silence was unbroken save for the sound of the shuffling cards and the click of a whiskey glass as one of the men helped himself to a drink.

Suddenly young Goodrich leaped to his feet with a wild exclamation: "Tom Wharton, you're a liar and a cheat!" As he spoke, a heavy chair whirled above his head and fell with a crashing blow upon the man who sat at his right. Instantly all was confusion; the table was overturned; the cards, money and glasses scattered over the room. Whitley and the other man stood in blank astonishment at the sudden outburst. Frank leaped at his prostrate victim, with a chair again raised to strike, and had the second blow fallen, he would have been a murderer, for the intent to kill shone from his glittering eyes. But Whitley, just in time, caught his arm, while the other drew a knife and stepped between the crazed man and his victim.

"Stop, you fool!" said Whitley. "And you, Jack, put up that knife and look after Tom. This is a nice mess for us to be caught in." The gambler did as he was bid, but Frank struggled in his friend's grasp. "Let me go, Jim. Let me at him. I'm ruined anyway and I'll finish the man that did it before I go myself." But Whitley was the stronger and forced him backward, while the other man was busy with his fallen partner.

"Ruined nothing," said Jim in Frank's ear. "I'll stand by you. You get out of this quick and go to my room. I'll come when I've settled with them." He unlocked the door and pushed Frank into the hall, just as the man on the floor struggled to his feet.

The two gamblers turned on Whitley in a rage when they saw Frank had escaped. Standing with his back to the door, he let them curse a few minutes and then said calmly: "Now if you feel better let's take a drink and talk it over."

When he had them quiet again he continued, in a matter-of-fact tone: "Suppose you fellows raise a row about this, what will you gain?"

"We'll teach that young fool a lesson he won't forget soon," snarled the one who had fallen.

"Yes, and you'll pay big for the lesson," replied Whitley quietly.

"What do yon mean?"

"I mean that if this gets out young Goodrich is ruined and you won't get a cent on the paper you hold."

Wharton's friend nodded, "That's straight, Tom," he said.

"Well," growled the other; "What of it, the old man won't pay it anywray."

"Yes he would," returned Jim quickly, "if you didn't make it public; but I don't happen to want him to know about this little deal."

"What's it to you?"

"Never mind what it is to me. I know what I'm doing, and I don't want this to get out."

"How'll you help it?"

"This way." He took a check-book from his pocket. "Make the notes over to me and I'll add two hundred to the amount. Go after Frank and you get nothing. Go to the old man and you get what the paper calls for. Keep your mouth shut and sell me the notes and you get an extra hundred apiece. What do you say?"

"I say yes," exclaimed Jack, with an oath; "I'm no fool." And the other grumbled a surly "All right. But I'd like to get one crack at that kid's head."

"You'll have to pass that little pleasure this time." said the other with a laugh. "Write your check, Whitley and let's get out of this. I'm sleepy."

When Whitley reached his room after settling with the two gamblers, he found Frank pacing the floor, his face white and haggard.

"Sit down. Sit down, old man; and take things easy. You're all right. Look here." And he drew the notes from his pocket.

Frank sank into a chair. "What have you done?" he gasped. "How did you get those?"

Whitley laughed. "Just invested a little of my spare cash, that's all," he said.

"But I tell you I'm ruined. I can't pay a third of that in six years."

"Well, perhaps you won't have to." Frank stared. "What do you mean?"

"I mean Amy," the other replied coolly. "You poor idiot, can't you see. I can't afford to have you disgraced before the world under the circumstances. If I wasn't in it, I'd let you go to thunder and serve you right. But a fine chance I'd have to marry your sister if she knew about this business tonight. If it wasn't for her I'd let you hang your fool self too quick, before I'd spend a dollar on your worthless carcass; but I've said that I would marry that girl and I will, if it costs every cent I've got, and you'll help me too."

Frank was silent for a time, completely cowed by the contempt in the other's voice, too frightened to protest. But at last he managed to say: "There's more than those notes."

"I know that too," quickly returned Whitley, with an oath. "How much did you steal from the old man's safe tonight?"

"What--How--How do you know?" stammered the other.

"Saw you," returned Whitley, shortly; and then added, as Frank rose to his feet and began walking the floor again. "Oh, for Heaven's sake quit your tragedy and sit down. You make me tired. You're not cut out for either a gambler or a robber. You haven't the nerve."

Frank was silent, while the other went to a small cupboard and leisurely helped himself to a glass of whiskey; then lit a fresh cigar.

"What can I do?" ventured Frank at last, in a voice but little above a whisper.

Jim crossed the room, and unlocking a drawer in his desk, returned with a handful of bills. "You can put that money back in the safe before morning and keep your mouth shut." And then when Frank attempted to grasp his hand, while stammering words of gratitude, he said, "No thanks," and put his own hands behind his back in a gesture that there was no mistaking. "Be a good boy, Frankie. Listen with more care to your pastor's sermons; keep your Young People's Society pledge; read your Bible and pray every day, and take part in all the meetings, and when I marry your sister I'll make you a present of these papers. But Oh Lord," he added, with a groan, "you'll make a healthy brother-in-law, you will."

"How much did you say?"

Frank muttered the amount he had stolen.

Jim quickly counted it out and threw the bills on the table. "There you are. And now you better go quickly before you slop over again and I kick you." And turning his back he poured himself another glass of liquor while Frank, with the money in his hand, sneaked from the room like a well-whipped cur. And over his head, as he crept stealthily down the street toward his father's store, the stars shone clear and cold in their pure, calm beauty, while the last of the storm-cloud on the far horizon covered the face of the bright new moon.