Chapter XVIII
 

The summer passed and again the catalpa trees shed their broad leaves, while the prairie grass took on the reddish brown of early fall. Jim Whitley suddenly returned to Boyd City and Dick met him in the post-office. "Not a word passed between them, but an hour later a note was put into Jim's hand by a ragged boot-black.

"George," said Dick, that afternoon as they were locking up, "if you don't mind I believe I'll sleep in my old bed in the office to-night."

Udell looked at his helper in astonishment. "What in the world?" he began; then stopped.

"I can't explain now, but please let me have my way and say nothing about it to anyone; not even Clara."

"Why sure, old man," said the other heartily; "only I don't know why." He paused again; then in. an anxious tone, "Dickie, I know it's hard, and you've been putting up a great fight, but you're not going to let go now?"

"No, no, it's not that, old man: I'll explain some day." And something in his face assured his friend that whatever it was that prompted his strange request, Dick was still master of himself.

Late that night as Udell passed the office on his way home, after spending the evening with Miss Wilson, he was astonished to see Jim Whitley entering the building. He stood watching for a moment; then fearing possible danger for Dick, he ran lightly up the stairs. But as he reached out to lay his hand on the door latch, he heard a key turn in the lock and his friend's voice saying, "I thought you would come." George paused, and then with a shrug of his shoulder, and a queer smile on his rugged face, turned and went softly down to the street again.

Dick and his visitor faced each other in the dimly lighted office.

"Well," said Whitley, with an oath, "what do you want?"

"I want you to take your hand out of your pocket first," flashed Dick; "that gun won't help you any tonight," and a heavy revolver in his own hand covered Whitley's heart.

His request was granted instantly.

"Now walk into the other room."

They passed into the stock room, which was well lighted. The windows were covered with heavy paper; the long table was cleared and moved out from its place near the wall.

Dick closed the door and pointed to the table. "Lay your gun there. Be careful," as Whitley drew his revolver. Jim glanced once at the determined eyes and steady hand of his master and sullenly obeyed.

"Now sit down."

Crossing the room, he seated himself in the chair indicated, which placed him in the full glare of the light. Dick took the other chair facing him, with the long table between them. Placing his weapon beside the other, within easy reach of his hand, he rested his elbows on the table and looked long and steadily at the man before him.

Whitley was uneasy. "Well," he said at last, when he could bear the silence no longer. "I hope you like my looks."

"Your figure is somewhat heavier, but shaving off your beard has made you look some years younger," replied Dick, dryly.

The other started to his feet.

"Don't be uneasy," said Dick, softly resting his hand on one of the revolvers; "keep your seat please."

"I never wore a beard," said the other, as he dropped back on his chair. "You are mistaken."

"Then how did you know the meaning of my note, and why did you answer it in person. You should have sent the right man."

Whitley saw that he had betrayed himself but made one more effort.

"I came out of curiosity," he muttered.

Dick laughed--a laugh that was not good to hear. "I can easily satisfy you," he said; "permit me to tell you a little story."

"The story begins in a little manufacturing town a few miles from Liverpool, England, just three years ago today." Beneath the unwavering eyes of the man leaning on the table Whitley's face grew ghastly and he writhed in his chair.

"An old man and his wife, with their two orphaned grand-sons, lived in a little cottage on the outskirts of the town. The older of the boys was a strong man of twenty; the other a sickly lad of eight. The old people earned a slender income by cultivating small fruits. This was helped out by the wages of the older brother, who was a machinist in one of the big factories. They were a quiet and unpretentious little family, devout Christians, and very much attached to each other.

"One afternoon a wealthy American, who was stopping at a large resort a few miles from the village, went for a drive along the road leading past their home. As his carriage was passing, the little boy, who was playing just outside the yard, unintentionally frightened the horses and they shied quickly. At the same moment, the American's silk hat fell in the dust. The driver stopped the team and the lad, frightened, picked up the hat and ran with it toward the carriage, stammering an apology for what he had done.

"Instead of accepting the boy's excuse, the man, beside himself with anger, and slightly under the influence of wine, sprang from the carriage, and seizing the lad, kicked him brutally.

"The grandfather, who was working in his garden, saw the incident, and hurried as fast as he could to the rescue. At the same time, the driver jumped from his seat to protect the child, but before they could reach the spot, the boy was lying bruised and senseless in the dust.

"The old man rushed at the American in impotent rage, and the driver, fearing for his safety, caught him by the arm and tried to separate them, saying, 'You look after the boy. Let me settle with him.' But the old man was deaf and could not understand, and thought that the driver, also an American, was assisting his employer. In the struggle, the American suddenly drew a knife, and in spite of the driver's efforts, struck twice at his feeble opponent, who fell back in the arms of his would-be protector, just as the older brother rushed upon the scene. The American leaped into the carriage and snatched up the lines. The mechanic sprang after him, and as he caught hold of the seat in his attempt to climb in, the knife flashed again, cutting a long gash in his arm and hand, severing the little finger. With the other hand, he caught the wrist of the American, but a heavy blow in the face knocked him beneath the wheels, and the horses dashed away down the road.

"The driver was bending over the old man trying to staunch the flow of blood, when several workmen, attracted by the cries of the helpless grandmother, who had witnessed the scene from the porch, came running up. ''E's one on 'em--'e's one on 'em,' cried the old lady. ''E 'eld my man while 'tother 'it 'im.'

"The driver saw her mistake instantly, and realizing his danger as the man passed into the house with the body of the old man, he ran down the street and escaped. Two days later, he read in a Liverpool paper that the grandfather and boy were both dead, and that the dying statement of the old man, the testimony of the grandmother and the brother, was that both the strangers were guilty.

"How the wealthy American made his escape from the country you know best. The driver shipped aboard a vessel bound for Australia, and later, made his way home."

When Dick had finished his story, Whitley's face was drawn and haggard. He leaped to his feet again, but the revolver motioned him back. "What fiend told you all this?" he gasped hoarsely. "Who are you?"

"I am the driver."

Whitley sank back in his chair; then suddenly broke into a harsh laugh. "You are a crazy fool. Who would believe you? You have no proof."

"Wait a bit," replied Dick, calmly. "There is another chapter to my story. Less than a year after the tragedy, the invalid grandmother died and the young machinist was free to enter upon the great work of his life, the bringing to justice of his brother's murderer, or as he believed, murderers. He could find no clue as to the identity of the obscure driver of the carriage, but with the wealthy American it was different, and he succeeded at last in tracing him to his home in this city. Unfortunately though, the long search had left the young mechanic without means, and he arrived in Boyd City in a penniless and starving condition, the night of the great storm winter before last. You are familiar with the finding of his body by George Udell."

Again Whitley sprang to his feet, and with an awful oath exclaimed, "How do you know this?"

Dick drew forth a long leather pocket-book, and opening it, took out a package of papers, which he laid on the table between the two revolvers.

"There is the story, written by his own hand, together with the testimony of his grandfather and grandmother, his own sworn statement, and all the evidence he had so carefully gathered."

Whitley sprang forward; but before he could cross the room, both revolvers covered his breast.

"Stop!"

The voice was calm and steady, but full of deadly menace.

Whitley crouched like an animal at bay. The hands that held the weapons never trembled; the gray eyes that looked along the shining barrels never wavered. Slowly he drew back. "Name your price," he said sullenly.

"You have not money enough to buy."

"I am a wealthy man."

"I know it."

He went back to his seat. "For God's sake, put down those guns and tell me what you want."

"I want to know where you left Miss Goodrich."

"What if I refuse to tell?"

Dick laid a pair of handcuffs upon the table.

A cunning gleam crept into Whitley's eyes. "You'll put them on yourself at the same time. The evidence is just as strong against you."

"If it were not, I would have turned you over to the law long ago."

"But you fool, they'll hang you."

"That won't save you, and you'll answer to God for another murder."

"You would not dare."

"I am innocent; you are the coward."

Then Whitley gave up and told how he had met Amy in Jonesville, and had taken her east to Buffalo, New York, where he had left her just before returning to Boyd City.

"Did you marry her?" asked Dick.

Whitley shrugged his shoulders. "I am not looking for a wife," he said.

"But was there no form of a ceremony?" persisted Dick.

Again Jim shrugged his shoulders. "It was not necessary."

It was Dick's turn to be agitated now; his hand played nervously on the handle of his revolver. But the other did not notice.

"Why did you leave her so soon?"

"I had business of importance at home," with a sneer.

Slowly the man behind the table rose to his feet, his form trembling violently, his strong hands clinching and unclinching in his agitation. Slowly he reached out and lifted the weapons of death from the table; slowly he raised them. The criminal sat as though fascinated; his face livid with fear. For a full minute the revolver covered the cowering victim; then suddenly Dick's hand fell.

"Jim Whitley," he said, in a voice that was strangely quiet. "If I were not a Christian, you could not live a moment. Now go!" He followed him from the room and watched him down the stairs; then returning, locked the door again, and throwing himself on the floor, wept as only a strong man can weep, with great shuddering sobs, until utterly exhausted, he fell into a stupor, where George found him in the morning.

Dick told his employer the whole story, and took the first train east. The same day, Whitley left the city.