Chapter XXI

That Frank Goodrich had managed to keep himself free from all appearance of evil since the night he so nearly became a thief, was not because of any real change in his character. He gambled no more. Not from a matter of principle, but because he feared the results, and he accepted Whitley's sarcastic advice about religious services, not because there was any desire in his heart for a right life, but because he felt it was good policy. Like many others, he was as bad as he dared to be; and while using the church as a cloak to hide his real nature, was satisfied if he could keep the appearance of respectability. In short, he was a splendid example of what that old Satanic copy-book proverb, "Honesty is the best policy" will do for a life if it be lived up to in earnest.

He was not a little alarmed over his sister's conduct, because he feared that Whitley, in a spirit of revenge, would demand payment of the notes; which could only mean his open disgrace and ruin. And his feelings reached a climax two weeks after Dick's return when he received a curt note from Jim saying:

"You will remember that I promised to surrender those notes of yours upon certain conditions. Those conditions now can never be met, and it becomes necessary for us to make other arrangements. You will meet me with a horse and buggy at Freeman Station tomorrow night, ten-thirty. Wait for me at the crossroads south of the depot. If anyone learns of our meeting it will be all up with you."

Freeman Station was a little cluster of houses near the great hay farms twelve miles from Boyd City, and the drive was not one to be made with pleasure; but there was no help for it, and about dusk Frank set out. It had been raining steadily for several days and the mud was hub deep, while in many places the road was under water. Once he was obliged to get out, and by the flickering light of his lantern, to pick his way around a dangerous washout. Several times he was on the point of giving up and turning back, but thoughts of Whitley's anger drove him on, and he at last reached the place, several minutes after the train had passed on its way across the dark prairie. As he stopped at the corner, Whitley appeared by the side of the buggy, and clambered in without a word. Taking the lines from Frank, he lashed the tired horse with the whip and they plunged forward into the night.

Once or twice Frank tried to open a conversation with his companion, but received such short replies that he gave up and shrank back in the corner of the seat in miserable silence.

After nearly an hour, Whitley brought the horse to a standstill, and jumping out of the buggy, began to unhitch. Against the dark sky, Frank could see the shadowy outlines of a house and barn.

"Where are we?" he asked.

"At my place, nine miles south of town," Whitley answered. "Help me put up the horse, can't you?"

Frank obeyed.

"No, don't take the harness off," said Jim again; "you'll want him before long." And then he led the way to the house.

Taking a key from its hiding place beneath one corner of the step, he unlocked the door and entered; and while Frank stood shivering with the cold and wet, found a lamp and made a light. The room where they stood was well carpeted and furnished, and upon the table were the remains of a meal, together with empty bottles and glasses, and lying on the chair was a woman's glove.

Frank looked around curiously. He had heard rumors of Whitley's place in the country, but this was his first visit.

"Well," said Jim shortly, "sit down while I build a fire and get something to drink; things are not very gay here to-night, but we'll do the best we can."

When the room was warm and they had removed their wraps and outer clothing, and Jim had partaken freely from a supply of liquor on the sideboard, he stretched himself in an easy chair and spoke more pleasantly. "Well, I suppose you are ready to pay those notes, with the interest."

Frank moved uneasily. "You know I can't," he muttered. "I thought from your letter, that we might make other arrangements. Amy, you know, might come.--"

"Oh, cut that out," interrupted Whitley, with an oath; "your esteemed sister is out of this deal for good." Then, as he lit his cigar, "We might fix things in another way though, if you only had the nerve."

"How?" asked Frank, eagerly.

"That printer of Udell's has some papers in his possession that I want. Get them for me and I'll turn over your notes and call it square."

Frank looked at his companion in wonder. "What do you mean?" he said at last.

"Just what I say. Can't you hear?"

"But how does that tramp happen to have any papers of value to you?"

"That is, most emphatically, none of your business, my friend. All you have to do is to get them, or--" he paused significantly.

"But will he give them up?"

Whitley looked at him a few minutes in amused contempt, then said, mockingly, "Oh yes; of course he will be glad to favor us. All you need to do is to put on your best Sunday School manners and say sweetly: 'Mr. Falkner, Mr. Whitley would like those papers that you have in the long leather pocket-book tied with a shoe-string.' He'll hand them over instantly. The only reason I have taken all this trouble to meet you out here to-night is because I am naturally easily embarrassed and don't like to ask him for them myself."

Frank was confused and made no reply, until Whitley asked: "Where does the fellow live now?"

"I don't know, but he's in old man Wicks' office every evening; has a desk there, and works on some fool Association work."

Whitley nodded. "Then you will find the papers in Uncle Bobbie's safe."

"But how am I to get them?"

"I don't know; you can't buy them. You can't bluff him. And he won't scare. There's only one other way I know."

"You mean that I must steal them?" gasped Frank.

Whitley looked at him with an evil smile. "That's rather a hard word for a good Christian, isn't it? Let's say, obtain possession of the documents without Mr. Falkner's knowledge. It sounds better."

"I'm no thief," snapped Frank.

Jim lifted his eyebrows as he skillfully flipped the ashes from his cigar. "Oh, I see; you did not rob the old gentleman's safe that night. I saved you from committing murder. You only negotiated a trifling loan with your loving parent. You'll be telling me next that you didn't gamble, but only whiled away a leisure hour or two in a social game of cards. But, joking aside, I honestly believe, Frank Goodrich, that you are more kinds of a fool than any man I have ever had the pleasure to know. The case in a nutshell is this: I must have those papers. I can't go after them myself. You've got to get them for me."

"I won't," said Frank, sullenly. "I can't."

"You can, and you will," retorted the other, firmly; "or I'll turn those notes over to my lawyer for collection, inside of twenty-four hours, and the little story of your life will be told to all the world. My young Christian friend, you can't afford to tell me that you won't."

For another hour they sat before the fire, talking and planning, and then Frank drove alone, through the mud and rain, back to the city, reaching his home just before day.

A few nights later, as Dick sat at his work in Mr. Wicks' office, a rubber-tired buggy drove slowly past close to the curbing. Through the big front window, Dick could be seen plainly as he bent over his desk, just inside an inner room, his back toward the door, which stood open. A burly negro leaped to the sidewalk without stopping the carriage. So absorbed was Dick with the task before him, that he did not hear the outer door of the office open and close again; and so quickly did the negro move that he stood within the room where Dick sat before the latter was aware of his presence.

When Dick did raise his head, he looked straight into the muzzle of a big revolver.

"Don't move er ye'r a goner," growled the black giant; and reaching out with his free hand he swung to the door between the rooms, thus cutting off the view from the street.

Dick smiled pleasantly as though his visitor had called in the ordinary way. "What can I do for you?" he asked, politely.

"Yo jest move 'way from dat 'ar desk fust; den we kin talk. I don' 'spect you's got a gun handy, an' we don' want no foolin'."

Dick laughed aloud as though the other had made a good joke. "All right, boss; just as you say." And leaving his chair he seated himself on the edge of a table in the center of the room. But the negro did not notice that he had placed himself so that a heavy glass paper-weight was just hidden by his right leg.

"Better take a seat yourself," continued Dick cordially. "Might as well be comfortable. How are the wife and babies?"

The negro showed his teeth in a broad grin as he dropped into the revolving chair Dick had just vacated. "Dey's well, tank yo' kindly sah." Then as he looked at the young man's careless attitude and smiling face, he burst forth, admiringly: "Dey done tole me as how yo' wor' a cool cuss an' mighty bad to han'le; but fo' God I nebber seed nothin' like hit. Aint yo' skeered'?"

Dick threw up his head and laughed heartily. "Sure I'm scared," he said. "Don't you see how I'm shaking? I expect I'll faint in a minute if you don't put up that gun."

The negro scowled fiercely. "No yo' don't. Yo' kan't come dat on dis chile. Dat gun stay pinted jus' lak she is; an' hit goes off too ef yo' don' do what I says, mighty sudden."

"Just as you say," replied Dick, cheerfully. "But what do you want me to do?"

"I wants yo' to unlock dat air safe."

"Can't do it. I don't know the combination."

"Huh," the negro grunted. "Yo' kan't gib me no such guff es dat. Move sudden now."

"You're making a mistake," said Dick, earnestly. "I have only desk room here. I don't work for Mr. Wicks, and have no business with the safe. Besides, they don't keep money there anyway."

"Taint money I'm after dis trip, mistah; hit's papers. Dey's in a big leather pocket-book, tied with er sho' string."

Like a flash, Dick understood. The papers were in the safe, but as he said, he did not know the combination. "Papers?" he said, in a tone of surprise, in order to gain time.

"Yes sah, papers; dat yo' keeps in dar." He nodded toward the safe. "I wants em quick." The hand that held the revolver came slowly to a level with the dark face.

"Shoot if you want to," said Dick, easily, "but I'm telling you the truth. I don't know how to open the safe."

The negro looked puzzled, and Dick, seeing his advantage instantly, let his hand fall easily on his leg, close to the paper weight. "Besides," he said carelessly, "if its my papers you want, that's my desk behind--" He checked himself suddenly as though he had said more than he intended.

The negro's face lighted at what he thought was Dick's mistake, and forgetting himself, half turned in the revolving chair, while the muzzle of the revolver was shifted for just the fraction of a second. It was enough. With the quickness of a serpent, Dick's hand shot out, and the heavy weight caught the negro above the right ear, and with a groan he slid from the chair to the floor.

When the black ruffian regained consciousness, Dick was still sitting on the edge of the table, calmly swinging his feet, but in his hand was his visitor's weapon.

"Well," he said, quietly, "you've had quite a nap. Do you feel better? Or do you think one of these pills would help you?" He slowly cocked and raised the revolver.

"Don't shoot. Don't shoot, sah."

"Why not?" said Dick, coldly, but with the smile still on his face.

That smile did the business. Oaths and threats the black man could understand; but a man who looked deliberately along a cocked revolver, with a smile on his face, was too much for him. He begged and pleaded for his life.

"Tell me who sent you here?"

"Mistah Goodrich."

Dick was startled, though his face showed no surprise.

"The old gentleman?"

"'No sah, Mistah Frank."

"How did he know that I had any papers?"

"I don' know sah; he only said as how he wanted dem; an' he's er waitin' 'round de cornah in de kerrige."

This was a new feature in the situation. Dick was puzzled. At last he stepped to the phone and, still covering the negro with the revolver, he rang up central and called for Mr. Wicks' residence. When the answer came, he said easily, "Excuse me for disturbing you, Mr. Wicks, but I have a man here in the office who wants to get into your safe, and I need you badly. You had better come in the back way."

"I'll be with you in a shake," was the reply; "hold him down till I get there." And a few minutes later the old gentleman knocked at the door. Dick admitted him and then burst into a hearty laugh at his strange appearance; for in his haste, Uncle Bobbie had simply pulled on a pair of rubber boots and donned an overcoat. With the exception of these articles, he was in his nightshirt and cap. In his hand, he carried a pistol half as long as his arm; but he was as calm as Dick himself, though breathing hard. "To-be-sure," he puffed, "I'm--so--plagey--fat--can't hurry--worth cent--wind's no good--have to take--to smokin' agin--sure."

Dick explained the situation in a few words; "I wouldn't have called you sir, if young Goodrich were not in it. But--but--you see--I don't know what to do," he finished, lamely.

"To-be-sure," said Uncle Bobbie, "I know. To-be-sure. Sometimes a bad feller like him gets tangled up with good people in such a way you jist got t'er let 'em alone; tares an' wheat you know; tares and wheat. To-be-sure Christianity aint 'rithmetic, and you can't save souls like you'd do problems in long division, ner count results like you'd figger interest. What'd ye say?--Suppose you skip down to the corner and fetch him up here."

Dick glanced at the negro. "Never you mind him," said the old gentleman, with a fierce scowl. "Your uncle'll shoot the blamed head off him if he so much as bats an eye; he knows it too." And he trained the long gun on the trembling black.

Dick slipped out of the back door and soon returned holding Frank firmly by the collar. As they entered, Uncle Bobbie said to the negro, "Now's yer chance, Bill; git out quick 'fore we change our minds." And the astonished darkey bolted.

"Now Frank," said the old gentleman kindly, when Dick had placed his prisoner in a chair, "tell us all about it." And young Goodrich, too frightened almost to speak above a whisper, told the whole miserable story.

"Too bad; too bad," muttered Uncle Bobbie, when Frank had finished. "To-be-sure, taint no more'n I expected; gamblin' church members ain't got no call to kick if their children play cards fer money. What'll we do, Dick?"

Dick was silent, but unseen by Frank, he motioned toward the door.

[Illustration: "Too bad, too bad, muttered Uncle Bobbie."]

Uncle Bobbie understood. "I reckon yer right," he said, slowly, "tares an' wheat--tares an' wheat. But what about them notes?"

"I'll fix Whitley," replied Dick.

Frank looked at him in wonder.

"Air you sure you can do it?" asked Uncle Bobbie; "'cause if you can't--"

"Sure," replied Dick; "I'll write him a line tonight." Then to Frank: "You can go now, sir, and don't worry about Jim Whitley; he will never trouble you by collecting the notes."

Frank, stammering some unintelligible reply, rose to his feet.

"Wait a bit young man," said Uncle Bobbie, "I want to tell ye somethin' before ye go. To-be-sure, I don't think ye'll ever be a very bad citizen, but you've shown pretty clearly that ye can be a mighty mean one. An' I'm afraid ye'll never be much credit to the church, 'cause a feller's got to be a man before he can be much of a Christian. Pieces of men like you don't count much on either side; they just sort o' fill in. But what ye want to do is to quit tryin' so blamed hard to be respectable and be decent. Now run on home to yer maw and don't tell nobody where ye've been to-night. Mr. Falkner he will look after yer friend Whitley."