Chapter XLII. Justice
 

"The last shadow of his Corinthian ministry had been lifted from his soul."

Early the next morning Dan and the old Doctor set out for Wheeler's Ford. It was the nearest point, and while the fishing was not so good as at other places they knew the spot was what they wanted. This was one of the days when they would go fishing--but not for fish.

Leaving their rig by the roadside near the fence, the two friends wandered away up the stream; casting their hooks now and then at the likely places; taking a few fish; pausing often to enjoy the views of silver water, over-hanging trees, wooded bluffs, rocky bank or grassy slope, that changed always with the winding of the creek.

Returning to the rig for their lunch and to give the old horse his generous allowance, they went downstream in the afternoon, this time leaving their rods behind.

"Really, you know," said the Doctor, "the tackle is such a bother on this kind of a fishing trip." At which sage remark Dan's laugh rang out so freely that the woods on the other side of the little valley gave back the merry sound.

Dan felt strangely light-hearted and free that day. The Doctor thought the lad was more like himself than he had been for months. The truth is that Dan's gladness was akin to the gladness of home-coming. He felt as one who, having been for long years in a foreign land, returns to his own country and his own people. He was again a man among his fellow-men, with no barrier between him and his kind. Once more he was in the world to which he belonged, and it was a good world.

There was, too, a strange, delightful feeling of nearness to her--the woman he loved. He had had no word since she left Corinth, nor did he know where she was. He would never find her again, perhaps, but he no longer belonged to a world separate and apart from her world. He felt nearer to her even than when they were together that last time in the old Academy yard.

Dan was conscious, too, of a sense of freedom--of a broader, fuller life than he had ever known. Through the old Doctor's timely words, setting his thoughts into new channels, he had come out of his painful experience with a certain largeness of vision that made him stronger. He had found himself. He did not know yet what he would do; he had plans dimly formed, but nothing fixed. What did it matter? Somewhere he felt his garden waited for him; he would find his work. He was free from the deadening influence of the cast-iron monument and that, for the moment, was enough. So far as his Corinthian ministry was concerned only one shadow, out of all the dark cloud of his troubled experience remained. When that was lifted he would turn his back upon Corinth forever, but until then he did not feel free to go.

They were lying on the grassy bank of a woodland pasture, where a herd of cattle grazed or lay contentedly in the shade of the scattered trees.

"Heigh-ho," said the Doctor, "I believe I will go with you, lad."

For some time they had been silent and it was almost as though the old man had spoken to his companion's thoughts.

"Go where?" asked Dan, turning over on his side and half-raising himself on his elbow.

"Why home to Mutton Hollow, of course. You'll be leaving pretty soon now, I reckon."

"I suppose so," mused Dan vaguely. "But I'm not going home."

The old Doctor sat up. "Not going home!"

Dan smiled. "Not just yet," he answered. "I want to run about a little first."

"Uh-huh," the Doctor nodded. "Want to get your hair dry and your shirt on right side out before you face the folks."

Dan laughed. "Perhaps I want to look for my garden," he said.

"Good!" ejaculated the other, now very much in earnest. "Let me help you, lad. You know what I have always hoped for you. My profession needs--."

Dan interrupted gently, "No. No Doctor, not that. I have a notion--but there--it's all too vague yet to even discuss. When I am ready to go home I'll write you and you can meet me there. Will you?"

The old man hid his disappointment, answering heartily, "Sure I will! I'll be there when you arrive, to help kill the fatted calf." He did not tell Dan of a letter from his mother urging him, for certain reasons, to visit them, or that he had already promised her to be with them when Dan should return.

The shadows were beginning to stretch toward the river, and the cattle were moving slowly in the direction of the farmyard, hidden somewhere beyond the fringe of timber, when the two friends went leisurely back to the road to find their rig and start for home.

Climbing the fence they paused and--seated on the top rail--watched a team and buggy just coming down the opposite bank of the stream to cross the ford. Midway the horses stopped to drink.

"By George," muttered the Doctor, "it's our friend the Judge!"

The same instant, Dan recognized the man in the buggy. With the recognition all the brightness went out of his face--as a cloud, all the sadness returned.

"Doctor," Dan said, slipping down from the fence as he spoke, "excuse me a minute. I must speak to that man."

The Doctor kept his place on the fence, while Dan stepped into the road. The team, when they had left the ford, stopped as they reached him.

"How do you do, Doctor?" called the man in the buggy in a loud voice; then to Dan, "Well, sir, what do you want now?"

Dan stood near the horses' heads, his eyes fixed on their driver, and the Judge, seeing the sorrow in his face, misunderstood, as always.

"Judge Strong," said Dan. "You are the only man in the world with whom I am not at peace. I cannot be content to leave Corinth, sir, with anything between us."

The crafty Judge thought he understood. He took Dan's words, with his manner, as an acknowledgment of defeat; an act of submission. The Elder had not believed that the young man had really wished to leave the ministry. He was quite sure now that the preacher, recognizing at last the power that had thrust him from his position and place in the church, wished to sue for peace, that the same power might help him to another position. So this big upstart was tamed at last, was he?

The Doctor, sitting on the fence and hearing every low-spoken word, held a different view of the situation.

"Well," said the Judge haughtily.

Dan hesitated. "I--I wished to ask a favor, sir; one that I feel sure a Christian could not refuse."

Now the Judge was confident of his position and power. He grew still more dignified and looked at Dan with the eye of a master.

"Well, out with it. It is growing late and I must be going."

"You will remember, sir, that the last time I called on you in your home, you made certain grave charges against three women who are my friends."

"I repeated only the common--"

"Wait, please," interrupted Dan. "This is a matter between you and me. I understand that you were angry and spoke hastily. Won't you please retract those words now?" Dan's voice was almost pleading in its sad slowness; his eyes were on the Judge with an anxious, appealing look. Disappointed at the request so different from that which he had expected, the Judge angrily answered, "Stand out of my way; I have no time for this, sir!"

But quietly, carelessly it seemed, Dan laid one hand on the back of the nearest horse, almost touching the rein, and moved a step or two closer to the buggy.

"Sir, I am sure you do not understand. Miss Farwell and I--I had hoped to make her my wife. We--we parted because of the church."

The Doctor on the fence felt a lump in his throat at the pain in the boy's voice. Dan continued, "I am telling you, sir, so that you will understand. Surely you cannot refuse to take back your words under the circumstances."

"Oh, I see," sneered the Judge. "You lost the girl because of the church and then you lost the church! A fine mess you made of your pious interference with other people's business, didn't you?" And then he laughed. Looking straight into those sad, pleading eyes--he laughed.

"The damned fool," muttered the old Doctor on the fence.

"Am I to understand that you refuse to retract your words after my explanation?" Dan's tone was mildly doubtful.

The Judge was well pleased at what he had heard.

"I have absolutely nothing to take back, sir." He laughed again. "Now if that is all, stand aside!"

But suddenly the light in Dan's eyes flashed red.

"No!" he cried, "that is not all!" With a long step he reached the side of the buggy.

The next moment the Judge found himself on the ground.

"Wh--what do you mean sir?" he roared. "Take your hands off of me!"

Dan's voice was trembling with rage, but he spoke deliberately.

"You unspeakable cur, I have felt sorry for you because of your warped and twisted nature; because you seemed so incapable of being anything more than you are. I have given you a chance to act like a man, and--you--you laugh at me! You escaped punishment for your theft from that poor widow. You have escaped from God knows how many such crimes. But now, in the name of the people you have tricked and robbed under the cover of business, in the name of the people you have slandered and ruined under cover of the church, I'm going to give you what such a contemptible rascal as you are, deserves."

The Judge was a large man, in the prime of life, but his natural weapons of warfare were those of the fox, the coyote and their kin. Cornered, he made a show of resistance, but he was as a child in the hands of the young giant, who thrashed him until he lay half-senseless, moaning and groaning in pain, on the ground.

When Dan at last drew back the Doctor, who through it all had remained quietly seated on the fence--an interested spectator--climbed down from his position and came slowly forward. Looking the Judge over with a professional eye he turned to Dan with a chuckle.

"You made a mighty good job of it, lad; a mighty good job. Lord, how I envied you! Chuck him into his buggy now, and I'll take him home. You can follow in our rig."

So they went home in the dusk of the evening. And the old Doctor told around town a tale of how the Judge had met with an accident at Wheeler's Ford that would keep him in the house for quite a spell.

Dan spent his last evening in Corinth with Dr. Harry and the next morning he left. The last shadow of his Corinthian ministry had been lifted from his soul.

Corinth still talks of the great days that are gone, and the greater days that are to come, while still the days that are, are dead days--shadowed by the cast-iron monument which yet holds its place in the heart of the town, and makes of the community a fit home for the Ally.

Judge Strong has gathered to himself additional glory and honor by his continued activity and prominence in Memorial Church and in his denomination, together with his contributions to the various funds for state and national work.

Elder Jordan has been gathered to his fathers. But Nathaniel came to feel first, the supreme joy of seeing his daughter Charity proudly installed as the assistant pastor to the last of Dan's successors. They live at the old Jordan home and it is said he is the most successful preacher that the Memorial Church has ever employed, and the prospects are he will serve for many years to come.

Denny, through his minister friend, has received his education and--surrounded now by the books he craved--cultivates another garden, wherein he bids fair to grow food for men quite as necessary as cabbages or potatoes. Deborah is proud and happy with her boy; who, though he be crippled in body, has a heart and mind stronger than given to many.

The Doctor seldom goes fishing now, though he still cultivates his roses and, as he says, meddles in the affairs of his neighbors. And still he sits in his chair on the porch and watches the world go by. Martha says that, more and more, the world, to the Doctor, means the doings of that minister Dan Matthews.

It was a full month after Dan left Corinth when he wrote his old friend that he was going home. The Doctor carefully packed his fishing tackle and started for Mutton Hollow.