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Fred won’t go back on me. Blood’s thicker than water, and if I have been
harsh - well, even if I _have_, my money will be as acceptable as that
old skunk’s. Yes, I’ll run out in a day or so. And, Toby, I’ll not even
touch on the woman-and-child affair. He may think it never got out; he
may believe she’s kept it quiet. In the letters he wrote me, he never
once alluded to it, and that shows he is not ready to admit it, anyway.
No, we won’t push that on him at such a time; he never _would_ want to
come home if he knew there had been such an uproar.”




CHAPTER XVII

|SIMON WALTON had been away a week, and the force at the bank had not
heard from him, when one morning Toby received a telegram from him dated
that day in Atlanta. The carefully chosen ten words ran as follows:

“_Meet me with horse and buggy at afternoon up train_.”

So Toby went down to the old man’s house, and, unassisted, got out the
gaunt animal and the time-worn vehicle with the dilapidated leather
hood, and drove to the station. He was in a fine glow of appreciation of
the compliment implied by the telegram’s being addressed solely to him,
and by the additional fact that on returning from former journeys Walton
had either walked home or taken the cars. Toby told himself, with no
little unction, that it meant that his employer had something of a
confidential nature to impart.

The train had scarcely come to a standstill when Simon, who was on the
front platform of the first passenger-coach, sprang down, valise in
hand, and, looking much the worse for the dust and fine cinders that lay
on him like frost of the infernal regions, walked stiffly toward Toby
and the buggy.

“Well, I see you got my wire,” was his greeting, as he relinquished the
valise and allowed Toby to put it behind the seat in the buggy.

“Yes, I got it all right,” the clerk responded. “Shall we drive home or
to the bank?”

Walton waited till Toby was in the seat beside him; then he replied:
“Well, we may as well head for home, though I reckon we could take a
sort o’ roundabout direction through the edge of town. I want to tell
you what I did out there, and we might not have as good a chance later.
My wife will be nagging the life out of me for particulars, and while
there are no particulars in this thing that she has any concern in, if I
was to be cornered somewhere with you right at the start she’d think it
strange. Then, on the other hand, if me and you slid off together the
very minute I got to the bank, the rest might think I was partial, and
so I thought this slow ride was the very idea.”

“Yes, of course, Mr. Walton. I suppose you saw Fred?”

“Oh yes, but not the first shot out of the box.” Walton took off his hat
and wiped the perspiration from his brow, upon which lay the red imprint
of his hatband, and smiled sheepishly. “The truth is, Toby, the nigher I
got to that blamed town the sillier I felt, till by the time I was there
and duly quartered at what they told me was their best hotel I hardly
knew my hat from a hole in the ground. You see, my predicament was
peculiar, and would have been odd to _any_ man in the plight I was in. I
didn’t know but two souls in the town. One of ‘em was not only the great
high mucky-muck of the place, but a man I’d called a thief and a
liar and kicked plumb out of my sanctum when he had called to do me a
_favor_; and the other was - well, he was my only son, who I had treated
like a yellow dog. You see, I knew that downright apologies was what I
owed _both_ of ‘em; but, Toby, let me tell you something odd - I don’t
know how to account for it: but, as just and upright as I’ve always been
in my dealings in a _general_ way, I never, in so many plain words, ever
told a human being I was sorry. I have been that way, and was willing
to try to sort o’ _look_ it, in cases where I was _dead_ wrong; but I’d
rather take a thousand lashes on my bare back any day than come right
out and beg a fellow’s pardon.”

“I understand,” Toby said, sympathetically. “A great many folks are that
way.”

“Well, I don’t think I’m like a great many folks,” Walton replied, as
his eyes rested on the back of his horse, “but I couldn’t swallow that
pill. So there I was, registered at that fine joint, with a front room
all to myself, overlooking the street, and the clerks and nigger porters
looking at me, same as to say, ‘Well, what is your game? Are you a
whiskey drummer, bank-examiner, detective, stock-drover, or escaped
convict?’ I was like a fish out of water. I didn’t know what to do or
how to make any sort of start. I sat round the office half the time, and
the rest I was flopping about in my room. The first day passed that way,
and the next night, in which I had hardly got a wink of sleep. There
was a bar-room and gambling-hell right under me, and I could hear some
whizzing thing and balls rolling, and a deep voice calling out in some
game or other. It was a gay town, and I was in the middle of it. The
next morning I determined I’d write Fred a note and let him know where
I was at, but I’d no sooner got it ready and backed and sealed than I
recalled that Fred wasn’t using his own name, and that a note addressed
to him in the old style might cause talk, and so I tore it up. Then
I ventured out and, half-scared to death, actually walked by the big
store - on the opposite side of the street, though - and peeped in through
the windows. It was as busy as a beehive during a swarm, but I couldn’t
see head nor tail of Fred. All at once I took the bit in my mouth and
started across the street to go in, but was stopped short. And what do
you reckon done it, Toby?”

“I can’t imagine, Mr. Walton,” said the clerk, deeply interested.

“Toby, it was that new sign you spoke about - ‘Stephen Whipple & Son.’ It
was on the front of the big red building, and seemed to me to be just so
many long, black letters stalking clean across the sky. ‘Stephen Whipple
& Son,’ and the last word, small as it was, overtopped all the rest.
The thing simply knocked me silly. Wasn’t it Saint Paul (it was _one_ of
them fellows in the good Book) that fell down in some great light that
blazed out over him? Mine wasn’t a light; it wasn’t wind; it wasn’t
a kick in the jaw from an army mule, but it hit me like all three
combined. I was mad; I was sorry; I was ashamed; but I couldn’t walk
under that dad-blasted sign. It hung over them doors like a long white
sword of an enemy ready to chop me into halves.

“I whirled about and went back to my room and actually hid the rest of
the day, wondering how on earth I was going to do the job. Once I packed
up my valise and started down to pay my bill, with the intention of
shirking the whole thing; but I saw that wouldn’t do. So I passed
another day. I read my Bible a little, and I reckon I prayed some. I
don’t know, Toby, but I would have bowed down before a heathen idol to
have got help out of my predicament. I remembered what you said about
seeing Fred at Whipple’s house, and the next night I went out and
inquired the way to his place. I found it, and, having nothing better
to do, I walked clean around it like you did. Nobody was in sight, but
I could see lights inside, and then the thought came to me that Fred, my
son, maybe, was at that very minute in there keeping company with that
old man and woman, and that made me feel as bad as the sign had. I tried
to argue that I’d been right in pinning down on the boy for what he had
done; but I knew there was no stability to my point, for that fat chap
had secured better results through a different method, and _he_ wasn’t
no blood _kin_. So I went back to the hotel, and made another night of
it. I wasn’t like you. I couldn’t talk to strangers in an off-hand way
about it. I tried once to the clerk behind the counter, but I couldn’t
make it go. He looked at me mighty curious, and I changed the subject. I
think I asked him if that State wa’n’t heavy on hog-raising.”

“You were in an embarrassing position,” Toby remarked, as he shook the
drooping lines over the plodding horse’s back.

“I never would have got out of it if it hadn’t been by pure accident,”
Walton said. “The office of the hotel was a sort of meeting-place for
the young men of the town of an evening, and there was a little smoking
and writing room off of it. I was sitting there on the third evening,
and the office was thronged with young chaps. Some sort of entertainment
was on hand at the opera-house across the street, for a band was playing
outside, and the young men in their best outfits were smoking and
chatting in the office, when who should I see come in but Fred. He came
in at the front door in a swallowtail suit with a light overcoat on his
arm, and I tell you the crowd all made way for him. Toby, I am an old
man; I’ve been through the rubs; I’ve seen near and dear comrades
shot down at my side on the field of battle; I have had all sorts of
experiences; but the sight of my boy there looking so much older and
more dignified than when I last saw him - a sort of king among his
kind - with this one and that one giving him the glad hand, and hailing
him right and left with words and smiles of welcome while I was slinking
off there - well, Toby, I don’t want to live that over again; I don’t;
as God is my Creator, I don’t! I sat there watching him through the door
like - well, you’ll have to imagine it, and draw your own conclusions; I
can’t tell you how I felt. I was dumb; I was speechless. It was like
a double nightmare. I haven’t shed enough tears in my life to drown a
gnat, but I wanted to cry good and hearty then.”

“And you met him - I know you did,” Toby broke in. “I see it in your
face.”

“Yes, as luck would have it, by accident; he left the others and come
right into the room, and I saw that he’d recognized me, for he turned
pale as death, and stopped in front of me. Then I saw him steady
himself, and a pitiful, resigned look come over him. If I live through
eternity, I’ll never forget his first words. What do you think he said?”

“I can’t imagine, Mr. Walton.”

“Toby, he said this - he said this, and the words will haunt me to my
grave. They will go with me into the very depths of my last abode. He
said: ‘Oh, father, you have caught me! You have come to take me back!
Well, I am ready!’

“Toby Lassiter, talk about your - your hells on earth; talk about your
flames of despair, the worm that dieth not, and the like. I had ‘em all.
I couldn’t speak. I didn’t even have the sense or power to shake hands,
and the poor boy misunderstood even that. He pulled up a chair, shaking
like a leaf. Nobody was in the room but us two. Then somehow I managed
to say that he was mistaken, and that I hadn’t come there for _that_
reason. I wanted to talk to the point and justify myself, but I was
worse than a stuttering idiot at a spelling-bee. Like a fool, I started
in to say that I had heard a lot about the progress of the town, and he
thought I had some speculation on foot and had run on him by accident.
I no sooner saw that he thought that than I got tangled up worse
than ever. Nothing short of begging his forgiveness would set things
straight, and I couldn’t have got that out to have saved my soul from
perdition.”

“That certainly _was_ awkward,” Toby burst out, like an enthusiast at a
play. “It was bad.”

“I reckon we never would have understood each other, Toby, but we
started to walk out together, and went along to a side street that run
into a park where it wasn’t so light. Somehow we went inside, and before
I knew it I had laid my hand on his arm. I never had done a thing like
that in all my life, and all of a sudden we stopped and he looked right
in my face. It was too much for me, Toby. I couldn’t hold in any longer.
But it didn’t do any harm, for I saw he understood me, and that was
enough. He was the happiest creature I ever laid eyes on; he laughed and
cried and petted me, and said that he loved me a hundred times more than
he did old Whipple and his wife. Then we sat down on a bench under the
trees and talked it all over. He talked to me more openly than he ever
did before. He wanted to come home above all things, but he wanted to
put it off awhile. He told me about him and Margaret Dearing. She was
the only real sweetheart he’d ever had, he said, and he could never care
for anybody else. It seems that they met by accident awhile back in New
York, and she gave him to understand that she didn’t care any more for
him. He said it was because she knew of his shortage at the bank. But I
told him how you and me had kept that quiet, and not to let that bother
him. But he told me something that we didn’t know: he said he had
confessed it to her brother the night he left. He said a woman as
high and proud as she was never could overlook anything bordering on
dishonesty, no matter how much it was atoned for.”

“She wouldn’t be so hard on him if _that_ was all, Mr. Walton,” Toby
said. “But, of course, she heard about the other thing; in fact, the
girl and the child are right there under her eyes.”

“That occurred to me while me and him was talking,” Walton said; “but
I simply couldn’t bring up a nasty thing like that at such a time.
I thought that might as well rest; in fact, it looked to me like he
thought his name had never been mixed up with it. You see, Toby, maybe
the woman promised that it shouldn’t get out, and has kept him from
knowing of the report in order to bleed his pocket. At any rate, he
don’t seem to suspect what folks are saying here at home. I know he
wants to keep _me_ in the dark, for he boldly asked me about Dora Barry,
among other inquiries. I was astonished at it, but he wanted to know if
she’d ever got married, and when I told him no, he went on to say that
she was the best friend he’d ever had among the home girls, and that she
had a beautiful character, and the like. He went on to say that she was
the finest painter of pictures he had ever seen, and that when he left
he was sure she would make a great artist out of her turn that way. He
asked me if she had put her talent to any use, and I told him if she had
I hadn’t heard about it. Then he said - he did - that he was going to sit
down and write her a friendly letter, and tell her where he was at, now
that me and him had made up. I thought he was piling it on pretty heavy,
you know, but I never let on.”

“That was best, of course,” Toby opined, reflectively. “Folks are not
apt to throw up a thing like that to a man who has turned over a new
leaf, and it may be many a year before he discovers how much has really
been talked on that line. But you didn’t tell me, Mr. Walton. Did you
see Fred’s - did you see Mr. Whipple?”

“It went powerfully against the grain, but I had to,” the banker said,
gruffly. “I was in for making a beeline back home without having to
swallow that dose, but Fred wouldn’t hear to it. He said the old skunk
would feel hurt. I didn’t care a dad-dratted cent whether he felt hurt
or not; in fact, I felt hurt to have him dragged in at all. I’m glad the
boy has landed in such a pile of clover, but I don’t like Whipple any
too much, and I reckon that dang sign of his was my Belshazzar’s warning
on the wall. But it is this way - well, you know what I mean. I reckon a
body can look at it from any direction - level, sink, or angle - and the
fact will still stick out that the boy is divided, and will have to
remain divided from now on. That ain’t usual, Toby; it is crooked. It
sort o’ gives the lie to my success as a father. I won’t go into it any
further. The whole thing out there, though, would have gone off smooth
enough if that old cuss hadn’t been in it. He had a slobbery way of
talking to Fred, and put his hands on him every chance he got. They
asked me out to dinner at Whipple’s house to meet the old woman, but I
drew the line at that. I was sure she’d act the fool as bad, or worse,
than Whipple had, and so I wouldn’t go. I never was mushy in that way
myself, and I can’t stomach them that are. Whipple is going to leave him
all he’s got, and I want Fred to get all he can of the good things in
life, but I’ll be dad-blamed if I wanted ‘em to come exactly that way.

“Whipple set there in his office and made out a list of his possessions,
and it looked to me like he was making everything look as big as he
could out of pure spite. Not once did he say - Toby, he didn’t say a
single time that I had _any_ sort of justification in pinning down on
the boy like I did. He might have done it, but he didn’t. He always
cocked himself up and talked in a roundabout, sneaking fashion, like he
was giving underhanded digs. Toby, I want the boy back here, that’s
all. I want him back here in the bank to take my place after I’m gone.
I don’t think I could stand it to be beat to a cold, dead finish by that
old chump in a fight of exactly this kind. Whipple said Fred could sort
o’ play between the two places - stay awhile here and awhile there, but
I want to tie him down good and tight to old Stafford. I’ve got an idea
how to do it, Toby, and it ain’t a bad one.”

“What is it, Mr. Walton?” the clerk asked, eagerly.

“Why, Toby, I ain’t much at match-making, but I am going to try my
hand at the game. Now, if I could only persuade Margaret Dearing to be
sensible, like most women always have been in regard to the early slips
of the men they marry - if I could persuade her to overlook the only
thing that now remains against the boy - ”

“They would get married, and both would prefer to live here!” Toby broke
in, eagerly.

“That’s the point, Toby,” Walton said. “You’ve hit it. Now drive me
home.”




CHAPTER XVIII

|ONE afternoon, three days after this, Simon Walton drove down the
street to Dearing’s, and, alighting at the front gate, he carefully
haltered his horse to the hitching-post with a rope he always carried
under the buggy-seat. Then he opened the gate and trudged up the walk to
the door.

Margaret saw him from the window of her room upstairs, and, thinking
that he had called to see her uncle or her brother, she hurried
down-stairs.

“Did you want to see my uncle?” she asked, sweetly.

“No, I didn’t, Miss Margaret.” Walton had taken off his broad-brimmed
felt hat, and stood shifting it awkwardly from one hand to the other, a
look at once grave and agitated on his gaunt face.

“Well, my _brother_ is at his office,” the girl threw tentatively into
the pause that had ensued; “at least, he said he was going there when he
left here about two o’clock.”

“I didn’t want to see him, _either_,” and the old man tried to smile,
but the effort was a grim failure. “The truth is, Miss Margaret, if I
may make so bold, I wanted to see _you_. There is a little matter I sort
o’ thought you and me might talk over maybe to mutual gain and profit.”

“You want to see me, really?” Margaret started. “Well, won’t you come
in?”

Walton glanced into the wide hall doubtfully and fanned himself with his
hat. “I don’t know; it must be kind o’ stuffy inside on a sweltering day
like this, ain’t it?” he said, awkwardly. “Ain’t there a place out under
the trees somewhere where we could set a minute? I was here one day with
the General, and round that way - ” Walton nodded his shaggy head to the
right and broke off helplessly.

“Oh yes, and there are some chairs there, too,” Margaret answered. She
was now quite grave, and she led the way with a certain erectness of
carriage and with an air of restraint that was visible even to the crude
sensibilities of her caller.

The chairs under the trees were reached. Walton seized the most
comfortable-looking one, and for no obvious reason settled it firmly on
the sod. “Now,” he said, and with bended body he waited for her to take
it. When she had complied, he took a seat himself, dropping his hat on
the grass beside him, only to recover it without delay, that it might
rest on his sharp, unsteady knee. He looked up at the unclouded sky, at
the overhanging boughs of the big oaks under which they sat. He cleared
his throat, looked at Margaret, and then glanced over his shoulder at
the roof and gables of the old house.

“You said, I think, that you came to see me,” Margaret reminded him,
with as much voice as she could command, for all sorts of bewildering
possibilities were flitting through her brain.

“Yes, I did, Miss Margaret,” he said, with a slight start. “If you was a
man, now, I think we could get this thing over with in a short time;
but I never had much dealings with women - that is, except in a purely
business way. I can tell a woman she is over-checking, or offering me
bad security, or needs better identification than a pair of bright eyes
and rosy cheeks will furnish; but this thing that’s riz between me and
you is plumb different. In the bank they come to _me_, but in this case,
you see, _I’m_ the supplicant. Miss Margaret, I’ve come to see you about
my boy - about Fred.”

“Oh, you want to find him, and you think that perhaps I - ” She went no
further. Her first impulsive thought was that Walton had in some way
heard of her meeting with Fred in New York and had come to obtain
information as to his address.

“Oh no; I know where he is well enough.” The way seemed easier to the
old man now, and he went on rapidly. “He is at Gate City, Oklahoma, Miss
Margaret. He has been there all this time, and is doing mighty well; in
fact, he has gone and got rich. You know the West is a powerful field
for fresh, young blood to forge ahead in, and Fred struck it just right.
He is a partner in a whopping big wholesale business there. He has been
writing to me - that is, off and on. There _was_ a little cash difference
between his account and mine, and he finally made it good out of his
earnings. I - I never was much of a hand to talk my business, you know,
so I’ve never let on here at Stafford exactly how he _was_ making out,
but a time has come when I want to set him as nigh straight as possible
before the community he was born and raised in; in fact, I want him to
come home.”

“Yes, of course.” Margaret’s cold, pale lips formally dropped the words
as her visitor paused and wiped his perspiring brow and fanned himself
with his hat..

“Yes, I’ve just been out there to sort o’ settle up a little deal
betwixt me and the man - twixt me and Fred’s business partner, and I must
say the whole outlook was good. You know I reckon that everybody in this
town sort o’ thought before Fred went off that he never would amount to
much in a business way, but he is all right now. So, having nothing much
to do at the bank this hot day, why, I thought I’d drive up here and see
you about it.”

“See _me_ about it? I really don’t understand,” the young lady faltered.

“Well, to come right to the point, Miss Margaret” - Walton avoided her
wavering glance for a moment as he kicked the toe of his boot into an
unoffending tuft of grass and fairly uprooted it - “out there in Gate
City one night me and Fred had a sort o’ confidential talk about old
times, and one thing or other, and finally he broke down and told me how
much attached he had always been to you - never had cared for no other
woman, nor never would as long as the sun shone on the earth, and other
things to that effect.”

“Oh, Mr. Walton, please don’t!” Margaret cried out; but there was a glow
of irrepressible delight rising in her face, and her beautiful eyes were
sparkling. “I don’t think I want to talk about it.”

“I _have_ to,” the banker insisted, firmly. “I want him back here, Miss
Margaret; and, as it stands now, I’m afraid he never will come unless
you yield a point or two. He said his one and only spur to making a man
of himself had been the hope that - seeing that you hadn’t yet chosen
a partner - that you might some day or other consider his proposal. He
says, though, that he met you in New York, awhile back, and that you
deliberately turned him down. He said he couldn’t blame you, after all
that had happened, but he couldn’t help thinking that maybe it would be
as well for him never to come nigh you again. That was the way, I say,
that _he_ looked at it, blue and down-in-the-mouth, as the poor fellow
was during our confab; but I threw out a straw to him, so I did, Miss


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