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- A Protegee of Jack Hamlin's - 32/32 -

of your sister." He would have drawn back to let the prodigal pass in alone, but the man appealingly seized his arm, and Grey was obliged to re-enter with him. He noticed, however, that he breathed hard.

They turned slightly towards their relative, but did not offer to shake hands with him, nor did he with them. He sat down sideways on an unoffered chair. "The old house got burnt!" he said, wiping his lips, and then drying his wet hair with his handkerchief.

As the remark was addressed to no one in particular it was some seconds before the elder brother replied: "Yes."

"Almira's growed."

Again no one felt called upon to answer, and Almira glanced archly at the young editor as if he might have added: "and improved."

"You've done well?" returned one of the brothers tentatively.

"Yes, I'm all right," said Jim.

There was another speechless interval. Even the conversational Grey felt under some unhallowed spell of silence that he could not break.

"I see the old well is there yet," said Jim, wiping his lips again.

"Where dad was once goin' to chuck you down for givin' him back talk," said the younger brother casually.

To Mr. Grey's relief and yet astonishment, Jim burst into a loud laugh and rubbed his legs. "That's so--how old times DO come back!"

"And," said the bright-eyed Almira, there's that old butternut-tree that you shinned up one day when we set the hounds on you. Goodness! how you scooted!"

Again Jim laughed loudly and nodded. "Yes, the same old butternut. How you DO remember, Almira?" This admiringly.

And don't you remember Delia Short?" continued Almira, pleased at the admiration, and perhaps a little exalted at the singular attention which the young editor was giving to those cheerful reminiscences. "She, you know, you was reg'larly sick after, so that we always allowed she kinder turned yo' brain afore you went away! Well! all the while you were courtin' her it appears she was secretly married to Jo--yo' friend--Jo Stacy. Lord! there was a talk about that! and about yo' all along thinkin' yo' had chances! Yo' friend here," with an arch glance at Grey, "who's allus puttin' folks in the newspapers, orter get a hold on that!"

Jim again laughed louder than the others, and rubbed his lips. Grey, however, offered only the tribute of a peculiar smile and walked to the window. "You say your father will return in an hour?" he said, turning to the elder brother.

"Yes, unless he kept on to Watson's."

"Where?" said Jim suddenly.

It struck Grey that his voice had changed--or rather that he was now speaking for the first time in his natural tone.

"Watson's, just over the bridge," explained his brother. "If he went there he won't be back till ten."

Jim picked up his India rubber cape and hat, said, "I reckon I'll just take a turn outside until he gets back," and walked towards the door. None of his relatives moved nor seemed to offer any opposition. Grey followed him quickly. "I'll go with you," he said.

"No," returned Jim with singular earnestness. "You stay here and keep 'em up cheerful like this. They're doing all this for YOU, you know; Almiry's just this chipper only on your account."

Seeing the young man was inflexible, Grey returned grimly to the room, but not until he had noticed, with some surprise, that Jim, immediately on leaving the house, darted off at a quick run through the rain and darkness. Preoccupied with this, and perhaps still influenced by the tone of the previous conversation, he did not respond readily to the fair Almira's conversational advances, and was speedily left to a seat by the fire alone. At the end of ten minutes he regretted he had ever come; when half an hour had passed he wondered if he had not better try to reach the Summit alone. With the lapse of an hour he began to feel uneasy at Jim's prolonged absence in spite of the cold indifference of the household. Suddenly he heard stamping in the porch, a muttered exclamation, and the voices of the two brothers in the hall. "Why, dad! what's up? Yo' look half drowned!"

The door opened upon the sodden, steaming figure of the old man whom he had met on the road, followed by the two sons. But he was evidently more occupied and possessed by some mental passion than by his physical discomfort. Yet strong and dominant over both, he threw off his wet coat and waistcoat as he entered, and marched directly to the fire. Utterly ignoring the presence of a stranger, he suddenly turned and faced his family.

"Half drowned. Yes! and I might have been hull drowned for that matter. The back water of the Fork is all over Watson's, and the bridge is gone. I stumbled onto this end of it in the dark, and went off, head first, into twenty feet of water! Tried to fight my way out, but the current was agin me. I'd bin down twice, and was going down for the third time, when somebody grabbed me by the scruff o' my neck and under the arm--so!--and swam me to the bank! When I scrambled up I sez: 'I can't see your face,' sez I, 'I don't know who you are,' sez I, 'but I reckon you're a white man and clear grit,' sez I, 'and there's my hand on it!' And he grabs it and sez, 'We're quits,' and scooted out o' my sight. And," continued the old man staring at their faces and raising his voice almost to a scream, "who do you think it was? Why, THAT SNEAKIN' HOUND OF A BROTHER OF YOURS--JIM! Jim! the scallawag that I booted outer the ranch five years ago, crawlin', writhin' back again after all these years to insult his old father's gray hairs! And some of you--by God--once thought that I was hard on him!"

. . . . . .

The sun was shining brightly the next morning as the young editor halted the up coach in the now dried hollow. As he was clambering to a seat beside the driver, his elbow was jogged at the window. Looking down he saw the face of Jim.

"We had a gay talk last night, remembering old times, didn't we?" said the prodigal cheerfully.

"Yes, but--where are you going now?"

"Back to Australia, I reckon! But it was mighty good to drop in on the old homestead once more!"

"Rather," said the editor, clinging to the window and lingering in mid-air to the manifest impatience of Yuba Bill; "but I say--look here!--were you QUITE satisfied?"

Jim's hand tightened around the young editor's as he answered cheerfully, "Yes." But his face was turned away from the window.

A Protegee of Jack Hamlin's - 32/32

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