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- The Rose in the Ring - 20/73 -


Whitman, after Whitman's death. Maybe granddaddy really signed the will, thinking it was the transfer. I--"

"Do you think your uncle wanted you to be hanged for something you didn't do,--for a murder he committed himself?"

"Why not? I was in the way. If they lynched me at once, he could feel very secure. Besides, he knew of the other will, dated years ago, which is in the bank at Richmond. Of course, the fraudulent will takes the place of the old one."

David did not then tell her of his stealthy return to Jenison Hall two nights after his flight and before the funeral. On this occasion he not only secured the envelope containing the three thousand dollars, hidden in his mother's black leather trunk, but from a place of concealment he was forced to hear such damning talk regarding himself that he again stole away, fully convinced that his wild design to charge his uncle with the crime would be absolutely suicidal.

A sharp exclamation from the girl brought him out of his last fit of abstraction. They were quite near to the tents.

"We are late," she cried nervously. "I didn't think of the time. The band is playing the waltz--that's the second piece before the tournament. We must hurry. Oh, I _do_ hope father has not missed us!"

There was abject terror in her voice.

"I'm so sorry," he murmured, apprehending the outcome for her alone. "We must make for the rear of the dressing-tent. Hurry, Christine."

They broke into a run, intending to make a wide circuit of the main- tops. She was breathless with anxiety. He grasped her arm to help her across the rough ground.

"If he knew, he would drive you away," she cried. She was not thinking of herself.

Near the dressing-tent they were met by Mrs. Braddock, who had started out to look for them.

"Hurry," she whispered. "Go in on the other side, Jack--quickly. Come this way, Christine. Your father is coming back through the main-top. Mr. Briggs and Professor Hanson are detaining him near the band section--talking of a change in the music. Oh, I've been so nervous!"

"Good-by, David," whispered Christine, as she flew to the sidewall. An instant later she disappeared, casting a quick glance up into his face as he gallantly lifted the canvas for her to pass under.

"I'm sorry," he murmured impulsively to Mrs. Braddock as she followed. Then he raced around the tent and bolted under the wall into the men's section.

Joey Grinaldi simply glared at him.

In two minutes he was out of his clothes and beginning to slip into the stripes.

"Here's Brad," hissed a friendly "Courtier," calling in through the flap, beyond which a dozen men and women were waiting to make the _grand entree_, or "tournament."

Braddock came in, his cigar wallowing in the throes of a vacuous but conciliatory smile. Every one stood ready for a shocking display of profanity.

"Jacky," he said, with amiable disregard for the novice's tardiness, "would you mind letting me take fifty dollars until to-morrow? There's a guy out here that threatens to attach us if I don't settle an outrageous bill for feed and provisions. I'm just forty-eight fifty short."

No one spoke. David did not even glance at Grinaldi or the others. He knew and they knew that there was no such claim against Braddock. He hesitated for an instant only. Then it was borne in upon him that Braddock may have heard of his walk with Christine and was demanding tribute.

He picked up his coat and deliberately drew from the lining a thin, folded bit of paper. It contained all the money that was in his possession at the time. He counted off five ten-dollar bills, replaced the remaining thirty dollars inside his striped shirt, and handed the tribute to Braddock.

"You're a damn' fine boy, Jacky," said the man. "I'll not forget this."

Later on he demonstrated the sincerity of the remark.

He came back when the show was half over, and with vast good nature took David over to where Mrs. Braddock and Christine were standing with wonder and doubt in their faces.

"I guess it's all right for us four to see a little more of each other," he said, but he did not look at his wife. "Jacky, you rascal, you _are_ a gentleman, and as such I introduce you to my family. Let's all be friends."

Mrs. Braddock's face went white. She understood the motive of the man. He meant to follow new methods in the effort to secure possession of David's money.

Christine beamed with delight. She kissed her father's stubbly cheek and called him a darling!

CHAPTER VII

THE BROTHERS CRONK

"Don't you tell 'im you've stuck that money away in a bank," was all that Joey Grinaldi said when David told him of Braddock's sudden change of front. It was a sentient bit of advice, showing that the wool was not to be pulled over Joey's eyes.

"I think I understand," said David gloomily. "But what am I to say to him?"

"Don't peep. Leave it to me. I'll tell 'im that you're talking of putting most of it into the business after you get safely over into Indiana or Illinois. That'll stave 'im off. But he's going to 'ave that money, one way or another, my lad. That's wot's on 'is mind."

The next morning, just after the parade, David went off for a walk in the town. His thoughts were of the evening before and the half-hour he had spent with Christine. He was thinking of her wonderfully sympathetic eyes, of the live touch of her hand on his arm, of the soft music in her voice, of the delicious words of faith and confidence she had whispered. He could still feel the tight clasp of her fingers on his arm; he could still hear the tremulous note in her voice.

And how gravely she had smiled at him in the ring! What a profession of deep loyalty there was in the glance she gave him when he passed her in the dressing-tent! The world seemed to have grown brighter for him all of a sudden. For the first time in weeks he whistled,--and it was a blithe air that he lilted, for, by nature, he was a blithe lad.

His reverie was abruptly disturbed. Turning a corner he came upon a group of town boys. They were making faces and hooting at a strange figure that crouched against a high board fence. David recalled this figure at once: a squat, hunchback lad who was to be seen at times behind the counter of the "snack stand." More than once had the strong, straight Virginian gazed with a certain pity upon the pale- faced cripple. He had been struck by the look of patient suffering in the boy's face.

But now that look was gone. The hunchback, who could have been no more than fifteen, was convulsed by rage. He was showing his teeth like a vicious dog. The most appalling flow of profanity came shrieking through his white lips. David was shocked. Never in all his life had he heard such unspeakable names as those which the tormented boy was screaming back at his tantalizers.

Suddenly he spat upon the biggest of his scoffers, following the act with a name so vile that the other leaped forward and struck him a heavy blow in the face.

This was too much for David. He dashed in and planted a stinging right-hander on the jaw of the enraged bully, sending him to the ground beside the hunchback, who was writhing there with blood on his lips.

For a second or two the fellow's companions, four in number, stood undecided. Then, with one accord, they rushed at David Jenison.

The Virginian was not skilled in the art of self-defense, but he was brave and cool and strong. He met the rush staunchly. To his own surprise his wild swings landed with amazing precision and the most gratifying effect. Two of his assailants reeled away under the savage impact of his blows. A stone, hurled by one of the young ruffians, struck him on the shoulder; another reached his face with a cutting blow of the fist. He felt the hot blood trickling down his cheek. But he stood squarely in front of the hunchback, his fists swinging like mad, half of his blows failing to land on the person of any one of his crowding, cursing adversaries.

Suddenly a new element entered into the one-sided conflict. A whirlwind figure dashed out of an alley hard by and came crashing into the thick of the fray.

"Dick! Dick!" shrieked the cowering cripple, the fiercest glee in his shrill voice.

"Always on hand," sang out the newcomer, slashing out right and left. "Old Nick-o'-time, my lads. So you'd jump on a cripple, would you? Here's a Christmas gift for you, you hayseed!"

Singing glibly after this fashion, the tall recruit laid about him with devastating effect. Three of the surprised town boys were sprawling on the ground; another was trying to scale the fence ahead of an expected boot-toe; the fifth was being soundly polished off by the exhilarated David. In less time than it takes to tell it, five terrified hoodlums were "streaking it" in as many directions, their chins high with a mighty resolve, their legs working like pinwheels, their eyes popping and their mouths spread in speechless endeavor. Five seconds later you couldn't have found one of them with a telescope.


The Rose in the Ring - 20/73

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