The Young Bridge-Tender - or, Ralph Nelson's Upward Struggle
by Arthur M. Winfield
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It was a splendid day, with a stiff breeze blowing, and by noon Martinton was reached. Then, giving Ralph directions as to where the boat was to be left in Westville, Roy Parkhurst quit the boat, and, having eaten the lunch, the boy started on the return, never dreaming of the excitement in store for him.



Like his father before him, Ralph had always liked the water. He was perfectly familiar with the handling of all manner of small craft, and, had it paid, would have liked nothing better than to follow a life on the lakes.

But situations on the water which brought in a fair remuneration were scarce in the vicinity of Westville, and so the boy did not attempt a search for employment in that direction.

The half-day's job before him suited him exactly, and, after leaving Martinton, he settled back with his hand on the tiller and his eyes on the sails in great satisfaction.

"I wouldn't mind owning a boat like this," he thought, as the swift little craft cut along through the water. "Perhaps I might do very well taking out pleasure parties during the summer."

Inside of half an hour Martinton was left far behind. Then Ralph noted that the fair sky was gradually becoming overcast.

"I wonder if we are going to have a blow," he soliloquized. "It more than half looks like it."

About quarter of an hour later the breeze died out utterly. This was a bad sign, and the boy prudently lowered the jib and took a couple of reefs in the mainsail.

Presently came a low rumble of thunder from the southeast, and the sky grew darker and darker. There was no longer any doubt that a severe thunderstorm, preceded possibly by a squall, was close at hand.

Unwilling to take any risks in a boat not his own, Ralph lowered the mainsail entirely. Hardly had he done so when a fierce wind swept up the lake—a wind that presently raised itself almost to a hurricane.

The lightning began to flash all around him, followed by crash after crash of thunder. The water was churned up in great violence, and he was compelled to crouch low in the craft lest he be swept overboard and drowned.

Driven by the wind, the boat moved across the lake, until Ralph grew fearful that she would be driven up on the rocks and made a complete wreck. At the risk of losing some canvas, he let out the mainsail a bit and steered from the shore.

The rain came down by the bucketful, and it did not take much to soak him to the skin. There was no way of protecting himself; he must take it as it came. Fortunately it was warm, so he did not suffer so much as he might otherwise have done.

A half-hour passed, and Ralph was just congratulating himself that the worst was over, when a cry came out of the gloom to his left.

He strained his eyes in the direction, and after a few moments caught sight of an immense hay barge bearing down upon him. The hay barge had been towed by a steam tug, but the rope had parted, and the barge was now drifting at the mercy of the wind and current.

There was a man on the hay barge, thoroughly frightened, and it was he who was crying for assistance.

"Hullo, there! What's the matter?" cried Ralph, as he steered clear of the moving mass, for the hay barge was loaded to the water's edge.

"Help me!" cried the man. "I am all alone on this barge."

"Where is the tug?"

"I don't know. I fancy she struck on a rock, for we lost our reckoning, and ran too close to shore."

"I don't see how I can help you," returned Ralph. "My boat won't budge that big barge."

"Then take me on board, will you?" returned the man, with a shiver. "I ain't used to being out in the wind and rain."

"Yes, I'll take you in. Wait till I run up behind."

As best he could, Ralph swung his own craft around, and came up under the stern of the hay barge. The man ran from the side, and lowered himself onto the bow seat.

"There! I'm all right now," he said, as he stumbled back to Ralph's side. "What a beastly storm!" he went on.

"It is. What are you going to do about the barge?"

"I don't care what becomes of her," growled the man. "I was only a passenger on the tug, and went on the barge for fun. Let the captain pick her up as best he can."

"But you want to find the tug, don't you?" asked Ralph, in some surprise.

"Not if you will put me ashore. Where are you bound?"


"That will suit me first rate. Take me there, and I'll pay you the passage money instead of the tug captain."

"I'll take you there without pay," said Ralph.

At that moment a steam whistle sounded close at hand, and presently they beheld the steam tug, with the captain on the forward deck, gazing anxiously ahead.

"There she is!" cried the man Ralph had picked up.

"We'll call to the captain, and let him know where his hay barge is," replied Ralph.

He accordingly hailed those on the steam tug. Soon the craft was close beside him.

"Your barge is off in that direction," said Ralph, pointing with his hand.

"And I am here, captain, and going to stay here," put in Ralph's passenger. "No more hay barges for me."

"Don't you want to come on the tug?"


"All right then, suit yourself."

And the next moment the steam tug shot out of sight, in the direction in which the hay barge was drifting.

The storm now let up a bit, and Ralph was able to take a good look at the fellow beside him. He was a tall, strong-looking chap, with sharp black eyes, and a heavy head of dark hair. He wore a long mustache, and there was a slight scar directly in the center of his forehead.

"What's your name, youngster?" he asked, presently, as Ralph let out the mainsail.

Ralph told him.

"Mine is Dock Brady. I am a surveyor from Utica. Do you follow this sort of thing for a living?"

"No, sir."

"Just out for pleasure, eh?"

"Hardly that; I am returning the boat to Westville for a friend."

"Oh, I see." Dock Brady mused for a moment. "Westville is quite a place, I believe," he went on.

"Not so very large, sir."

"Larger than Silver Cove, though?"

"Oh, yes—twice as large."

"Quite a few summer boarders, eh?"

"Back of the village, yes. There are no folks stopping in the village itself."

"No, but that helps to liven up things, of course—buying stuff and mailing letters."

He paused again.

"Yes, they have to come there for goods, and that makes the stores do very well. And the post office is a lively enough place at mail times."

"Always is, when there are summer boarders around." The man laughed lightly. "Can I help you with the boat?" he went on, changing the subject.

"You can hold the tiller while I hoist the jib," said Ralph. "The storm is over, I guess."

The jib was unfurled and the mainsail let out full, and once again the little craft went bounding on her way.

Ralph did not take to his passenger's appearance, and said very little during the remainder of the trip. The man also relapsed into silence, as if resolving some scheme in his mind.

Before sundown Westville was reached. At the bridge the man got off, and tossed Ralph a silver dollar. In a moment more he was out of sight.

Little did Ralph imagine under what exciting circumstances he and Dock Brady were to meet again.



Mrs. Nelson was surprised to see Ralph come in almost soaked to the skin from the rain.

"Why, Ralph, why didn't you go under shelter!" she cried.

"Because I couldn't get under," he laughed, and then he explained that he had been on the lake instead of over to Eastport.

"And I've earned two dollars by the operation," he added.

"I am thankful you escaped injury by the storm," she shuddered. "It must have been fearful out on the water."

"It was pretty rough, I admit," he said. "But it is over now, and no harm done."

"You had better change your clothes before you sit down to eat."

"I will," said Ralph, and went upstairs for that purpose.

When he came down again he found the evening meal on the table, and, being hungry, he ate his full share.

Mother and son spent a quiet evening at home, and retired early. In the morning Ralph was up before sunrise, putting things in order around the house.

By eight o'clock he was on his way to Eastport. As he was crossing the bridge, Dan Pickley stopped him.

"Ain't you got an extra key to the bridge lock?" he asked. "I want one for myself and one for Andy Wilson, who is going to help me."

"There is but one key," returned Ralph. "I always left that in a safe place in the office, and whoever was here used it."

"Then you ain't got a duplicate?"

"No, I tell you."

"Oh, all right," responded Dan Pickley, and he pursed his lips. He was about to say more, but suddenly changed his mind.

Somewhat perplexed by Pickley's strange manner, the boy continued on his way, and a few minutes later found himself in the thriving town for which he had been bound.

Ralph had no definite place in view. But he knew that the best thing to do was to seek employment systematically. He resolved to walk to the extreme end of the town and apply at every store and factory that presented itself.

"Then, if there is any vacancy at all, I am bound to locate it," he said to himself.

His first visit was paid to a large shoe factory, located directly by the lakeside.

"I am looking for a place," he began to the foreman, when that individual waved him away and pointed to a sign over the door, which the boy had not seen, and which read:

"No More Hands Wanted."

"Excuse me, but I did not see the sign," said Ralph, politely, and walked off.

After this came another shoe factory, at which the boy fared no better; indeed, he fared worse, for the foreman, a burly Irishman, ordered him out very rudely.

"They don't believe in being very civil," thought Ralph. "However, one must expect some hard knocks in this world."

At a planing-mill the boy fell in with a young man whom he knew quite well. The young man's name was Harry Ford, and he treated Ralph kindly.

"Very sorry, Ralph, but there is no opening," he said. "Only last week we discharged two young fellows because we could not keep them going. Orders are rather slack."

"Then there is nothing at all open?"

Harry Ford shook his head.

"I'll ask the boss if he'll take you on, but I am certain it will do no good."

The owner of the mill came in just then, and he was appealed to. He at once said he could not possibly take on a new hand.

"If an opening occurs I'll keep you in mind," said Harry Ford, and with this promise Ralph had to be content.

After leaving the planing-mill, the boy came to several stores. At the first and second no help of any kind was needed. At the third they wanted a boy to distribute circulars.

"The job will last for a week," said the storekeeper, "for I want the circulars distributed in every place in Eastport, Westville, and all the summer boarding-houses and hotels in the neighborhood."

"And how much are you willing to pay?" asked Ralph.

"I'll give you four dollars for the week if you do the work properly. I won't have any circulars wasted."

Ralph hesitated. Four dollars was not much, but it was better than nothing.

"I am looking for a steady place," he said. "But if I can't find it, I'll take the job," he said.

"I want the circulars to go out as soon as possible. They advertise my summer sporting goods, and the season is now pretty well advanced."

"Will you keep the place open for me until this evening?"

"What is your name?"

"Ralph Nelson. I used to be the bridge tender."

"Oh, yes, I thought I had seen you before. All right, Nelson; I'll wait until six o'clock to hear from you."

"Thank you, Mr. Dunham. I'll let you know one way or the other by that time," said Ralph.

When the boy left the store he found it was already noon. He had a lunch with him, and, strolling down to the water's edge, he sat on a little dock and ate it.

He had just about finished when a rowboat came into view. There was a single occupant at the oars. It was Percy Paget.

"Hallo, there! what are you doing here?" cried the young bully, as he ran up to the dock and leaped ashore.

"Taking it easy," returned Ralph, coolly.

"Indeed!" said Percy, sarcastically. "Plenty of time for that now, I suppose."

"Yes, I have more time on my hands than I care to have, Percy."

"Don't call me Percy! I am not an intimate of yours, Ralph Nelson!"

"All right; just as you please."

"If you had treated me like a gentleman on the bridge you wouldn't be out of a job now," went on the fashionable bully.

"We won't talk about that," returned Ralph, sharply.

And then, to see how late it was, he drew out his new watch and consulted it.

"Where did you get that watch?" questioned Percy, on catching sight of the golden time-piece.

"It was made a present to me," replied Ralph, and he smiled at the young aristocrat's evident wonder.

"A present to you?"



"A couple of days ago."

"For your faithful work on the bridge, I suppose," sneered the rich youth.

"Partly for that, and partly for something else."

"Who gave it to you?"

"A rich lady and her daughter."

"You are talking in riddles, Ralph Nelson," cried Percy, more than half angry at Ralph's short replies.

"Well, then, since you are so curious, let me tell you that the watch, chain, and charm were presented to me by Miss Julia Carrington and her mother. Now are you satisfied?"

The shot told. Percy colored to the roots of his reddish hair, and drew down the corners of his mouth.

"Do you mean to tell me that Julia Carrington really gave you that as a present?" he ejaculated.


"Because you stopped their team for them?"

"Yes. They were very thankful to me for what they called my bravery."

"Humph! Anybody could have done as much. That team wasn't much to stop."

"It's a pity you didn't stop them then. You were in the carriage, I understand."

"I was thrown out, or there wouldn't have been any trouble," growled Percy.

"They said you sprang out as soon as you imagined there was danger."

"It isn't so. I'll bet you asked them for the watch—or for some reward," went on the young aristocrat, maliciously.

"Not by a good deal; it is not my style, Percy Paget."

"Humph! A low upstart like you——"

"Stop right there!" cried Ralph.

"I won't! You are——"

"If you don't stop I'll pitch you into the lake!"

"You can't do it, Ralph Nelson. You are nothing but a miserable beggar, not fit for decent folks to associate with. If I had my say——"

Percy got no further. With doubled-up fists Ralph advanced upon him. The rich young bully saw his danger, and, in sudden alarm for his personal safety, began to retreat.

He did not notice where he was going, and his heel struck upon a board which stuck up above the rest of the flooring of the dock. He tripped backward, and went with a splash into the lake.



Ralph was not much alarmed when Percy Paget went over and disappeared beneath the waters of the lake. He knew the young aristocrat could swim. Moreover, the end of the rowboat was within easy reach.

Percy let out one yell, and then went under. The yell was not one of fright over his safety, but over the thought that all of his elegant clothing would be wet through and through.

He made a great splashing when he came up, and soon grasped the gunwale of his boat.

"You rascal!" he spluttered. "Just wait till I settle with you!"

"It's your own fault that you went overboard," retorted Ralph. "I sincerely hope that it cures your fiery temper."

"Don't talk to me!"

"All right, I won't," and without another word Ralph walked off, leaving Percy to get out of his predicament as best he could.

The young aristocrat was fearfully angry when he at last drew himself out of the lake. His hat had floated off, and he was compelled to row away from shore for it. By the time he came back Ralph had disappeared.

"I'll fix him for that!" muttered the young bully, hotly. "I'll fix him, see if I don't!"

It made Percy doubly angry to think that Ralph had been so richly rewarded for stopping the runaway team. Percy thought a good deal of Julia Carrington, and he fondly hoped that the young and beautiful girl regarded him with equal favor. He would have been disagreeably surprised had he known the exact truth.

Percy had rowed over to Eastport, intending to call at Mr. Dunham's sporting goods store for a new fishing-rod with which to go fishing up the lake. But now he was out of the humor for this, and, instead of landing again, he turned back toward Westville.

It was a bright, sunshiny day, and by spreading out his coat on the seats, he soon had it fairly dry. He also pressed the water from his cap and from his vest and trousers as best he could.

"Yes, sir, I'll get square with him, just as sure as my name is Percy Paget," he muttered over and over to himself.

Percy was just about to tie up at one of the little wharves some distance above the bridge, when he espied two young ladies walking along the shore. They were Julia Carrington and her intimate friend, Carrie Baker.

"Good-morning!" cried Percy, raising his cap with what he imagined was a decidedly graceful flourish.

"Good-morning, Mr. Paget," returned Carrie Baker, coldly, while Julia Carrington merely bowed.

"I trust you are quite over the excitement of a couple of mornings ago," went on the rich young man, to Julia.

"Oh, yes," she returned, shortly.

"I guess I got the worst of that," went on Percy. "I got pitched out in double-quick order, didn't I?"

"Indeed! I fancied you jumped out," rejoined Julia, stiffly.

"What! do you suppose I would jump, and leave you and your mother to your fate?" demanded the young aristocrat, in well-assumed surprise. "Oh, no, Julia! You ought to know me better than that."

"I know you well enough, Mr. Paget," returned the girl. "Good-morning," and she touched her companion on the arm to go.

"Hold on, please!" urged Percy. "It's a splendid morning on the lake. Won't you go out for a row?"

"Thank you, I don't care to."

"Oh, yes, both of you come," urged the young bully.

"No rowing for me," put in Carrie Baker. "You might get a fright and tumble overboard, and leave us to our fate," she added, mischievously. Her friend had told her all the particulars of the incident on the road.

Percy could not help but feel the cut, thick-headed as he was. He tried to frame some fitting reply, but could not, and so rowed away, feeling in a worse humor than ever.

"It's all the fault of that Ralph Nelson," he said to himself. "He has set Julia against me. I'll fix him, see if I don't!"

In the meantime Ralph had resumed his search for employment throughout Eastport. He could not help thinking of the ludicrous picture Percy had presented while floundering in the water, and he laughed several times over the recollection.

Ralph visited three stores and two factories without the first signs of a situation. Then he came to a place where all sorts of novelties relating to the stationery trade were turned out.

"I can't give you a job in the factory," said the superintendent, "but I might start you on the road."

"On the road?"

"Yes, to sell to small dealers. You could take several satchels and a trunk, and go from village to village. There is a good bit of money to be made in that way. But you would have to leave a deposit on the goods you took out."

"And supposing I did not sell them?"

"You can return what remains unsold at the end of each trip."

"How much of a deposit would you require?"

"The wholesale price of the goods taken out—say about fifty dollars up."

"And how about the cost of getting around?"

"Well, I allow a dollar a day to experienced agents for expenses. But a green hand would have to pay his own way. I have to protect myself in that way, or otherwise some loafers would just start out to get the dollar, without doing anything for it."

"I suppose that is so," returned Ralph, thoughtfully. "I will think over the matter, and perhaps I'll come back later on."

"All right. I can lend you an outfit, on security, so if you do not make a go of the business you will not be out of pocket a great deal."

"Thank you," returned the boy.

It was now half-past four, and the list of factories was about exhausted. Three more stores remained. Ralph visited them in quick succession, only to receive the old answer—no new help wanted.

"I'll go back to Mr. Dunham's, and tell him I'll go to work distributing those circulars in the morning," said Ralph to himself. "And after that job is done, if nothing more definite turns up, I'll try peddling those goods to the small stationery and general stores."

He hurried back to the store where sporting goods were sold. As he entered he saw Dock Brady at the back counter.

Brady was busy buying some powder, and did not at first see him. But on turning he nodded pleasantly.

"I wonder what he wants with powder?" thought Ralph. "I did not know surveyors used it."

But then it crossed his mind that perhaps the man used it for firearms when surveying in wild parts of the country, and he did not give the matter a second thought. He waited until Dock Brady had paid for his purchase and left, and then told the storekeeper of his decision.

"All right, Nelson," said Mr. Dunham. "You can go to work at seven o'clock to-morrow morning. Let me see, you live in Westville, don't you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Some of the circulars are to go there, and also back to Hopeville. Supposing you take them with you now, and start out distributing them from your home, instead of coming here? It will save time."

To this Ralph readily agreed, and, after some few instructions concerning the work to be done, quitted the store with a big package of the circulars under his arm.

Although he had struck no regular employment, he was not as disappointed as he might have been. There was a week's work to do, and then the peddling to try, and that was something.

"I knew it would be difficult to obtain an opening," said Mrs. Nelson, on hearing his story. "Times are hard, and you can be thankful that you have even a little."

"I am thankful, mother," replied Ralph.

"In distributing the circulars you may be able to hear of some opening," she went on. "Although you must not waste Mr. Dunham's time in hunting it up."

"If I waste any time I will make it up to him. I believe in working on the square, no matter what I do," rejoined Ralph, flatly.

"That is right, my son; treat every person with whom you have dealings honestly, and you are bound to succeed in life."

During the evening Ralph told his mother of Percy Paget's mishap at the dock. She shook her head sadly.

"He is a headstrong boy, and I am sorry he comes so often in your path," she said. "He will be more down on you now than ever."

"I shall watch out for him," returned Ralph. "He shall not cause me more trouble, if I can help it."



On the following morning, bright and early, Ralph started out to distribute Mr. Dunham's circulars. He carried the bulk of them in a canvas bag over his shoulder, and took his lunch with him, in case he was not near home during the noon hour.

After leaving a circular at each of a dozen cottages, he came to the stores.

"Hallo, in a new business, eh?" remarked Uriah Dicks as he placed one of the bills on the latter's front counter.

"Yes, sir."

"I guess that don't pay much," sniffed Uriah.

"It pays better than nothing," laughed Ralph.

"You might better have come here to work for me."

"That is a matter of opinion, Mr. Dicks."

"No, it hain't; it's the truth," grumbled the storekeeper. "How long is that makeshift job goin' to last?"

"A week."

"Exactly! an' then you'll be out again."

"Perhaps something else will turn up in the meantime."

"'Tain't likely. A job in the store would be more respectable than carting around sech trash, which everybody sticks in the fire soon as they get 'em."

The truth was that Uriah was hard pressed for help, his son having gone away on a business trip to Chambersburgh and New York. He had tried to get a boy in vain, all of those in the village knowing his mean ways too well to undertake to work for him.

"This is honest work, and that's enough for me," said Ralph. "I am not ashamed of it."

"Well, suit yourself. Only I won't hold my offer to you open long," warned Uriah.

"Don't hold it open at all, if you can get any one else," said Ralph, and, fearing he was wasting his employer's time, he hurried off to the next place.

"Seems he don't care for a steady place, nohow!" growled Uriah, sourly. "Some boys don't know what's good for them!"

Ralph visited all of the stores, and even left a number of the circulars in the post office, tying them up on a string where the people coming in for letters might tear one off. Mr. Dunham had told him to do this and had given him a special package for that purpose.

While he was at work the clerk in the office, Henry Bott, came out to see what he was doing.

A little talk ensued regarding the circulars. It appeared that Mr. Hooker did not approve of circulars about the place.

"But you leave them there," said Henry Bott, "and I won't take them down unless he especially orders it."

Ralph was about to leave the post office when he brushed against a man who had just come in. The man was Dock Brady.

The boy was about to say something about meeting once more, but Brady gave him no chance. As soon as he saw he was recognized he turned on his heel and walked away again.

"He acts mighty queer," thought the boy. "What can make him wish to avoid me?"

Ralph wondered if he would meet Percy on the hill among the fashionable houses. But he saw nothing of the aristocratic bully, although he even left a circular on the Pagets' front piazza.

By noon the boy had gone through the entire town. Then, after taking lunch, he started on foot for Hopeville, a mile away.

The road was uphill, leading directly from the lake shore. But soon Ralph was overtaken by a man in a farm wagon. It was some one he knew fairly well and the man asked him up on the seat.

"Thank you, Mr. Gillup, I wouldn't mind riding, as it is warm," said Ralph.

"Going to Hopeville with them bills?" asked Mr. Gillup, a farmer.


"Got into a new business since you left the bridge."

"For a time. It won't last long."

"It is a pity they took the bridge job from you. I jest told Ben Hooker, the postmaster, so."

"They acted as they thought best, I presume."

"I understand Squire Paget was at the bottom of it. He appears to be very much down on you."

"It's on account of his son Percy. He wouldn't do the right thing, and we had a row."

"Can't tell me nuthin' about that boy! Didn't I catch him stealin' my choicest pears last summer? If he comes around my place again, I'll fill him full of shot, see if I don't!"

"You had better not, Mr. Gillup! The squire will have you arrested. He won't let any one do the first thing against Percy."

"I ain't afeared of him, Ralph. If he comes around, he'll get the shot, sure pop. But I ain't calkerlatin' he'll come, because I give him warnin', and he's too precious scared o' his hide."

"I can't understand how the squire can put up with Percy's ways," said Ralph, after a pause. "He seems to ride right over his father."

"Squire Paget will rue it one of these days," returned Mr. Gillup, with a grave shake of his head. "Boys as is allowed their own way like that never amount to much."

The conversation helped to pass the time, and almost before they knew it, Hopeville was reached. Ralph thanked the farmer and left the wagon.

After leaving a bill in every store and house in the village, Ralph walked around to the various summer boarding-places. This took time, and ere he had finished it was dark.

"There! I imagine that is one fair day's work done," he said, at last, as he reached his final handful of bills. "I've covered a good many miles since I left home this morning."

He was fortunate enough to catch a ride back with a man who was carting a load of garden truck down to the lake for shipment, and he entered the cottage just as the clock was striking seven.

"Done for the day, and glad of it, mother!" he cried.

"You are not used to tramping around, Ralph," she returned, as she kissed him.

"That's a fact. I don't believe I would make a very good tramp, anyway," he went on.

"I trust you will never be reduced to that," she shuddered.

"No, I'm going to be something better than a tramp."

"Where have you been?" asked Mrs. Nelson.

Sitting down, Ralph told the story of his day's work. Like the true mother she was, Mrs. Nelson was thoroughly interested in all he had to say.

"To-morrow I shall go to Silver Cove and Rickson's Corners," he said. "And the day after to the hotels up at the head of the lake."

"I shouldn't think it would pay Mr. Dunham to advertise in this way."

"I think it will. Up at Hopeville I met a gentleman who read the circular eagerly. He said he had been hunting for a store where he might buy some toys and games for his children, and he is going to visit Mr. Dunham's place to-morrow. Half-a-dozen good customers would pay for the bills and for the distributing, too."

"If Mr. Dunham gets such an increase in trade, perhaps he will give you a place in the store," suggested Mrs. Nelson.

"That's so. I'll speak to him about it."

During the evening meal, Ralph noticed that his mother did not appear to be very well, and presently he asked her about it.

"I have a pain in my side, Ralph," she said. "But I imagine it will get better by morning."

The two retired early. Ralph, worn out by his day's travels, soon fell asleep.

It was nearly two o'clock in the morning when Mrs. Nelson called him.

"It is too bad, Ralph," she said. "But I cannot stand it any longer."

"What is it, mother, the pain in your side?" he asked, springing up.

"Yes. It is growing worse, and I must have something for it."

"Shall I go for Dr. Foley?"

"You may go to his house. Tell him what is the trouble, and ask him to give you a plaster or some liniment for it."

"I will. You are not afraid to stay alone while I am gone?"

"Oh, no, only hurry as fast as you can."

"I will," replied Ralph, quickly.

In a few minutes he was in his clothes and on the way. Dr. Foley lived on the other side of the village, and the boy ran in the direction as rapidly as he could.

Ralph had to pass the building in which the post office was located. He was within a hundred feet of the place when suddenly a muffled explosion reached his ears.

"Hallo, what's that?" he cried to himself, and stopped short.

At first no sound followed the explosion. Then came hasty footsteps, and in the semi-darkness of the early morning he saw two men and a boy run from the post office building and hurry in the direction of the lake.

It was too dark to distinguish more than the forms of the persons and note that they each carried a satchel. In a few seconds they were out of sight.

"Something is wrong," thought Ralph. "What had I best do?"

Half a minute later several men rushed out on the street and toward the post office building. Ralph mingled with the crowd. It was not long before the truth of the matter was revealed. The post office safe had been blown open and robbed.



Ralph was as much interested as any one else in the fact that the Westville post office had been robbed. He mingled with the crowd in his eagerness to learn the particulars.

But, being a boy, he was pushed aside by the men, and no attention was paid to the story he had to tell about the two men and the boy he had seen running away.

Then the thought of his mother suffering at home rushed into Ralph's mind. What would she think of his long absence?

"Robbery or no robbery, I must go to the doctor's, and get back home as fast as I can," he said to himself.

And five minutes after the excitement began he was once more on his way to Dr. Foley's residence.

When he reached the physician's place it was several minutes before he could arouse the doctor and make him understand what was wanted. Then it took ten minutes more for the doctor to fix up a plaster and some medicine.

Ralph had lost so much time that, although he wished to learn more of the robbery, he decided to go home by a short cut across the fields instead of by the village streets.

He set out on a run through the darkness. He knew the path well, and did not mind the rough places which had to be crossed or the spots where the bushes grew thickly.

When he reached the little woods just in front of the house he fancied he heard a footstep near at hand. He stopped short, wondering what it could be.

"There can't be any animals about," he thought. "Perhaps it's Luke Jackson's dog—he comes about here occasionally."

He heard the steps again, coming from toward the cottage. Then, before he could locate them closely, they ceased altogether.

"Tige! Tige!" he called, for that was the name of the dog to which he had referred.

No answer came back, nor did any dog put in an appearance. Ralph waited a few seconds longer, and then made straight for the house.

He found his mother sitting in the kitchen, nursing her pain as best she could.

"You have been quite long, Ralph," she said. "Or else it is my pain makes the time seem longer."

"I lost a little time at the post office, mother."

"At the post office! Why, what were you doing there at this time of night?"

"The safe has been blown open and robbed. It happened just as I came along."

"You don't say! Did you learn the particulars?"

"I did not wait for that. There was a crowd gathering, and everybody was as excited as could be. But I think I saw the robbers."

"You did?"

"I saw two men and a boy running, and each had a satchel."

"That was certainly suspicious," returned Mrs. Nelson. She was in too much pain to say more just then, and set about making use of the things Ralph had brought from the doctor's. Fortunately, these did her much good, and inside of half an hour she was considerably better.

"I thought I heard you coming a quarter of an hour before you did," remarked Mrs. Nelson, presently. "I certainly heard somebody walking in the dooryard."

Ralph was interested at once.

"I heard footsteps, too," he said. "Somebody must have been prowling about. Who could it have been?"

"Perhaps the post office robbers," suggested Mrs. Nelson, somewhat nervously.

"I don't see what they would be doing about here," rejoined Ralph, seriously.

"Did they come in this direction?"

"They came down the main street, yes."

Mrs. Nelson sighed deeply. She did not like the idea of any one prowling about her home after dark.

"I am going to take a look around again," said Ralph, noticing her uneasiness. "Perhaps it was a sneak-thief who has stolen the ax or the saw from the woodshed."

Ralph walked outside. It was now growing lighter in the east, for it was after four o'clock in the morning. He looked about the woodshed and the cottage, but everything appeared to be all right. Certainly nothing had been stolen.

The boy was about to return to the kitchen, when he heard several men coming down the road from the village. He halted in the dooryard to see who they were.

"There is somebody now!" one of the men exclaimed, and Ralph recognized Uriah Dick's voice.

"It is Ralph Nelson himself," replied Bart Haycock, the blacksmith, who was one of the party.

"Hallo, there, Nelson!" called out the third man. It was Jack Rodman, the district constable.

"Hallo, Rodman!" returned the boy, as he ran down to the gate. "Are you after the post office robbers?"

"I guess we are that," put in Uriah Dicks. "An' we ain't far from one of 'em!"

"Hush!" put in Jack Rodman, hastily. "Wait till I have a talk with the boy."

"It ain't no use for to talk," insisted Uriah. "There's the evidence plain enough."

"There may be a mistake," suggested Bart Haycock. "I cannot believe Ralph would do anything wrong."

"Why, what—what do you mean?" stammered the boy, hardly catching the drift of their talk.

"Is this your knife, Ralph?" asked the constable, producing a buck-handle pocketknife.

"Why, yes, it is," returned Ralph, promptly. "Where did you get it?" he went on, in surprise, for he had thought the blade safe in his own pocket.

"Jess where you dropped it a couple of hours ago," returned Uriah Dicks, eagerly. "In the post office."

"The post office? I haven't been in the post office since yesterday."

"What are you doing out so early in the morning?" asked the constable.

"My mother is sick, and I have been over to Dr. Foley's for medicine for her."

"And you weren't near the post office?"

"Oh, yes, I was only a few hundred feet away when the explosion took place."

"There, didn't I say I saw him in the crowd?" exclaimed Uriah, eagerly.

"What were you doing in the crowd?"

"I wanted to see what was up."

"You didn't stay very long," said the constable, dryly.

"I couldn't. Mother was waiting for me."

"You are quite sure you weren't in the post office just before the explosion occurred?"

"Why, of course I wasn't in the place! What are you driving at?"

"We found the pocketknife in the building—found it not ten feet from the wrecked safe. It had been used, evidently, for ripping open some sealed packages."

"My knife!" ejaculated Ralph.

"Exactly, Ralph," put in Bart Haycock. "But don't think I believe you guilty, my boy," he went on, feelingly.

"Guilty of what?"

"Robbin' the post office!" cried Uriah Dicks. "He is guilty to my way of thinkin'!"

"Robbing the post office!" ejaculated Ralph.

"That's it, Ralph," said the constable, seriously. "It has been discovered that there were two men and a boy, and they think you were the boy."

"Me!" Ralph could hardly believe his ears. "Oh, Rodman, you don't mean it?"

"He does mean it!" said Uriah, sharply. "Wasn't your knife found there?"

"I must have dropped the knife in the office yesterday when I was hanging up Mr. Dunham's circulars."

"Did you use the knife then?" asked Bart Haycock.

Ralph thought for a moment.

"Yes, I did. The cord was too long, and I remember taking out my knife and cutting it."

"That wouldn't put the knife inside the postmaster's office," said Uriah.

Ralph looked at the knife again. It was really his—with his name carved on the handle. There was no disputing that point.

"I can't understand it," he said. "But I can give you my word of honor that I was not inside the building to-night."

"I guess Benjamin Hooker ain't taking your word for it," grumbled Uriah Dicks. "He is responsible to the Government, an' he's goin' to find out who robbed him, that's what he's goin' to do!"

"You had better come with me," said Jack Rodman. "You can tell your story to Mr. Hooker and to Squire Paget."

"Better make a search around here first," suggested Uriah. "The men that helped do the robbin' may be hiding here. Bart and I can hold Ralph so he don't run away."



If Ralph had been astonished before, he was doubly so now. He looked from one to another of the men in amazement.

"Do you really think I am one of the thieves?" he gasped.

"It's mighty suspicious," responded Jack Rodman. "You were seen in the neighborhood of the post office to-night, and then this knife business is a clew."

"I don't think Ralph will run away," said Bart Haycock. "I myself think he is innocent."

"Thank you for those words," said the boy. "I am innocent."

"Then you have no objections to our making a search about here," said the constable.

"Not any objection whatever," said Ralph, promptly. "Search where you please."

"I'll help you," said Uriah to the constable.

"Hadn't you better hold me tight?" suggested Ralph, with a sarcasm which was entirely lost on the miserly storekeeper.

"Well, I dunno," hesitated Uriah.

"I will see to it that he doesn't run away," said the blacksmith. "This makes me sick, Ralph," he added, in a low tone. "I know you are as innocent as a babe. That post office was robbed by professionals."

The constable and Uriah knocked on the cottage door and Mrs. Nelson let them in. She was greatly surprised when Jack Rodman declared his errand.

"Ralph is indeed innocent!" she exclaimed. "You may search the premises all you please."

The constable and Uriah took a lamp, and the search began. Every nook and corner of the cottage was gone over, but nothing that looked like what had been taken—money and registered letters—came to light.

"I hope you are satisfied now," said Mrs. Nelson, in a tone of half-triumph. "Ralph hasn't a grain of dishonesty in him."

"Let's take a look outside," suggested Uriah. "Maybe he knew better than to bring it in the house."

So outside he and the constable went. They looked around under the stoops and around the woodshed.

"Not a thing," murmured Jack Rodman.

Uriah did not reply to this. His sharp eyes had caught sight of a leather bag, half-concealed under a clump of raspberry bushes. He ran forward and dragged the bag out.

"Look here!" he cried. "What did I tell you?"

"A leather valise, true enough!" exclaimed the constable. "But it may be one belonging to the family."

"Would they leave a good valise out under them bushes?" growled Uriah. "Not much!"

"I shouldn't think they would."

"And, besides, this looks like the one Benjamin Hooker kept in the post office for his trips to the Chambersburgh Bank."

The constable began to examine the bag. Soon he ran across a tag inside, upon which was printed in ink:

Property of Benjamin Hooker, Postmaster, Westville.

"That settles it," he said, in a harder tone than he had before employed.

"I guess it looks black enough against Ralph Nelson now," said Uriah.

"So it does."

"I positively know nothing of that bag," cried Ralph, when confronted with it. "I never saw it before."

"You will have to go with me," returned Jack Rodman.

"Do you place me under arrest?" ejaculated Ralph.

"Hardly that. But you must go with me to the post office. There we will see what Mr. Hooker has to say. It is his affair—and the Government's."

"Oh, Ralph!" cried Mrs. Nelson, in alarm. "They think you are really one of the robbers!"

"I know it, mother. But I am not, and I do not see how they can hold me."

"You won't go along?" asked Uriah, quickly.

"Oh, yes, I will. I am not afraid of the consequences."

It was now drawing toward daylight, and after completing his hastily-made toilet, Ralph accompanied the constable and the others to the Westville post office.

Here they found all in confusion. The safe doors had been blown open with gunpowder, and the explosion had damaged the entire office. The plaster from the ceiling had come down, and this lay over a mass of letters, papers and wrecked furniture.

In the midst of the mass was the postmaster and his clerk, Henry Bott, doing what they could to straighten matters out and ascertain the exact loss sustained.

Squire Paget was also present. He seemed particularly anxious about the registered letters which had been ready for the morning mail, and groaned aloud when he heard that all of them had disappeared.

"Not one of them left?" he asked, of Henry Bott. "You don't see anything of the one I addressed to New York?"

"No, squire; all have disappeared together," replied the clerk.

"Too bad! That letter was worth a small fortune to me."

"What did it contain?" asked the clerk.

The squire did not answer, but walked away in deep perplexity.

There was an additional excitement when Ralph was brought in by Jack Rodman. Soon it became whispered about that the boy was one of the robbers.

"Who is it?" questioned several.

"Easy to see that. It's Ralph Nelson."

"Say, is he really guilty, do you think?"

"That's what Uriah Dicks says."

"Rather guess Uriah is mistaken."

"And that's what I think. Uriah is down on the boy."

"That's so. Ralph is honest enough."

"Eddy Harmes saw Ralph around the post office."

"Maybe he is mistaken."

"Eddy is willing to swear to it."

"Yes, I saw him," said Eddy Harmes, a teamster.

"Eddy was driving over to the Eastport market for garden truck."

"Randolph Newell saw him, too," put in another in the crowd. "Saw him not over five minutes after the explosion."

And so the talk ran on, while Ralph was taken inside of the building, there to be examined by Postmaster Hooker and Squire Paget.

The squire grew pale when he heard what Jack Rodman had to say.

"Didn't you find any—any registered letters?" he asked of the constable.

"Only found the valise, sir."

"But that's enough," put in Uriah Dicks. "That and the knife clew."

"Seems to me you are mighty anxious to have the boy found guilty," cried Bart Haycock, angrily. "What makes you so down on the boy?"

"He is down on me because we have stopped trading with him, and because I won't work for him for starvation wages," retorted Ralph. "He is a mean skinflint, and half the village knows it."

"Wha—what!" spluttered Uriah. "This—to me?"

"Yes, to you," cried Ralph, boldly. "Now, don't say any more or it may be the worse for you. I don't see why folks shouldn't believe you were one of the men who robbed the post office."

"Well, I never!" gasped Uriah. "Ain't he thoroughly bad, though? Next thing he'll be settin' my barn on fire."

"Unless you do it yourself for the insurance," put in a voice in the rear of the crowd, and then there was a laugh that made Uriah furious.

But he knew that many could tell things to his disadvantage should they choose to speak, so he sneaked out of sight without making any reply to his tormentors.

No time was lost by the postmaster and Squire Paget in listening to what Jack Rodman had to say. Then Mr. Hooker turned to Ralph.

"Nelson, what have you to say in answer to this?"

"Simply that I am innocent, Mr. Hooker. I believe that there was a boy mixed up in this affair, but that boy was not myself."

Then Ralph was called on to tell his story, which he did in a straightforward manner. After this he was severely cross-questioned.

"I can't understand about that valise and knife," mused Benjamin Hooker. "If you left the knife in the outer office, how did it get inside?"

"That I cannot answer, sir. Perhaps somebody saw it outside and carried it in."

"There was nobody in the office yesterday except Henry Bott and myself."

"Well, I cannot explain it. But, as I said before, I am innocent."



"Did you get a look at the faces of the men and the boy you say you saw?" asked the postmaster, after a pause.

"No, sir. I saw them, but it was too dark to distinguish faces."

"And you say each carried a handbag?"

"Yes, sir."

"Can you prove that you were not around the post office at the time of the explosion?"

"I cannot, sir. I was just coming from home to go to Dr. Foley's, for my mother, who was taken sick during the night."

"And you went to Dr. Foley's afterward?"

"Yes, sir. He will tell you the same thing."

"What of the valise found in your back doorward?"

"I know nothing of it, excepting that both my mother and I fancied we heard somebody around the house just a short while before the constable and the others came."

Postmaster Hooker turned to Squire Paget.

"What do you think of this, squire?" he asked.

"Very queer," responded the squire, briefly. "I think you had better have him held until we can investigate further. Remember, we have not heard from the other parties who went out yet."

"Yes, we'll have to hold you, Nelson," said Mr. Hooker. "It's too bad, if you are innocent, but it can't be helped."

"Do you mean to say you will lock me up?" exclaimed Ralph, in horror.

"We'll have to—for a while—unless you can furnish satisfactory bail."

"How much bail do you wish?" asked the boy, faintly.

A consultation was held between the postmaster and Squire Paget, and finally bail was fixed at three hundred dollars.

"That will hold him tight enough," whispered the squire. "No one will go bail to that amount for him."

But Squire Paget was mistaken. While Ralph was being taken to the village lockup, a gentleman stepped up. In him Ralph recognized Mr. Leander Carrington, Julia Carrington's father.

"I will go that boy's bail," said the rich man.

"You, Carrington!" cried the squire, in some astonishment.


"You are running a mighty big risk," sniffed the squire.

"I reckon I can stand it," laughed Leander Carrington. "I do not believe the boy is guilty."

"I do."

"Besides, he did my wife and daughter a service that I shall ever remember," went on Mr. Carrington, warmly. "He stopped my team when your son let them run away from him."

The squire did not relish this remark, and he turned away with some saying on his lips to the effect that if a man wanted to make a fool of himself, why, it was a free country.

"You are very kind, Mr. Carrington," said Ralph to the gentleman. "I did not expect this."

"It's all right. I don't expect you'll run away."

"You can rest assured that I will not."

"So I won't be anything out of pocket. And let me thank you personally for what you did for my wife and daughter. I just heard of it, as I have been away."

The party walked over to Squire Paget's office and here the necessary papers were made out and signed. The squire wished to put off the question of bail until more news should come in, but he had once fixed the amount, and Mr. Carrington would not let him go back on his word.

It was nearly nine o'clock when Ralph returned home and told his mother of all that had happened. A dozen men were out hunting for the robbers, but no news concerning them had yet come in.

"It was kind of Mr. Carrington to go your bail," said Mrs. Nelson.

"It was, indeed, mother. Now, I only hope they catch the robbers. Then I will easily be able to clear myself."

Breakfast was on the table, and the two sat down. While they ate Ralph revolved the question of the robbers in his mind, and set to thinking of one who might have accomplished it.

"By Christopher Columbus!" he cried, suddenly, leaping from his chair in his intense excitement. "He did it, I'll bet a million dollars!"

"Why, Ralph, what's the matter?" exclaimed Mrs. Nelson, half-believing her son had suddenly gone crazy.

"I know one of the men who robbed the post office, mother—at least, I think I do," he added, cooling down somewhat.

"And who is it?"

"Dock Brady."

"Dock Brady? I never heard of him before."

"He is the man I rescued from the hay barge during the storm."

"Oh, I remember now. But what makes you think he is one of the men?"

"Because I remember he asked me something about the post office while we were out sailing. Then I saw him sneaking about the place when I was putting up circulars there. And that is not all. I saw him buying powder at Mr. Dunham's store."

"That certainly looks suspicious," returned Mrs. Nelson. "It's a pity you didn't think to tell Mr. Hooker of this."

"I was too excited to remember it. I'll go off right after breakfast and let him know."

Ralph was as good as his word. Half an hour later the postmaster was in possession of all the facts. Then a call was made upon Mr. Dunham, who stated that he remembered Dock Brady very well.

It was thought by the constable and the postmaster that Ralph was right, and an extra party was organized to hunt for Dock Brady.

The information was gained before nightfall that Brady and a man named Gaston had been stopping at a second-rate hotel in Eastport for two days. They had settled their bills the evening before and left, stating that they were going to Chambersburgh on the night boat.

On the following morning the captain of the night boat was seen, and he emphatically denied that he had had any such passengers as Dock Brady and Gaston. He had had only seven men on board, and all of these had been known to him.

"I guess Ralph Nelson tells the truth," said Jack Rodman. "Those men did the job, and now the old Harry only knows where they have gone to."

"But the boy?" said Squire Paget. "Who was the boy that helped them if it wasn't Ralph Nelson?"

"I give it up, squire," said the constable; and so did many others.

There being nothing else to do, Ralph went back to his work of distributing circulars for Mr. Dunham. He spent three days at this, and was then called upon to stand an investigation before the United States postal authorities.

This investigation lasted one whole day, and every one who was interested in the case was present.

Ralph answered all questions clearly and truthfully, and told all he knew concerning Dock Brady.

Whether the Government detectives found any more clews at the post office was not made public, but the next day Ralph was informed that his bail was withdrawn, and that he was absolutely free.

The reader can well imagine his joy, and also the joy of his mother, who shed tears when the news was brought to her.

"Thank Heaven for it, Ralph!" she said, as she kissed him. "Oh, what a relief now it is all over."

"But it is not over," he said, sturdily. "I want to find out the secret of that valise, and how my pocketknife got into the office, and I shall not rest until I have found out."

Although the boy and his fond parent did not know it, this remark was overheard by a detective who had been sent to the Nelson homestead to spy upon the boy. He at once left the place and informed his superior that the lad was innocent, and to watch further in that direction would be merely a waste of time.

But although the majority of the people in Westville and vicinity believed Ralph innocent, there were some who thought him guilty, and among these was Squire Paget.

And thinking him guilty, the squire was much worried.

"I'd give a good deal to know if that registered letter fell into his hands," he said to himself, one night, as he sat in his library. "Perhaps he got it and is waiting for this affair to blow over before he makes it public."

And then he groaned aloud, and began to pace up and down nervously. It was plain to see that he was more put out than he had been for years.

"I'll pay the Nelsons a visit to-night," he said, at last. "I'll face the boy and his mother alone, and see what they have to say. I am not going to stand this suspense any longer."

And sneaking out of the house without Percy or the housekeeper becoming aware of it, he set off on a swift walk for the little cottage by the lakeside.



It was not a very long walk from Squire Paget's elegant mansion on the hill to the humble cottage occupied by Mrs. Nelson and Ralph, but the squire made it longer by taking numerous back roads. It was easy to imagine that he wished to be seen by no outsider in making his proposed visit.

It was nearly eight o'clock when he came within sight of the cottage. He saw that the lamp was lit in the sitting-room, and near it sat the widow, reading the latest copy of the county weekly newspaper. Ralph was nowhere in sight.

"The boy must be upstairs," thought the squire. "Most likely he is dressing to go out for the evening," he went on, thinking of his own son's ways. Percy rarely spent an evening at home.

The squire entered the garden by a side gate, and, hurrying to the front door, knocked sharply.

The loud summons startled Mrs. Nelson, and made her break off abruptly in her reading. With the lamp in her hand, she opened the door to see who her late visitor was.

"Good-evening, Mrs. Nelson," said the squire, stiffly.

"Why, good-evening, squire," she returned, in great surprise.

Never before had the great man condescended to visit her humble abode.

"I called on a little matter of business," he added, rather awkwardly, for he had expected an invitation to enter.

"Indeed! Won't you come in, then?"

"I will."

The squire stepped in, and after closing the door the widow led the way into the parlor. She placed the lamp down, and offered the squire the easiest chair in the room. He threw himself into it with a loud ahem, and dropped his silk hat on a stand near by.

"You came on a little matter of business, you say?" she began, hesitatingly, as he remained silent for a minute.

"Yes, I did." He cleared his throat again. "Mrs. Nelson, where is your son Ralph?"

"He has gone to the store on an errand for me. He will be back shortly."

"Mrs. Nelson, do you know that that boy is going to get both himself and you into a good deal of trouble?" went on the great man, pompously.

"Oh, I hope not, squire," she cried, in alarm.

"If he keeps on, he will end in State prison!"

"Why, what has he done now?"

"I do not refer to any new action on his part. I refer to this post office affair."

Mrs. Nelson breathed easier. For the moment she had feared some new difficulty between Ralph and Percy.

"I thought that matter had passed," she said.

"Passed! I rather imagine not, madam!

"I mean so far as my son is concerned. They had him up for examination, and he was honorably discharged."

"That committee of post office officials didn't know its business," growled Squire Paget, wrathfully. "It was worse than a lot of old hens getting together."

"That may be your opinion, squire. It is not the opinion of all the folks, however."

"Madam, your son had something to do with that robbery!" ejaculated the great man, springing to his feet. "He cannot fool me, no matter how much he fools the other Westville people."

"Ralph had absolutely nothing to do with it!" returned the widow, warmly. "You might as well say your own son was implicated."

"Nonsense! Does Ralph deny that he was seen on the streets of Westville that night?"

"He went to Dr. Foley's for me. I was sick."

"Was he not seen right in front of the post office directly after the explosion?"

"He had to pass the post office to get to Dr. Foley's."

"Of course," sneered Squire Paget. "But if he was innocent, why did he not remain in the crowd instead of leaving in such a hurry inside of a minute or two?"

"He was afraid I might get worse. Had I not been sick, he would have remained, without a doubt."

"You don't look very sick now, madam," with another sneer.

"No, thanks to the plaster and the medicine Dr. Foley gave Ralph, I have quite recovered again."

"Humph!" sniffed the great man, and drew up his lips.

"You do not believe that I was sick, do you?"

"It was a very accommodating sickness, to my mind."

"Why, what do you mean, squire?"

"It gave your son a good excuse to be abroad at that time of the night when all honest folks are in bed."

"Squire, your words are nothing less than insult!" cried Mrs. Nelson, stung deeply by his insinuation.

"I am only dealing in facts, madam. I called here to-night to help you keep clear from trouble."

"You are not helping me now," she replied, cuttingly.

At that moment a merry whistle was heard outside, and a light step ascended the back stoop.

"There is Ralph; I will let him in," said Mrs. Nelson, and she left the parlor.

"Squire Paget is here," she said to the boy as he entered the kitchen and deposited a basketful of groceries on the table.

"Squire Paget! What does he want?"

"Come in and see," rejoined Mrs. Nelson, and she led the way into the best room.

"Good-evening, sir," said Ralph, respectfully, but with no degree of warmth.

"We have been waiting for you, young man," said the squire, without returning the salutation.

"What is it you want of me?"

"He came about that post office affair," put in Mrs. Nelson. "He declares that you are one of the guilty parties."

Instantly Ralph's eyes flashed dangerously. He felt under no obligations to the squire, rich as he was, to swallow any insult.

"So you think I am guilty?" he said, as calmly as he could.

"Yes, I do," returned the great man, bluntly.

"What makes you think so?"

"Because you were around the post office," said Mrs. Nelson. "He even insinuates that my sickness was not real, but was put on so that you might have an excuse for being out at that time of night."

Again Ralph's eyes flashed. It was bad enough to have insults heaped upon his own head, but when they touched his mother——

"Squire Paget, you are no gentleman!" he burst out. "You haven't the least spark of a gentleman in your whole composition!"

"Wha—what——" stammered the village dignitary.

"Oh, Ralph——" began his mother.

"Hush, mother, I will handle him as he deserves. Let me alone."

"You young rascal! What do you mean?" burst out the squire, in a rage.

"I mean just what I say. You may be rich and influential, but you can't come here and insult my mother, understand that!"

"Why—why, you young vagabond——" spluttered the squire.

For the moment he could not find words to express himself.

"I am no vagabond, Squire Paget, not half as much a one as your son, who drinks, smokes cigarettes, and keeps company with all sorts of questionable village sports."

"Stop! stop!" roared the great man. "How dare you speak to me in this fashion?"

"How dare you insult my mother? If I had an outside witness, I would prosecute you for libel."

The squire winced. This was an attack he had never once dreamed of. He had thought to bulldoze the widow and her son, but he was getting decidedly the worse of the encounter.

"I know what I am talking about," he began, lamely, but Ralph cut him short.

"So do I know what I am talking about, Squire Paget. You are down on us for some reason; I have not yet found out what, but I will some day; and you are doing your best to make endless trouble for us. But I am not going to stand it. We are poor, but we have our rights as well as the rich."

"You rascal! I'll——"

"I want you to stop calling me a rascal and a vagabond. I might as well call you a wooden-head, a shyster lawyer, and a lot more."

"Oh, Ralph!" pleaded Mrs. Nelson.

"No, mother, he shall not come here to worry and insult you. I will give him fair warning now. If he does it again I'll pitch him out of the house."

"You—you," spluttered the squire.

He was so mad he could get no further.

"There is the front door," went on the boy, walking forward and opening it. "The best thing you can do is to get on the other side of it just as quick as you can."

The squire was livid. He wanted to say something awful, something that would crush the fearless lad before him—but the words would not come. He caught up his silk hat and waved it fiercely in the face of Ralph and his mother.

"You'll rue this, both of you! Mark my words!" he fairly hissed, and the next moment he had disappeared into the darkness of the night.



After the squire had vanished Ralph closed the front door and locked it. He returned to the sitting-room to find his mother pale and trembling. Unable to stand, the poor woman had sunk back on the lounge.

"Oh, Ralph!" was all she could say just then.

"Don't look so scared, mother," he replied, soothingly. "He has gone now."

"Oh, my boy, how could you?" she went on, half in reproach, and yet secretly admiring his courage.

"I wouldn't have done it had he not cast a slur on your fair name, mother. I might have stood what he said against me, but I'll never allow any one to say one word against you, never."

And the look he gave her out of his honest eyes showed that he meant what he said.

"But the squire! What will he do now?"

"I don't care what he does. We haven't done wrong, so what can he do?"

"He is influential."

"So is Mr. Carrington, and Bart Haycock, and a half-dozen others that are our friends."

"He evidently feels certain that you had something to with the post office robbery."

"He is down on us, mother, just as I told him. I wish I knew why," and Ralph grew more calm and more thoughtful as he spoke.

"He was not that way when your father was alive. Your father and he were quite friendly."

"I guess that was only because father did lots of work for him and always accepted the squire's price. He is very miserly, you know, outside of the allowance he makes Percy."

"I cannot imagine what brought him here to-night. I fancied the post office matter was past, so far as you were concerned."

"So did I. I'll tell you what keeps it in the squire's mind," went on Ralph, suddenly. "He lost a valuable registered letter that was in the mail. I heard Henry Bott speak of it."

"One that was coming to him?"

"No, one that he had sent out. It was to go in the morning mail. Henry Bott said the squire wouldn't have lost the letter for a small mint of money."

"What did it contain?"

"He said the squire wouldn't say. It was addressed to some party in New York, I believe."

"It is strange the squire wouldn't mention the contents of the letter. The authorities ought to know if they are to trace it."

"So I should think. But Squire Paget said it was strictly private."

"Maybe he imagines you have his letter," mused Mrs. Nelson. "I suppose I am foolish for thinking so, but I fancied he had something on his mind when he first began to speak of the robbery."

"You may be right, mother. That would explain why he was so persistent in getting after me."

"You have not seen Percy?"

"No. I understood from Dan Pickley that he had gone to Chambersburgh for a few days on a visit."

"Then the squire cannot be influenced by what his son can say."

"No; this is solely his own doings," returned Ralph.

They talked the matter over at some length, but could arrive at no satisfactory conclusion regarding Squire Paget's bitter enmity. Time must solve the mystery for them.

Ralph had been out distributing circulars for Mr. Dunham. On the following morning he went across the lake to put in his last day at the work.

He had thought the matter over, and finding the sporting goods dealer at leisure, asked him if there was any opening in the store.

"I am sorry to say there is not, Ralph," said Mr. Dunham.

"I am willing to do anything, both in the place and out, if you can only employ me steadily."

"I know that, Ralph. But the truth of the matter is, my brother has asked me to take his son in, just for his board and clothing, and I have consented. I couldn't do less."

"I suppose not, sir."

"If there is an opening, I will let you know. I like you, and I am well satisfied with the way in which you are putting out the hand-bills."

"You do not know of anybody that needs help?"

The storekeeper thought a moment.

"I do not," he said.

Ralph then told him of the offer he had had to sell novelties on the road to stationery dealers.

"I would not advise you to go into that, Ralph. It is only those who have had considerable experience in the line that make even a fair living by it. The likelihood is that you would make little or nothing for a month or two, perhaps the first year. Get a regular job if you can, at certain wages."

"That is my idea, sir. I must do something."

"I am sorry I cannot help you at present."

In a few minutes more Ralph was on his way to Glen Arbor, as a fishing resort a mile above Eastport was called. He was to put in half a day there, and the balance of the time around Eastport itself. That done, the entire territory for five miles about Mr. Dunham's store would be billed.

Ralph set out in a very thoughtful frame of mind. He was wondering what the following week would bring forth. Would he strike other work, or be forced to remain idle?

Ralph knew a number of fishermen at Glen Arbor, who let out boats to the summer tourists, and while he was among them he met one, Bill Franchard, who gave him some information that was a delightful surprise.

"Hallo, Ralph Nelson," sang out Franchard, on seeing him. "What brings you here?"

"I'm distributing circulars, Bill," returned the boy. "How is the boating season?"

"Very good just now; better than I expected."

"You haven't got an opening for me?" asked Ralph, quickly.

"Why, ain't you working?"

"This job ends to-day."

"Well, I dunno." Franchard scratched his head. "I do need somebody most every day for the Minnie. I take out the Ariel, and Bob the Washington, and very often I can't let the Minnie go out—not when they want a skipper for the sloop."

"I would like the job," replied Ralph, promptly.

"Tell you what I'll do, Ralph. I'll give you a dollar and a half a day for your services every day I can use you, and that will be at least four or five days a week, even if it ain't the whole six."

"I'll take the job, and thank you," said the boy, reflecting that even four days' work would bring in six dollars, as much as he had before earned, while a full week's work would mean nine dollars.

"All right. I know I can trust you with the sloop, even if she is kind of mulish at times."

"She needs constant watching, that's all. When can I come on?"

"Most likely Monday morning. There was a man coming to see me about her this morning. If he—here he comes now."

Franchard referred to a well dressed gentleman who was walking toward the dock, accompanied by a young gentleman and a young lady.

The gentleman, whose name was Larkins, entered into conversation with Franchard, and then turned to Ralph.

"Do you think you can sail that sloop all right, my lad?"

"I know that I can, sir," returned Ralph, confidently.

"He knows small boats as well as I do, sir," put in Franchard. "His father was a boatman before him, and he used to row when he was only five years old."

"Then I will take the Minnie for Monday and Tuesday, sure, and possibly for Wednesday, too," said Mr. Larkins, and the bargain was settled on the spot.

"What time do you wish me on hand?" asked Ralph.

"We will be ready to go out about ten o'clock," was the reply, after the young lady and the young gentleman had been consulted.

"Now you see I couldn't have made that bargain if you hadn't turned up," said Franchard to Ralph, after the party had gone. "I'll be in pocket and so will you."

"And that will be a job that will suit me," laughed Ralph. "For once I am in luck."

He spent a few more minutes with Franchard, in completing arrangements, and then hurried off to make up the time he had lost in the distribution of the circulars.



Mrs. Nelson was glad to hear that Ralph had procured employment at Glen Arbor. She knew her son understood boats thoroughly, so she was not alarmed over the prospects, even though he had had such a thrilling experience at the time of Dock Brady's rescue.

"It will bring us in money steadily, mother," Ralph said, "and that is what we need."

"I do not know what I would do without you, Ralph," she returned, fondly. "You have been the supporter of the family since your poor father was taken away."

"I've been thinking, mother," went on the son, after a spell of silence. "I have a great mind to use fifteen dollars of that money I have in advertising for those missing property papers."

"Do you think it will do any good?"

"It won't do any harm. I hate to put out the money, but I guess we can stand it now. The boating season will last for two months and more yet."

"Yes, Ralph, and we can save all you earn over six dollars a week. Of course the money is yours——"

"No more mine than my dear mother's," he interrupted. "I think we ought to save what we can."

"It is best, so that we shall not have to touch what is in the bank should you not strike another situation at once after the boating season closes."

"But you are willing I should advertise, are you not, mother?"

"Oh, yes, Ralph. We must obtain the papers, if possible. If there is really a boom in Westville real estate this lake shore property ought to become valuable."

"I thought of putting an advertisement in the County Record, and also one in the Chambersburgh Leader. Those are the principal papers read around here."

"That is so, Ralph, but do you know their rates?"

"I will write and find out."

On Monday night, after a pleasant day on the lake with Mr. Larkins and his young friends, Ralph sat down and wrote the letters. Two days later the replies came back. He found the advertising rates of both journals quite moderate, and at once sent each an advertisement, to appear in the Lost and Found column several issues.

Mr. Larkins liked the sailing and fishing so well, as well as the efforts of the young skipper to please him and his party, that he hired the sloop for both Wednesday and Thursday additional. Ralph took them up and down Big Silver Lake several times, and also through the draw and down Silver Lake.

On the latter trip Ralph saw Percy Paget, who sat on the bridge, talking earnestly to Dan Pickley. The young aristocrat stared hard at Ralph.

"In a new business, eh?" he sneered, as the sloop ran through the draw.

Ralph paid no attention to him, and soon they were too far away from the bridge for Percy to attempt to say more.

"Who is that young man?" asked Mr. Larkins, with a considerable show of interest.

"That is Percy Paget, the son of the village squire," returned Ralph.

"A friend of yours?"

"No sir," and there was a decided ring in the boy's tones. "If anything, he is my worst enemy."

"I imagine he is not a very nice youth," went on the gentleman.

"He is not, sir. He is very overbearing, and will do anything, no matter how mean, if he can't have his own way."

"I believe you, Ralph. I met him once before, at a hotel back of Westville, with a chum of his, and he was telling how he was going to get square with somebody who had done something he did not like."

"Did he say what he was going to do?" asked Ralph, with not a little curiosity.

"He said something about smashing some glass."

"He did!" Ralph was all attention now. "And did he mention any names, sir?"

"I did not hear the whole talk. I believe he spoke of scaring the widow to death."

"I thought so!" returned Ralph, bitterly.

"Why, Ralph, do you know anything of this affair?"

"Indeed I do, sir. The widow he spoke of was my mother. Less than two weeks ago he smashed nearly every pane of glass in our cottage!"

"Really, is it possible!" ejaculated Mr. Larkins. "He must be a thoroughly bad boy."

"He is, sir.

"Did you suspect him?"

"I did. But I had no proofs, and he is rich, while we are poor."

"That doesn't make it right to smash windows," said the young lady, Mr. Larkins' niece.

"I know it, but it makes it harder for one to obtain justice, especially as in this case, when the boy's father is squire."

"I suppose that is so," said Mr. Larkins. "What was the trouble?"

"It's rather a long story, sir, but I'll tell it if you care to listen."

All were more than willing, and Ralph related his trials as the boat sped on its way. He had three close listeners.

"It's too bad!" cried the young lady. "Uncle Will, cannot you help Mr. Nelson recover damages from the Paget boy?"

"I don't know but what I can. Still, my evidence may not be sufficient to prove him guilty."

"I won't bother you to do it," said Ralph. "The glass is in again and paid for, so let it rest. But if he ever tries to do us harm again I'll tell him what I know."

"Do so, and I will give you my address, in case you need my testimony," returned Ralph's patron.

On Friday Ralph was idle, so far as boating was concerned, but he put in a full day in the vegetable garden attached to the cottage, and, as the place needed attention on account of the many weeds, the day was far from lost. On Saturday he went out with several gentlemen, and they liked his treatment so well that they gave him a dollar extra, which, with what Mr. Larkins had given him and his regular wages, made his income for the week nine dollars and a half.

"That's not bad, is it, mother?" he said, as he placed the money in his parent's lap.

"It is very good, indeed, Ralph," she replied. "At this rate you will be getting rich."

"Hardly," he laughed. "But we will be able to save more than we expected."

On that day the boy procured both of the papers in which they had advertised. There was the notice Ralph had written and so unaccustomed were they to seeing their name in print that they read each notice over several times.

The papers circulated through the district, so many saw the advertisement. They asked both Ralph and his mother numerous questions, to which the two answered briefly but politely. They did not wish to say much until the missing papers were brought to light.

Squire Paget also saw the notice. At first he was both surprised and perplexed. Then a shrewd, cunning look came over his face.

"It's that boy's scheme," he muttered to himself. "Oh, but he is sharp, no doubt of that. Of course, he'll soon obtain the papers, and then——" he gave a long sigh. "My plan to make a fortune will fall to pieces!"

All day Sunday, when he ought to have been at church, the squire remained in his library scheming and plotting. That night he left on the evening boat for Chambersburgh.

"I'll find somebody to help me get rid of them," he said. "It's the only way."

On Monday Ralph took out a party of young ladies and gentlemen. He got in at seven o'clock and found two rather rough-looking men awaiting his arrival.

"We understand that boat isn't hired for to-morrow," said one of them. "I suppose we can get her, can't we?"

"Yes, sir, if you pay the price."

"You are Ralph Nelson?"

"Yes, sir."

"I heard you was trustworthy. You can be on hand here at eight o'clock to-morrow morning to take me and my friend out," went on the man.

"Yes, sir. Do you want any bait for fishing, sir?"

"No. We'll go for a sail, and possibly for a little hunting up on the island."

"All right, sir. I'll be ready for you."

The men walked off toward a neighboring saloon. Ralph did not much fancy their looks. He made up his mind that he would not have a very agreeable day with them.

But he was on hand promptly in the morning, and after telling Franchard of the engagement, took aboard the two men, who appeared each with a shotgun and a game-bag.

"Sail to the upper end of the lake, toward the big islands," said the spokesman, and Ralph steered in the direction, never dreaming of what that eventful trip was to bring forth.



"It's a fine day for sport," remarked Ralph to his two new passengers, as the sloop skimmed along up Keniscot Lake.

"Yes," returned the elder of the two men, whose name was Martin. "It couldn't be better."

"You don't want to try fishing?" suggested the boy, for he knew that a good catch could be had with but little trouble.

"No," put in the younger man, called Toglet. "We want to get up among the islands."

"Very well, sir, I'll have you up there just as fast as the breeze will take us."

There was a slight pause after this, during which both of the men examined their shotguns and other things which they carried.

"You live around here, I suppose?" remarked Martin, at length, looking at Ralph sharply with his coal-black eyes.

"Yes, sir, I live at Westville."

"Lived there long?"

"All my life."

"Then you must know the folks there pretty well?"

"I know nearly everybody, sir."

"Any rich folks live in the town?"

"I don't know what you would call rich," laughed the young boatman. "There are no millionaires, but there are several people quite well-to-do."

"Who are they?"

"There is Mr. Carrington, and the Widow Pennover for two, and then Squire Paget is pretty well fixed, I imagine."

"Squire Paget, eh? Is he the squire of the place?"

"Yes, sir."

"Rules it pretty well, I suppose, if he's rich," and Martin laughed in a style that had little of reality in it.

"I don't know what you mean by that," returned Ralph, in perplexity. "He is squire, that is all. He owns quite a deal of property and he lives on the rent money."

"Pretty nice town," put in Toglet. "I wouldn't mind owning a place there myself. Do you own a place?" he went on, with assumed indifference, while he listened eagerly for the reply.

"Yes, we own a small place close to the Eastport bridge."

"Oh, yes. That's a valuable spot."

"We own more of the land, from the bridge up, but we can't prove our right to it," added Ralph.

"That's too bad." Toglet and Martin exchanged glances. "What seems to be the trouble?" went on the former.

"The papers my father had are missing, and we can do nothing without them."

"You do not know what has become of the papers?"

"No, sir. We are advertising for them, but so far we have not received any information concerning them."

"But can't you get duplicates from the former owners of the ground?"

"No, sir. The former owners are all dead, and the property fell into my father's hands in a roundabout way. You see, when he got it the land was worth but very little, and no great care was taken of the papers in consequence."

Toglet nodded, as though to indicate he understood. Then, while Ralph was busy starting the sloop on another tack, Toglet leaned over and whispered to his companion:

"That's the bottom of it, Sam."

"I shouldn't wonder," returned Martin, in an equally low tone.

Ralph heard the whisper, but paid no attention to it, thinking the men were discussing something not meant for his ears. He turned over on the new tack, and once more the sloop went along on her course, throwing up the fine spray over the bow.

"We'll be able to get home faster than we are now sailing," remarked Ralph. "We'll have a good wind all the way."

"Unless it dies out," returned Martin, and there was just a trace of nervousness in his tone.

"It won't die out," replied the young boatman, confidently, as he cast his eyes about the sky. "This breeze is good until some time after dark."

"When will we be able to reach the islands?" asked Toglet.

Ralph looked at watch.

"It is now quarter to ten. We'll reach the lowest of them by eleven o'clock, and the big ones quarter of an hour or so later."

On and on up the lake sped the sloop. The villages on the shores had been left far behind, and now nothing but trees and bushes appeared upon either bank.

"Rather lonely," observed Martin, as he gazed eagerly about. "Not a house in sight."

"No, sir; there is no settlement within a mile and a half of here," returned Ralph.

"Are there any settlements near the islands?"

"No, sir."

"I understand there are a number of great cliffs and ravines about the islands," observed Martin. "I would like to see them."

"I will show you all there are," said Ralph.

At the time he had named they reached several small islands and passed them. Then two of larger proportions appeared in sight.

One of the latter was quite flat, while the other was rocky and mountainous.

"There is the best island for hunting," said Ralph. "We call it Three Top Island, because there are three tops to the mountain on it. Shall we land now?"

"Yes," replied Toglet, after an exchange of glances with Martin.

Ralph at once lowered the jib and took a reef in the mainsail. Then the tiller was thrown over, and in two minutes more they ran into a tiny cove and came to anchor close beside a grassy bank, fringed with meadow brush.

"Of course you will go with us," said Martin, as he sprang out.

"If you wish," replied Ralph. "Otherwise, I can remain here until your return."

"No; come along, by all means," put in Toglet. "We want you to show us the points of interest, you know—those high cliffs and the big ravines."

"All right, sir. Just wait till I make everything secure."

Ralph at once set to work, and inside of five minutes he was ready to accompany the two men. He had found them quite agreeable on the trip and never for an instant did he dream of the foul plot that they were expecting to carry out.

Ralph offered to carry the game-bags, but this offer was declined. So, with nothing in his hands but a thin stick he had picked up on the bank, he led the way away from the sloop and up among the rocks that formed the base of the mountain of which the island was composed.

"It's the best kind of a place for the work," whispered Martin to Toglet, as they trudged on behind Ralph. "Not a soul will guess the truth after the deed is done."

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