As Byron paused on the foot log, the evening that this story began, his conscience endeavored to point out the danger signals that were about and ahead of him.
He felt the weight of his disobedience and sin. He thought of the many prayers his dear mother had offered for his protection, and he vividly remembered her earnest entreaties upon that particular night. Her last words, “My dear boy, I shall pray for you!” sent a thrill through his heart. “Is she praying—is she thinking of me this very moment?” he wondered. Then the hoot of the owl again rang out through the forest.
“Why not return to Mother and pour out before her my heartaches and beg her forgiveness for all of my shortcomings?” he thought. “How her tender touch upon my forehead and her loving words would soothe my troubled mind!” But again the thought of George and James returned and overcame his better judgment. “They are probably waiting for me right now,” he said aloud, “and what would they say if they knew I had such thoughts! I must have more courage or I will never succeed! When I get out of these woods, I may feel differently. The stars at least will be shining, and that will be a help.”
Hastening on he followed first a narrow path and then an old forest road, until he came out upon the highway. When the rustling of the leaves and the breaking of twigs beneath his feet ceased, he felt relieved, for something like fear had followed him through the woods and the prophesied dangers seemed close upon him.
In another half-hour he entered the yard that surrounded the home of the farmer for whom James worked, and the lights from the house fell softly upon the walk before him. In the shadow just beyond he stopped, for he thought that he heard voices in the dark recesses of the porch. He was not mistaken, for he soon found James and George anxiously awaiting his arrival and commenting upon his non-appearance.
“At last!” he heard them exclaim as he drew near.
“Here we have been an hour or more waiting for you and expecting you every minute!” James exclaimed. “What was the matter, Byron? Was it trouble with the old woman that kept you?”
The disrespect and unkindness of these remarks hurt Byron very much, but he dared not say anything about it, knowing they would ridicule him if he did.
“I was delayed in getting started,” he said.
He did not need to say any more, because James exclaimed, “Boys, it’s getting late now, and I’ll have to go to the store for the mail. If you’ll go with me, we can be planning something on our way. I intended to plan everything out before we came together, but so many things were suggested to my mind that I really could not decide upon any of them, so I have no plan for tonight. But we’ll have plenty of time as we walk to the post office, as it is two miles away.”
As the boys walked along in the darkness, James and George grew very merry and rehearsed several exciting adventures, but Byron remained silent. His experience had been quite different from theirs in every way, and the scenes of the past few hours had not all vanished. He was still thinking of the words that were spoken to him at the river.
Suddenly George said, “It seems to me as though Byron is unusually quiet tonight. I never knew him to be so still before. I wonder if he’s losing his power of speech? Why don’t you wake up, old fellow, and be yourself again?”
So Byron did try to become sociable, and joined in the conversation, but his thoughts were elsewhere.
Two letters and a newspaper were waiting for the farmer at the post office. James quickly thrust them into his pocket, and, stepping to the counter, he purchased some fruit, candy, and cigars for his group.
It was with reluctance that Byron took the cigar James offered him, for he still remembered his experience at the dance hall. But he was anxious to avoid the remarks of the boys, so he placed it between his lips, and when it was lighted he began to smoke. In a few minutes the three passed out into the darkness, but Byron was already feeling the effects of the tobacco upon his system. Now that the boys could not see him, he threw the cigar from him as though it had been a snake.
While passing a country church, they saw that some kind of service was being held, and their attention was attracted to a group of young men and boys who were loitering about on the outside. The coarse words and rough laughter excited their curiosity. Joining the group, they listened to several vulgar stories.
Among the faces George recognized that of his friend and neighbor Jason White. Jason was several years older than either of the boys, but George introduced him to his friends and also invited him to join them. Jason was only too glad to accept the invitation and said that he was anxious for something of the kind. The four were soon wending their way along the highway. As they were passing a certain farmhouse, George remarked, “Here is where old Davis lives. He’s a stingy old codger. I’d like to get even with him. He has had it in for my dad for a long time. Last fall James and I got in his melon patch one night, and he happened to be watching. He fired us out in a hurry, but he never knew who it was. The big farm he owns here is making lots of money. He would never have missed the few melons that we could have taken.”
“Perhaps he would have given you some if you had asked him for them,” Byron said quickly, for he was acquainted with Mr. Davis himself and knew him to be a kind man.
“Not much! He’s not made that way,” George answered excitedly. “He’s a regular old crank, and besides, that is not our way of getting things. Here is his orchard, and who is getting any good from that but himself?”
As they passed by the house, they all became very quiet, and, climbing the fence on the opposite side of the road, they entered a fine young orchard of apple trees. George stepped up to one of the trees and said, “I’m going to see that no one gets any good from some of these trees!” With his knife he quickly cut the bark from around six of the young trees. “That will fix them, all right,” he said with a laugh of satisfaction. “I don’t believe in returning good for evil.”
At the lower end of the field was a vacant house that they said was some more of old Davis’ possessions. Just as they were passing, crash went a window pane. In the stillness of the night the noise of the breaking glass sounded like the report of a gun. All suddenly stopped, and Byron asked, “What was that?”
James answered, “Oh, I was just helping George to get even with old Davis.”
At this the other boys began to laugh, and for a few minutes clods, stones, and clubs were showered against the house until the sound of the breaking glass might have been heard for a long distance. Fearful lest someone might see or hear them, they ran across a field to another road. “Whose house is this?” George queried as they stopped in front of a fine residence.
“Oh, that is where Sibleys live,” Jason said quickly. Then, suddenly calling their attention to some chickens that were roosting in a tree not far from the house, he continued in a low tone, “Say, boys, I have an idea. Let’s have a chicken roast tonight. You fellows keep out of sight in the shadow of the fence, and I will see to the rest.”
Crouching down, as one who understands his business, Jason started toward the house. For a few minutes there was perfect silence, and then the little group in the fence corner heard the flapping of wings, followed by a few smothered squawks. Instinctively they started to run, and they did not stop until they came to the river. Jason was not far behind them. In his hands he carried two plump chickens. The quickly crossed to the opposite bank and threw themselves panting upon the grass, commenting upon their narrow escape, for Jason had noticed several persons appearing at the window next to the tree as he left the Sibley house. Then they began to plan for the dressing, cooking, and eating of their pillage.
“This would be an excellent place to clean these fowls,” Jason suggested. “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t seen by anyone looking out the window, and no one would think of looking for us in this out-of-the-way spot. So we can work without any fear of danger.”
James and George agreed, and the three began to do the work, but Byron sat and did nothing. He could not enjoy such proceedings. Everything they did was new, and strangely exciting to him. But he dared not express his opinions, for the others would only reproach and ridicule him, and he knew that he had no excuse for being in their company.
He was constantly drawing closer to the danger signals and was filled with fear and awe at the sight. Only a short time before he had stood upon the foot log a little farther up this same stream and listened to the warnings of his slighted conscience.
“Poor Mother!” he thought. “Is she still awake? Did she pray for me as she said she would? Is she still praying for me? Or is she lying upon a pillow that is wet with tears?” These and many other questions were in his mind. For awhile, in the excitement of their work, the older boys quite forgot about Byron.
When the dressing of the chickens was done, Jason said, “Now, boys, we must find a place where we can cook and eat our spoil. I know of a vacant house about a half mile back from the main road. I believe that will be an ideal place to roast our chickens, and if you will all follow I will lead you safely there.”
To follow their leader along the narrow path near the river was no easy matter, but with care they managed to do so. At length they reached the highway, and traveling was easier. As they sped along, Byron glanced longingly into the windows of the houses that were still lighted. He wished that he was home and safe in bed instead of trudging about the country in such a disgraceful manner. How gladly he would have crept silently up the stairway to his own bedroom, for he was very weary indeed. Instead he must follow the boys, making as little noise as possible. Now far from the Sibleys’, where the chickens had been stolen, they turned suddenly down a narrow lane and soon were standing in front of a deserted house.
“This place has been vacant quite awhile,” Jason said as he carefully examined the doors. Finding them all locked, he said a little disappointedly, “Where there is a will, there is a way, and I have the will to enter this house.” The tone of his voice made Byron uneasy.
After Jason had tried all the windows and found them securely nailed, he seized a long fence post that was lying near, and smash went every pane of glass in the window nearest him.
“What on earth are you doing?” Byron exclaimed, rushing forward. He had been standing a little part from the rest, secretly hoping that something might turn up that would give him an excuse to return home. Perhaps he had thinking of another danger signal, and the sound of the breaking glass made him think that it was near at hand.
“I am only making a way where there is no way,” Jason replied, as he quickly climbed through the opening he had made. Hastening to a door, he threw it open, saying gleefully as he did so, “Step into my parlor, boys. It’s as pretty a little place as you could wish!”
When the boys had entered the musty room, and had lighted a match, they saw that it was empty, except for some old rubbish that had been left by the family who had formerly occupied it. In one corner there was an old fireplace.
“Good!” Jason said as his eyes fell upon the uninviting hearth; “this is just what we want! Now, while I light another match, you fellows hustle about and bring material for a fire.”
Obeying the command of Jason, the boys soon had a good fire built from the rubbish that was strewn about the room. As the flames began to leap and roar up the chimney, the four could see better what they were doing.
George suddenly exclaimed, “Get something up to those windows as quickly as you can. The light of this fire can be easily seen from the road. Get newspapers, or anything, but hurry!” An armful of newspapers were brought from an adjoining room, and the light from the fire was soon shut away from public view.
So exciting had been the proceedings that again Byron was forgotten. When he was again noticed, it was by James, who said, “Why, Byron, what is the matter with you? You look as though you had seen a ghost.”
He had, for the ghost of his former self had been continually before him, and he was heartsick and troubled. The entire evening had indeed been a trying time for Byron, but the excitement of the past hour had quite upset him. He stood there in the firelight, weak and faint, like a shadow of his former self.
The boys waited, and at last he said, “Boys, there is certainly no fun in this for me. I would rather be at home in bed. I don’t believe in omens, but I fear that this night’s doing are going to end up bad. I have had a strange experience since I left home, and my feelings are indescribable.”
“That’s nothing new,” James said mockingly. “Byron is subject to this kind of spells. This is not the first one that he has had by any means. The pace that we have been going tonight is just a little fast for him, and he is always ready to get scared at his own shadow. Still he is not as bad as he was at first,” James added, more kindly. “That conscience of his used to bother him awfully whenever we had a little fun or did something out of the ordinary. Lately he has gotten more used to our ways, and we must have patience and help him along, for he is a valuable companion that we cannot afford to lose. I think sometimes that we do not have enough charity for him. For, you see, all of us have been raised differently.”
“Yes, I think you grew up without any raising, James,” George said.
At this remark the other boys laughed, even Byron, in spite of his feelings.
“Well, what I was saying,” James continued when the merriment ceased, “was that our home training has not been at all the same. Byron has a mother that has done a great deal of preaching to him, and the fact is, it’s hard to constantly sit under one kind of teaching and not be affected by the words of the preacher.”
“No doubt some of these talks of his mother have taken such a firm hold upon him that it will not be possible for him to break away from them all at once. I think, however, that we can safely say that Byron is getting weaned away from his mother to some extent, and if we can only hold out, we’ll be able to make him see as we do, and we must all have charity. What was that in our Sunday school lesson last Sunday about charity? ‘Charity shall cover the multitude of sins,’ (1 Peter 4:8) wasn’t it?”
“Now, James, you know very well that our teacher explained that Scripture in altogether a different way from that, and you cannot apply it in that way,” Byron said indignantly. Then he added, “I can tell you this, boys if charity can be used to cover up sin, it will surely take a goodly pile to hide the deeds of tonight.”
“You boys had better stop arguing and get down to business,” Jason said. “The fire is in a fine condition now for roasting our chickens, and it’s high time that they were on.”
“I don’t see anything in which to put them on,” Byron remarked as he surveyed the room in a disdainful way.
“Of course, you don’t,” Jason continued. “That is to be produced by our own efforts. Just take that board and split off some pieces with your jackknife. Make your stick two or three feet long and sharpen it at one end. Then fasten a piece of chicken to it and hold it over the fire until it is done.”
Again Byron tried desperately to hide his disgust, and presently each of the boys was endeavoring to follow out the instructions given them. Soon four sticks, with a piece of meat upon each, were being held over the fire, while the odor of the sizzling meat filled the room.
“If we only had a little salt to use as seasoning for our meat!” James remarked as he tested his meat to see whether it was done. “Why didn’t I think and put a little in my pocket?”
“Don’t chide yourself with forgetfulness, my friend. I usually carry such things with me as I know I will need in an emergency like this,” said Jason, drawing from his pocket a small sack of salt. “These are little home comforts that we can’t do without.”
Much time and patience were required to cook the meat, but at last it was pronounced ready to eat. Still struggling with his feelings, Byron endeavored to eat the portion that he had roasted, but it was tough and raw. In fact, there was nothing tempting about it. As he looked about the dirty room and viewed the little group before him gnawing at the meat they held upon blackened sticks or in soiled fingers, and breathed into his lungs the foul odors of the musty room, his mind was carried back to the tempting feasts at home upon holidays and other occasions, that had often been prepared by his loving and thoughtful mother.
The table—covered with a snowy cloth and loaded with all the good things that the farm produced, graced by the huge platter with a juicy brown turkey or chicken upon it, and surrounded by a merry group of boys and girls, with mother in her accustomed place, and knives and forks to convey the food to their hungry mouths. This had always been a favorite scene. And now, as it came before him, he thought it was the most beautiful picture upon which he had ever looked. What a contrast! What a change! And in so short a time!
At home every advantage was awaiting him. He was not only a welcome member there, but his very presence was longed for. And yet he had chosen rather to be among thieves and robbers.
Again the scene changed. He though of when he was a small boy at mother’s knee—innocent and free—with mother’s hand fondly caressing him. Her admonitions to be good and to seek good company were clear and distinct, and the thought of the kiss upon his brow as he was tucked into bed almost brought the tears. Then he once more heard the echoes loud and distinct of that voice upon the foot log, warning him of dangers seen and unseen.
One piece of that chicken was all that he could possibly swallow. The food seemed to choke him, but it was not so with the other boys. They ate with a relish, and piece after piece disappeared. In fact, they did not stop eating until the last morsel of the food was gone. Filthy and vulgar stories were told during the meal, interspersed with an occasional witty remark about Byron or some reference to a former adventure in which they had barely escaped being caught.
When two hours of this sort of thing had passed, Byron became so weary that he could scarcely keep awake. It was not long past the midnight hour, and aside from the tramping and the excitement of the trip, he had put in a hard day of heavy toil in the field. He was weary and footsore, and as he thought of his downy pillows at home, his head sank forward lower and lower. Then he was asleep, dreaming of home and of mother.