The Guarded Hearthstone
A tale of Old Ontario, of old loves and new love, and the fearlessness of “this madcap generation"
THERE were fifteen steps in the old kitchen stairs. Mary Bell reached the bottom in five. She was in joyous disarray: Johnny’s oldest overalls, a ragged shirt of Grandpa’s, and an ancient straw hat disowned by even the hired man. Cap and bells they were, for the great news of the breakfast table had turned the day’s toil into a frolic. She dared the old farm to do its worst.
Her handsome elder sister was on the back stoop washing the heavy breakfast dishes with the aloof air of a captive princess. She dropped a clattering pan as the overalls came capering through the doorway.
“Mercy! You look like something left over from a rummage sale! Mother, do make Bell go up and put on her clothes!”
Mrs. Sinclair rose up from the cool, dim depths of the cellarway, her arms filled with the shining parts of the cream-separator. ►
“Well, for the land’s sake, what next?” she enquired of the radiant morning world. But it was merely a rhetorical question; the beginning of a smile tugged up the drooping ends of her tight mouth. She hurried across the yard and arranged the scoured utensils along the top of the wood-pile to blaze in the sunshine. Her thin figure stooped anxiously forward, as though reaching out to catch the flying hours.
Mary Bell paused at the pump. She drank a long cold draught from the dipper and flung rainbow drops toward the row of flaming hollyhocks by the woodshed. It was her first morning at home, and in the early bright sunlight it seemed as though her mother looked older and smaller. The Sinclairs were not a demonstrative family. Mary Bell could not have dreamed of giving her mother a caress, but she felt the need of some gesture of kindness.
“It’ll be a wonderful rest for you, mother, when we move to West Compton, won’t it?” she ventured.
Her mother’s thin brown hands were swiftly gathering Up an armful of firewood.
“I s’pose it will. I was never much of a hand to rest, though.”
She raised herself slowly and looked her daughter in the face. Mary Bell experienced a shock. She had seen that expression in her mother’s eyes just once before; that dreadful day, five years ago, when she and Johnny had come home from school and found themselves fatherless.
The agonized look was gone as swiftly zs it came.
Her mother hurried to the house calling over her shoulder.
“If you’re cuttin’ near the road, Mary Bell, for goodness sake put on a pinny or something. You look something awful behind.”
The girl pulled the old straw hat down over a shining bundle of red-gold curls, and walked slowly down the garden path. Kathleen in a smart pink gingham came down to the gate with a basket over her arm on the way to gather some early peas for dinner.
“Are you sure mother wanted to sell the place, Katie? And grandpa?” she asked.
“Of course. I didn’t coax them, nor Hughie either. It just all happened in a hurry. This Rogers man’s father and mother are bound to come back from the West to retire, and he wanted a farm for them near a town. Fancy getting rid of one Ontario farm in your life and taking on another! So Hughie just brought him out here that day, and he made such a wonderful offer that even grandpa saw we would be crazy to refuse. Mother didn’t say anything against it, did she?”
“No, but mother wouldn’t say anything even if she died on the road to West Compton, you know that.”
“Well, what else can we do? We teach school all winter and slave all summer, and if you want to go on doing it forever, I don’t. And one of us would have to stay home altogether if Johnny goes back to the university next year.”
M'ary Bell went on silently toward the barn. The shining dewy morning had lost some of its radiance.
Geordie Shaw, their slow, silent hired man, gave a grunt of disapproval at the sight of the boyish figure. Her brother received her with joyous acclaim.
“What art thou that usurp’st this time of night?” he quoted dramatically.
Johnny had just finished his first year in Toronto University and never lost an opportunity for extramural display.
“You’re a lovely apparition sent to be a moment’s ornament yourself,” she countered. “Every seam in your shirt has three rips in it.”
He held up his tattered arms reproachfully. “Seams? Madam, I know not seams!”
Mary Bell laughed aloud as she scrambled to the seat of the mower. After all, it must be the best thing to sell the farm. Johnny was far too clever to be wasting his talents feeding pigs. But she would not tell him so for the whole farm.
“I shall not look upon his like again,” she quoted. “Or at least I hope not.”
Geordie Shaw, busy with the harness, grunted again. He had been with the Sinclairs ever since their father died, and while he admitted that the oldest girl was smart enough, though terribly stuck up, and the oldest boy seemed to be making a success at the doctoring business in West Compton, it was his private opinion that this younger pair were, neither of them, quite right in the head.
Mary Bell chirped to the heavy old team and clattered away out to the lane. She drew up as she drove past the orchard. Grandpa had just fed the calves, and was resting in the shade of the harvest apple-tree. The empty pail lay at his feet, and a frisky little red-andwhite calf was striving desperately to jerk one last drop from the bottom. Behind the old man rose the stones of a ruined chimney; the only remains of the earliest home, the pioneer shanty which the first Sinclair in the country had built in his first clearing. It stood there a lone monument to the toilsome past, white in the morning sunlight against the green of the orchard. Grandpa was sitting, as usual, on one of the scattered stones at its base, close to the old bleached hearthstone. He had been cradled here in a sap-trough, and the fires that had roared up this old chimney had illuminated his boyish dreams.
“Grandpa,” shouted the girl, disturbed by the dejected droop of the old figure, “you’re glad Hughie sold the farm, aren’t you?”
The old man regarded her from beneath concealing brows.
“Did anybody hear me say I was sorry?”
“No; oh, no. But I wondered. It’ll be splendid for you and mother, won’t it, living right next door to Hughie, and with nothing to do.”
“Did ye iver hear me complainin’ about the work I had to do?”
This was discouraging. When grandpa countered question with question he was hiding his real feelings.
“A farm makes so much hard work for everybody,” she ventured.
“Work!” he scoffed. “What does any o’ ye know about work?” He laid his gnarled hand on the stones of the old chimney. “Ah, this was the place for work! Here was where my mother worked, your greatgrandmother, Mary Bell. Here’s where she did all the washin’ and cookin’ and mendin’ and spinnin’ and sewin’ for a family of ten. Yon was the woman! You look like her, Mary Bell, kinda well set up and red hair, but ye’re not such good stuff, none o’ ye are. Work! Hoh!”
The descendant of great-grandmother Sinclair just released from a hard term of school-teaching, was inclined to argue the matter. Instead, she plucked a gay plume of fireweed and stuck it into the torn brim of her hat. “Pretty, isn’t it?” she said ingratiatingly.
But the old man was not to be diverted from his favorite theme.
“Fireweed, aye! I mind the first that grew there. It came up by the door that summer after the wolves was so bad. Eh, I’ll niver forget yon night they came to the shanty before it was finished. I was just a wee shaver then . . .”
But grandpa’s stories were likely to last as long as the haying; and his audience, with a hurried apology, went clattering down the lane. It was grandpa’s custom when displeased to compare them all unfavorably with his pioneer mother, and to retell her exploits—how she cooked and spun and hoed, how she had once kept a bear treed with a pitchfork until her little son ran for the gun, and how one night, before a door had been hung in the new-built shanty, she had fought the wolves single-handed when they came raging round her home!
He would not miss her, Mary Bell comforted herself; he would go on telling the story to the old hearthstone. A poignant thought struck her. How could grandpa possibly pass his days without the old hearthstone to talk to? Selling your old home was not such a simple business as Hughie seemed to think.
At the foot of the lane she turned aside and plunged into a warring sea of timothy. She threw the mower
into gear. Its voice rose in triumphant song. She rode down the field, the fragrant rain falling before the wheels of her chariot. Mary Bell drew a great breath of the perfumed air. This was better than teaching school! She could see away over miles of farm land clothed in every shade of green. A white elm-fringed road wound through it, far away down to the blue stretches of the Georgian Bay. She turned up the side of the field facing the house. There was grandpa moving in slowly from the barn, mother hurrying out to the pump, Katie’s pink gingham a huge blossom in the vegetable patch. From the back fields came Johnny and Geordie Shaw, hauling in their first load. Johnny’s whistle rose above the rattle of the wagon. Down there in that gray house beyond the curve in the road lived Nellie Marsh, her lifelong friend. This was her home and it was hers no longer. Mary Bell drove round the field with a cold hand clutching her throat.
AS SHE reached the foot of the lane once more and slowed up at the corner for the turn, she spied a car drawn up by the roadside. And near the fence, half-hidden by the raspberry bushes, stood a man gazing around with a proprietary air. By some strange instinct Mary Bell divined who he was, and her heart swelled with unreasonable resentment. He answered completely to Katie’s description, and could be none other than this Rogers person himself who had disrupted their home. He was looking her way now and she returned his gaze with a hostile stare, as though the stone fence were the fortifications of her home and he the attacking enemy. Then her eyes fell, for as Katie had faithfully reported, the Rogers man was young and not at all bad looking. She became unhappily conscious of the cap and bells donned so gleefully not an hour ago, the dreadful overalls, the hideous shirt, the unspeakable hat with the fireweed waving brazenly from its ragged brim as if to call attention to her frightfulness !
She had decided to pass him unseeing, when she realized the hopelessness of turning the slow heavyfooted team except under the stimulus of the only language which they understood, the language in which they had been trained by Geordie Shaw. “Hey, there, whatter ye doin’? Giddap ye crazy fools ! Haw, there,
haw! Gee up! Where d’ye think yer goin’?” was the necessary formula for getting off to a new start. Mary Bell hesitated over even her mild version of it, and old Fan and Tom stopped short and reached happily for the green grass by the side of the field.
The usurper had been moving nearer and at this awkward moment he called, “Good Morning.” There was nothing for it but to mumble an answer.
“Guess you’ll think I came back in a hurry,” he cried in a strong resounding voice that seemed to belong to wide leagues of prairie land. “We happened to be passing and I just had to get out and have another look. Say, this place beats the world !”
He flung one leg over the fence just as though he owned it already.
“This is my first visit back East since we left it twenty years ago, and when I get out into the country like this I just sort of take root again. I hope you don’t mind,” he added with a friendly grin.
“I guess there’s no law against it,” came the ungracious response from underneath the hat.
“I hope there’s no law against stealing raspberries, either. I’ve nearly cleaned out this patch. I haven’t tasted wild raspberries since I was about the size of one. This place reminded me of our old Ontario farm the minute I clapped my eyes on it, and now that I’ve tasted the raspberries I know I’m home for sure.
Mary Bell did not echo his laugh. The pain in her throat had grown suddenly worse. He leaned farther over the fence. “You’re one of the Sinclair kids, aren’t you?” he asked in the friendliest fashion.
She had a sudden inspiration. “Yes, I’m the youngest boy,” she answered with a fairly good imitation of Johnny’s husky tones. It seemed the part of discretion to retreat here, and she managed without a disgraceful amount of reviling to get old Tom and Fan away.
But when she had circled the field, the man was still there, standing on the stone fence now, hat in hand.
“I’ve just been taking off my hat to Old Ontario,” he shouted. “Manitoba’s my own country now, and I don’t think I could draw a real honest-to-goodness breath very long away from the prairies. These crowded places make me feel as if I had the asthma or something; but I declare this place can beat any picture
show for looks. Those elms! Say, there’s something in Old Ontario that gets hold of you by the throat, isn’t there?”
Old Ontario had certainly got hold of Mary Bell by the throat. She fumbled with the lines, trying to escape, but she had no voice to stir the old team.
The stranger suddenly leaped down from the fence and strode toward her.
“Aw, say, look here, kiddie,” he cried contritely. “I ought to be kicked from here to Winnipeg. Maybe you didn’t want to sell the place, did you?”
Mary Bell took one swift glance upward into a kindly young troubled face, and retired farther under her hat.
“No, oh, no!” she stammered. “No, I mean yes, oh, yes! We all wanted to sell. Only I’m afraid . . . grandpa, and mother . . .” Her voice was gone again.
He regarded her in puzzled and sympathetic silence for a moment.
“Are you the boy they call Johnny?” he asked gently.
It is impossible to guess what invention Mary Bell might have called to her aid in that moment of dire need. For just here a little breeze took a hand in her affairs. It came dancing up, Ariel-like, from the Georgian Bay, and tossed away the old hat, baring a very feminine head of red-gold curls to the blazing sunshine !
The Sinclair’s youngest boy looked up with a brazenness born of desperation. “No, I’m the boy they call Mary Bell,” she said distinctly.
The shameful fact that he was staggering with laughter as he rescued the hat, froze her into dignity. She did not stoop to any explanations.
“It’s because we girls have to do men’s work that we are selling,” she said solemnly, cramming the hat down over her curls again. “Of course, we’d rather not. Why, my great-grandparents made the first clearing on this place.”
There arose a loud honking invitation from the car in the road.
He paid no attention. “Say, look here, I wouldn’t for all the world have you think ... I mean I’m not leaving for Winnipeg till Friday night, and if you or your mother or your grandpa take a notion that you’d
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like to forget this transaction, just you say the word before I leave. I wouldn’t for all Ontario with Manitoba thrown in . . .”
“Oh, but it wouldn’t be right, you just couldn’t!” faltered Mary Bell gratefully.
“Yes it would; yes I could if you wanted it.” Again the car honked impatiently. “I’ll be in Greenport till Friday night, at my uncle’s, J. D. Gordon’s on Tecumseh Street. If you decide to call it off, just let me know.”
Mary Bell made a gallant effort and smiled up at him, and when Mary Bell smiled, not even a ten-year-old hat could hide her charm.
“Oh, you’re so awfully good! But after all your trouble and the expense !”
Three hysterical whoops from the car interrupted. “Coming!” he boomed. “I mean it every word,” he called back over his shoulder; “I’ll be tearing round on business every minute, but they’ll know where to find me. I wouldn’t for all the world . . .”
He was still shouting back at her through a cloud of dust when the car went storming over the hill and out of sight.
MARY BELL gave a partial report of the visit as they ate their dinner of fried pork and potatoes, green peas and rhubarb pie in the hot kitchen.
“And you such a perfect walking fright!” mourned Kathleen. “I wish I’d been there.”
“She wasn’t, she was riding the mower,” said Johnny smartly. “But she sure was a fright all the same.”
Mary Bell caught a wistful look in her mother’s eyes. “What did he come for?” she asked eagerly. “Did he act like he’d changed his mind?”
Mary Bell hesitated. What might not happen if she told exactly what he had said?
Fortunately, johnny was talking. “There must be something rotten in the state of Manitoba all right when anybody who has a ranch there wants to come back and farm in Ontario.”
“Did he seem to think his father and mother might not want to leave Manitoba?” her mother persisted, i “I don’t think so,” Mary Bell faltered,
unhappily. “He was ... he said he was just taking off his hat to Old Ontario.” “He’ll have to take off his coat to it if he comes here,” mumbled Johnny, shovelling peas with his knife with a dexterity worthy of Geordie Shaw.
“It’s certainly high time you got away from the farm,” said his elder sister significantly.
“When a fellow’s been pitchin’ hay all morning, he just can’t fill up his own mow with a fork,” he defended himself neatly.
“What are ye all talkin’ about?” demanded grandpa, who never caught general conversation. “Who did ye say that fella was at the gate, Mary Bell?” She shouted a second report and was dismayed to see the same eager look flash up in his old eyes.
“He wasn’t tryin’ to go back on his bargain, Mary Bell, was he?” he whispered tremulously.
She shook her head and he subsided into silence again.
That night, when the milking and the separating were finished, when the calves and the pigs and the hens were fed, the eggs gathered and the garden watered; when, tired out, the sisters went to bed in their hot room beneath the sloping roof, Mary Bell confided the whole story.
“I knew you were keeping something back,” said the astute Kathleen. “You had such a cat-that-ate-the-canary look.” “I didn't like to raise false hopes. I just know they’re sorry they did it, Katie. Mother looks awful and grandpa has lost all his fun.”
Kathleen was sympathetic but inexorable. “They must not be told, of course. After all, it will only be the first wrench of leaving that will be hard. And they’ll have nothing to do.”
“But they don’t want nothing to do.” “Well, it would be perfectly idiotic to go back on our bargain now. If you do, remember it’s you that’ll have to stay home and feed the pigs for the rest of your life. Besides I’ll bet this Rogers man is just one of those silly soft-hearted fellows that doesn’t mean half he says. You probably rolled your eyes up at him and made him think you were going to cry, and he had to offer you the farm to make you stop.”
Katie had a deadly way of stripping a situation of all false sentiment. Mary Bell confessed meekly that perhaps her sister was right, and fell sound asleep.
rT''HE days were so crowded with the problem of getting the hay in before the rain that Friday seemed to come right upon the heels of that disturbing visit. It was the first moment the farm drew breath, for the rain kept off in spite of rumbling threats and the haying was finished. The chores were done early in the evening and Johnny and Geordie Shaw celebrated by going down to the corner to see the baseball club practise. There was a garden party at a neighboring church, and a smart young man in a shiny car came storming out from town and whisked Kathleen away.
Mary Bell washed the last milk pail, and turned it upside down on the porch table for the morning milking. She sat down on the steps and wondered what it would be like to have someone take you to a garden party. Her mother’s white apron gleamed through the orchard trees: she was wandering about on the trail of a hen that was laying astray. Grandpa and the old shaggy dog trotted at her heels. Mary Bell watched them wistfully. They looked so contented. They seemed the central figures of this peaceful golden evening. The hills touched by the sunset glow, the warm valleys lying in amethyst shadows, were their perfect setting. For them the vesper sparrows chanted their little evensong from the borders of the shorn fields. They seemed so much at home.
She could not sit and let her mind run on that subject. She would go down and see Nellie and talk over this problem that was once more weighing heavily upon her. She went down the garden and into the dim shed where the battered old car was kept. It was an ancient vehicle which Hughie had presented to the farm after he had taken six years of a doctor’s country practice out of it. Though Johnny declared it was modeled on greatgrandfather’s stone boat, and Kathleen wouldn’t be found dead in it, still it was sound in engine and tire, and did not give trouble more than once in ten miles. It
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backed out of the shed with noisy protests against being disturbed. As Mary Bell turned into the lane, her eye fell upon the rosy harvest of their early cherry-tree. Her mother’s daughter never liked to go to a neighbor empty-handed. Perhaps she could find enough ripe cherries in the orchard for Nellie’s mother to make a pie.
As she moved down the cool green orchard aisle she heard voices just on the other side of the fence. Grandpa and mother had given up their search and were seated on the stones of the old chimney. She was about to throw a cherry at them when she caught her mother’s words.
“It’s leavin’ the old chimney, grandpa. That’s what makes it so terrible hard for you.”
“Aye, mebbe,” said grandpa heavily. “I can see my mother sittin’ beside this hearthstone. Ah, yon was the woman, Minnie! Not many like her today. And then there was my own woman in the new house. I can jist see her with your John on her knee. And then you came, Minnie. I can see them all.”
“It’s thirty-five years yesterday since I came, grandpa. Thirty-five years ! Hughie was born the next year, and he’ll be thirty-four on . . .” Her voice broke. “I can’t seem to see myself goin’ away.” “It’s harder for you than it is for me, Minnie. I won’t have to put up with livin’ in the town very long.” There was a short silence and then grandpa’s voice in childlike eagerness: “D’ye think we might come back summers, Minnie? Jist you and me. We could rent that little place below the crick, and I could do chores. I’m able for lots o’ work yet, let them talk as they like.”
And then a terrible sound smote Mary Bell’s ears, a sound she had never heard before in her twenty-one years; her mother crying, crying like a hurt child, in loud heaving gasps, her head bowed on the hard stones of the chimney.
“Oh, Minnie, Minnie!” grandpa was saying in helpless woe, “ye mustn’t, Minnie! Mebbe we’ll both die soon. Mebbe the Lord’ll take us home.”
Mary Bell was standing on the very spot where, seventy years before, another Mary Isabel Sinclair had stood and flung firebrands into the midst of the howling wolf-pack that menaced her home. The spirit of her ancestress suddenly flamed up in the heart of the girl. She turned and fled back to the old car standing in the lane. She peered through blinding tears to see if there was enough gasoline and leaped to the wheel.
“Mother,” she shouted over her shoulder, “I’m going to run down the road a little. Don’t wait up for me.” She drove slowly as long as she knew their eyes were following her, but when she had slipped behind the hill that hid her from her home, she gave the old car all the gasoline it would take and went storming down the road toward Greenport. He’d just have to give them back the farm! He said he would! And it didn’t matter if she had to work it all by herself forever and forever!
It was dusk when she stopped with a jerk before the Gordon house. It was a rather imposing place to Mary Bell, with pink-shaded lamps glowing behind silk curtains, and a wide verandah filled with well-dressed people. From an open window a radio was pouring forth an orchestra programme from New York, and all the people on the verandah who had come to listen, were shouting to one another above the musical uproar. Mary Bell paused shyly at the foot of the steps, and a very stout lady in a very short tight gown of lace and silk and perfume came panting down to her.
“Mr. Rogers? Frank? No, he’s gone. My son drove him down to Dunedin on business early this morning.”
“And won’t he be back?” quavered Mary Bell.
“No.” She looked at the girl curiously, and added kindly. “I’m sorry. He’s
leaving for Winnipeg tonight. Harry is to motor him over from Dunedin to catch the night express at Cedar Crossing. He’s been rushed to death with business. Is there anything I can do?”
"X/TARY BELL was fleeing down the road that led out of Greenport, as though all the gossips of the little town were at her rear light. Great-grandmother’s spirit was still aflame. Cedar Crossing was only about ten miles farther on, and the train was not due there for half-an-hour.
“Oh, God,” she prayed aloud as she stormed up a stony hill, “please, please don’t let me have a puncture !”
The lights of the town faded behind her. Darkness fell softly over the dewy fields. Round the curve ahead flashed the blinding lights of another car. The road was narrow and Mary Bell was anything but a skilful driver she well knew, but she dared not slacken speed. They passed with a noise like the crack of a whip, and she took the curve with a fearful swirl. And now she was right on the tail-light of another car. She had always been afraid to pass anyone but tonight she left everything behind in a whirl of dust. A thrilling recklessness took possession of her. She wondered how fast she was going. Johnny said he could make the old bus do sixty-five on a good highway, but she dared not take her eyes off that gray ribbon of road that came leaping toward her, long enough to glance at the speedometer. She stormed along, her heart rising with every mile. Just beyond that belt of wood, not four miles farther, was Cedar Crossing and the little flag station! And he had promised!
She shot down the hill that led into the still darkness of the wood and then slammed down her brakes and slid with a terrible screeching right up against a barrier set across the road. The automobile’s headlights glared into the fatal word “Detour.”
Mary Bell cried aloud in her dismay. Well she knew that detour! It was the road that led to her school: a mile east, up steep, tortuous sand hills, four miles south all swamp and corduroy, and a terrible stony mile back to Cedar Crossing. She looked at her little leathercovered wristwatch; only nine minutes left! It couldn’t be done!
She sat staring at the fatal sign. The silent woods lay about her in a fragrant warm hush. From the black depths came the deep booming of an owl, giving forth his hopeless questioning to the unanswering night. “W-h-o-o-o? Who? Who?” Mary Bell’s heart echoed the ghostly voice. Who? Who? Who would rescue the hearthstone from the wolves tonight?
She turned the car slowly and paused with its lights looking along the hopeless detour. The railway track crossed the road here, and not four miles down it stood Cedar Crossing. Granny Sinclair would have got there somehow. But her great-granddaughter must go home defeated.
Suddenly she thrilled to the notion of a desperate venture. The track! It ran straight down there to the station. The train was not due for fully seven minutes.
It was such a mad project that she dared not stop to consider lest her better judgment forbid. She released the brake. A bump and a jerk and she was off the road and on the railway track. The old car roared forward, its tattered curtains snapping like whips against its sides. The track was built up high here and if there could have been anyone to see her tumultuous progress against the sky, there would have been terrible tales abroad of a monster bird of ill-omen fleeing in the night. She leaped and bumped and bounced from tie to tie. The wheel jerked madly in her frantic hands. She clung to it desperately, wondering if anyone in the world had been mad enough to run a car on the railway track before,
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wondering if she had really gone crazy as Johnny so often said she would. But as she tore along terror gave place to a wild exhilaration. Just beyond that curve and past the little grove and she would turn off into the station yard. Only a minute or two more. Only a minute more. She leaped. She soared. She was going to make it! She was going to make it! Hurrah!
She shot round the curve and her heart froze within her. A piercing shriek from beyond the grove, a long shaft of light on the track ahead, and a blinding train thundering down upon her!
Mary Bell remembered afterward, wakening many a night from bad dreams, that she had almost lost her head in that first awful moment, and pitched over the high embankment, ending herself and her old home in one tragic leap. But Granny Sinclair’s strong spirit did not fail. The very desperation of her position steadied her. She must go on and she must get to that crossing before that train. She had to do it! Only a few yards more! She charged straight down the track in the face of the oncoming terror. Where was that crossing? Would she never come to it? Not yet . . . not yet . . . Another fearful ten seconds. Another five. 0, God help, had she passed the crossing?
The fiery monster gave a terrific yell. Its glare flooded the track. She must leap for her life after all ! She must! No! There it was! The crossing! She even had presence of mind to slacken her terrific speed to turn off. Another shriek from the engine. She whirled on to the road. She leaped toward the ditch, veered, sent a rail crashing from the opposite fence, wobbled madly, steadied, and glided into the station yard, while the great freight train thundered past
with a white-faced engineer howling profanely from his little window!
Mary Bell did not hear him, or the indignant boilings of her smoking engine. They were drowned in the suffocating bangings of her heart. She lay back in the seat, breathing thanksgivings.
A light playing over her face made her open her eyes. A man with a lantern was coming out of the little biscuit-box station and a long car was turning in from the road. Two men stepped from it, one carrying a bag. At the sight of him as he passed her headlights Mary Bell pitched herself out of the car. Her knees were doubling up but she managed to stagger toward him.
“Oh, please, please, Mr.—Mr. Wolf, won’t you get away from our home? You promised you would! Mother and grandpa . . .You promised!” And then her knees knocked together and she sank to the ground at his feet.
The man dropped his bag. He stood staring down at Mary Bell’s bowed head, shining in the light of the car, with the dazed look of a prospector stumbled suddenly upon fabulous gold. And as he stood, there arose a sound at their feet, a deep humming of the rails, the warning that the great iron strings of the harp of commerce were being struck by a giant hand. From behind the black swamp arose a clear high note. A light sprang up far down the track.
The Gordon boy came to life. “Hi there! The train! She ain’t flagged! Woo hoo there, Tommy Reid! whatter ye doin’? Get out an’ flag that there train!”
But the other man, lifting Mary Bell carefully to her feet, shouted in a joyous voice that seemed to belong to wide leagues of prairie-land.
“Let’er go! I’m not leaving! I’ve got to stay over to look for another farm !”