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Bart Stirling's Road to Success; Or, The Young Express Agent By Allen Chapman Characters: 7855

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Turning the corner of the in-freight house Bart came to a quick halt.

He had nearly run down a man who sat between the rails tying his shoe.

The minute Bart set his eyes on the fellow he remembered having seen him twice before-both times in this vicinity, both times looking wretched, dejected and frightened.

The man started up, frightened now. He was about forty years old, very shabby and threadbare in his attire, his thin pale face nearly covered with a thick shock of hair and full black beard.

"Hello!" challenged Bart promptly.

"Oh, it's you, young Stirling," muttered the man, the haunted expression in his eyes giving way to one of relief.

"Found a job yet?" asked Bart.

"I-haven't exactly been looking for work," responded the man, in an embarrassed way.

"I should think you would," suggested Bart.

"See here," spoke the man, livening up suddenly. "I'll talk with you, because you're the only friend I've found hereabouts. I'm in trouble, and you can call it hiding if you like. I'm grateful to you for the help you gave me the other night, for I was pretty nigh starved. But I don't think you'd better notice me much, for I'm no good to anybody, and I hope you won't call attention to my hanging around here."

"Why should I?" inquired Bart, getting interested. "I want to help you, not harm you. I feel sorry for you, and I'd like to know a little more."

A tear coursed down the man's forlorn face and he shook his head dejectedly.

"You can't sleep forever in empty freight cars, picking up scraps to live on, you know," said Bart.

"I'll live there till I find what I came to Pleasantville to find!" cried the man in a sudden passion. Then his emotion died down suddenly and he fell to trembling all over, and cast hasty looks around as if frightened at his own words.

"Don't mind me," he choked up, starting suddenly away. "I'm crazy, I guess! I know I'm about as miserable an object as there is in the world."

Bart ran after him, drawing a quarter from his pocket. He detained the man by seizing his arm.

"See here," he said, "you take that, and any time you're hungry just go up to the house and tell my mother, will you?"

"Bless her-and you, too!" murmured the man, with a hoarse catch in his throat. "I'll take the money, for I need it desperately bad, but don't you fret-it will come back. Yes! it will come back, double, the day I catch the man who squeezed all the comfort out of my life!"

He dashed away with a strange cry. Bart, half decided that he was demented, watched him disappear in the direction of a cheap eating house just beyond the tracks, and started homewards more or less sobered and thoughtful over the peculiar incident.

It was nearly eight o'clock when Bart got through with his supper, did his house chores, mended a broken toy pistol for one junior brother, made up a list of purchases of torpedoes, baby-crackers and punk for the other, and helped his sisters in various ways.

Bart was soon in the midst of the fray. Every live boy in Pleasantville was in evidence about the village pleasure grounds, the common and the hill. Group after group greeted Bart with excited exclamations. He was a general favorite with the small boys, always ready to assist or advise them, and an acknowledged leader with those of his own age.

He soon found himself quite active in devising and assisting various minor displays of squibs, rockets and colored lights. Then he got mixed up in a general rush for the sheer top of the hill amid the excited announcement that something unusual was going on there.

The crowd was met by a current of juvenile humanity.

"Run!" shouted an excited voice, "she's going off."

"No, she ain't," pronounced another scoffingly-"ain't lighted yet-no one's got the nerve to do it."

Bart recognized the last speaker as Dale Wacker, a nephew of Lem. He had noticed a little earlier his big brother, Ir

a, a loutish, overgrown fellow who had gone around with his hands in his pockets sneering at the innocent fun the smaller boys were indulging in, and bragging about his own especial Fourth of July supply of fireworks which were to come from some mysterious source not clearly defined. The Wacker brothers belonged to a crowd Bart did not train with usually, but as Dale espied him and seized his arm energetically, Bart did not draw away, respecting the occasion and its courtesies.

"You're the very fellow!" declared Dale.

"You bet he is!" cried two others, crowding up and slapping Bart on the back. "He won't crawfish. Give him the punk, Dale."

The person addressed extended a lighted piece of punk.

"Yes, take it, Stirling," he said. "Show him, boys."

"Yes, you'll have to show me," suggested Bart significantly. "What's the mystery, anyhow?"

"No mystery at all," answered Dale, "only a surprise. See it-well, it's loaded."

"Clean to the muzzle!" bubbled over an excited urchin.

They were all pointing to the top of the hill. Bart understood, for clearly outlined against the light of the rising moon stood the grim old sentinel that had done duty as a patriotic reminder of the Civil War for many a year.

"Old Hurricane" the relic cannon had been dubbed when what was left of Company C, Second Infantry, came marching back home in the sixties.

There was not a boy in town who had not straddled the black ungainly relic, or tried to lift the heavy cannon balls that symmetrically surrounded its base support.

Two years before, Colonel Harrington had erected at his own expense a lofty flagpole at the side of the cannon and donated an elegant flag. Every Washington's Birthday and Fourth of July since, this site had been the center of all public patriotic festivities, and the headquarters for celebrating for juvenile Pleasantville.

Bart was a little startled as he comprehended what was in the wind. He thrilled a trifle; his eyes sparkled brightly.

"It's all right, Stirling," assured Dale Wacker. "We cleaned out the barrel and we've rammed home a good solid charge, with a long fuse ready to light. Guess it will stir up the sleepy old town for once, hey?"

Bart was in for any harmless sport, yet he fumbled the lighted piece of punk undecidedly.

"I don't know about this, fellows"-he began.

"Oh! don't spoil the fun, Stirling," pleaded little Ned Sawyer, a rare favorite with Bart. "We asked one-legged Dacy on the quiet. He was in the war, and he says the gun can't burst, or anything."

The crowd kept pushing Bart forward in eager excitement.

"Why don't you light it yourself?" inquired Bart of Dale.

"I've sprained my foot-limping now," explained young Wacker. "She may kick, you see, and soon as you light her you want to scoot."

"Go ahead, Bart! touch her off," implored little Sawyer, quivering with excitement.

"Whoop! hurrah!" yelled a frantic chorus as Bart took a voluntary step up the hill.

That decided him-patriotism was in the air and he was fully infected. One or two of the larger boys advanced with him, but halted at a safe distance, while the younger ones danced about and stuck their fingers in their ears, screaming.

Bart got to the side of the cannon. It was silhouetted in the landscape on a slight slant towards the stately mansion and grounds of Colonel Harrington, in full view at all times of the magnate who had improved its surroundings.

Bart made out a long fuse trailing three feet or more over the side of the old fieldpiece. He blew the punk to a bright glow.

"Ready!" he called back merrily over his shoulder.

The hillside vibrated with the flutter of expectant juvenile humanity and a vast babel of half-suppressed excited voices.

Bart applied the punk, there was a fizz, a sharp hiss, a writhing worm of quick flame, and then came a fearful report that split the air like the crack of doom.

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