HOWARD CHASE, RED HILL, by Charles Sheldon

Chapter II.

     When Monday morning dawned over Red Hill one theme of conversation mingled with the coffee and toast around the breakfast tables and up and down the one business street and the new minister furnished the topic.

     Down at the Santa Fe Station the Agent pulled the baggage truck up to the end of the platform where the mail car of No. 12 stopped.

     The Expressman was there leaning against the back of his wagon.

     "That was some preaching yesterday, no?" said the Agent as he hooked up the handle of the truck.

     "It sure was," said the Expressman. "I come pretty near going in the evening. I did get up to the door but I couldn't get in."

     "If you don't look out you'll get to be a regular church-goer," said the Agent as he started up the platform.

     "I shouldn't wonder. Going next Sunday if I can get in."

     The Agent stopped, looked back at the Expressman and grinned.

     "Why don't you ask him for a seat on the platform?"

     "And I bet he'd give me one if I did," said the Expressman, standing a little straighter up against his wagon.

     "I'm sure he would," replied the Agent. "He'd give you his own high-backed chair."

     Up on the street Deacon Burton was talking with George Clark, editor of the Red Hill Sun, the county paper.

     "What do you think of our new minister, George? Didn't he do us proud, yesterday?"

     "Yes--" Clark replied, a little cautiously. "But do you think he can keep it up? Struck me he started off on high gear with the muffler wide open. Do you think he can stand the pace?"

     "That isn't the question. Do you think we can stand it? We've never had any one like him before. Why, he just naturally got a hold of me before he got both feet off the train the other day."

     "He's a likely young fellow all right," Clark assented. "Wonder what the other preachers think of him."

     "And wonder what he thinks of them," Deacon Burton grinned.

     "I don't believe he gives a rap about them. He acts to me as if there weren't any other preachers in Red Hill but just himself."

     "How would you have him act?" Deacon Burton asked a little sharply.

     Clark stared and then laughed.

     "Of course I wouldn't have him act any other way. But we can't expect to keep a young fellow like that in Red Hill. He's cut out for a metropolitan pulpit. He won't stay here long."

     "I don't suppose he will." Deacon Burton said it with a note of reluctance. "He's too rich for our blood. But the church is bound to grow while he is here. Why, do you know there were men in church last night I never saw inside of any church, and thought I never would see there until they were in their coffins."

     Clark picked up the bundle he had bought and started to go out.

     "He sure has 'em going. He was around to see me early this morning to get out some special dodgers for Sunday evening meetings. He isn't going to give you saints any ease in Zion."

     "Nor you sinners any in the other place," retorted Deacon Burton, who knew Clark well enough to remonstrate with him nearly every time he saw him, about his not being a church member.

     George Clark was one of a score of business men in Red Hill who were rated "as good as church members" but never professed Christianity in a personal way and had never joined a church. He attended with greater regularity than most of the members, contributed generously to the support of the church regardless of the preacher, and was counted a regular "supporter" of the church. His daughter Inez, with whose history we are more specially concerned, sang in the young people's chorus and helped her father get out the paper, setting type, reading copy, editing the letters from county correspondents and serving as general utility help in the office. She had graduated from the High School two years before the eventful Sunday that marked the advent of the new Congregational minister and had won an enviable reputation with the other girls for amateur dramatics. When the class at its annual "Confession" had predicted their own life histories, Inez had said with a frankness that was so free from any attempt at pretense that it voiced her deepest ambitions.

     "Well, people, I am going to be a movie actress. They say some of them get as much as eight hundred dollars a week. And I am willing to do any stunts they ask. And I've been practising one or two."

     There she stopped provokingly, while the other girls and the four boys who belonged to the class dared her to tell what the stunts were. But Inez shook her head and no appeals could make her reveal her secret.

     But as she sat there on the high school steps where the class always held its "Confession" the girl saw again in retrospect the thing she had dared, and in her heart she knew it was part shame and part pride that kept her silent. No one should ever know, not even her father.

     This is what she saw again as she sat there grave and wide eyed in the face of the noisy chatter on the high school steps.

     No. 9 of the Santa Fe came roaring through Red Hill at 5:27 A. M. First intimation of it was a faint hum out back of Red Hill as the engine opened up on the long curve that swung around the slope and then, if the wind was north-west, suddenly the hum would swell into the crash of the drivers on the rails and the whole length of the train would strike up its diapason as it swung down the grade through the bridge over the creek and then fling itself past the little station with a crescendo of mingling noises, wheel and rail and switch and empty station and swaying coaches all joining in together with a grand burst of power that always thrilled Inez as she often lay awake to hear No. 9 go swinging through the little sleeping town, its roar dying out as it began, like the Turkish patrol, and the prairie stretches would fall back again into the slumber from which No. 9 had rudely awakened them. Ever since she was a little girl, No. 9 due at 5:27 A. M. had been an awesome thing, alive and with a great beating heart, and when its long white eye first showed around the curve of Red Hill she used to shrink back with fear as she lay awake looking out of the little window at the monster approaching the empty little station with leaping strides as if to tear it to pieces as it thundered past.

     Somewhere she had read in a magazine story a bit of rolling verse called "The Rime of the Car Wheel," and having a quick and retentive memory she had learned it and with a certain fascination nearly every time she heard the first hum of No. 9 she found herself going over the rhyme until it became to her almost like a thunderous chanty breathed out by the very train itself, or by the wheel under the train. And this is what the wheel said to Inez as she lay there listening:

Once I lay deep in the darkness, silent, profound;
Part of the forces primeval, under the ground.
Part of its matter for ages on ages I lay,
Far from the fever of earth and the sunlight of day.

Then I was torn from my bed by the claw of man's greed,
Hurled from my rest to supply what he calls daily need;
Crushed under rollers and thrust in the maddening fire,
And the hammers of fate fell upon me to work their desire.

Then the pressure of hydraulic forces encompassed me round,
Whirled and revolved me, with din and with deafening sound;
Bent and encircled to fashion the intricate plan,
Heated and beaten and shaped for the service of man.

Waking from dreams of my torture, I rolled on the steel
Stretching on endlessly mile upon mile like a reel,
Changing beneath me with ring and with resonance keen,
While the smoke and the cinders, the dust and the sparks, flew

Fashioned I was to be servant of powers above,
Fashioned to follow the track of the steel as I strove,
Fashioned to fill up my place in the intricate plan,
Fashioned to whirl, day and night, in the service of man.

Thus, I learned why I was beaten and smitten and torn
Out of the primeval forces wherein I was born;
Bearing the weight of the burden upon my hard heart,
Giving to man's energizing my infinite part.

Over the bridges I thunder, and over the lea,
In through the tunnels and mountains and down by the sea
Bearing the precious life over the river's wide span,
Rolling and ringing and shaped for the service of man.

Faithful I serve, as I carry the people above,
Bearing the lover to lover and love to its love,
Bringing the message that colours the cheek or makes pale,
Whirling on those who shall meet to laugh or to wail.

Daylight or dark is the same to my purpose or speed--
Sunshine or storm giveth me, in my whirling, small heed;
Onward I roll as a part of the infinite plan,
Hammered and beaten and shaped for the service of man.

     But one morning a few days before graduation she had helped her father off with an early breakfast on account of some rush county printing, and after he was gone and she had begun to do up the dishes, suddenly the thought of No. 9 due in half an hour seemed to speak to her with the rhyme of the car wheel pounding up and down in her temples, and then with a flash came her resolve to try a thing that one of the moving pictures given by the show-place in town had suggested and, after standing a moment by the kitchen sink, she finished wiping the few dishes, put them back in the cupboard, ran up into her room, caught up a light scarf, throwing it around her head as she came out of the house, paused a moment on the porch, then closed the door gently and ran down towards the track only two blocks away.

     A few lights were showing here and there, but no one was on the street and as she came to the track there was only the two switch lights, one up and one down, burning, showing the green and red, the semaphore set both arms down for clear, and the black outline of the steel bridge against the white breadth of the hill, for it was a winter morning when No. 9 became a vivid part of the girl's life history.

     She had seen in a film picturing a telephone girl's heroism, an operator running out of a station during the bursting of a dam and the girl had run at the risk of her life to warn an approaching train of the danger, crossing a bridge that was going out under the impact of a great rush of freshet logs pounding against the frail supports of the bridge. Inez pictured it all again as she stood there, her eyes on the steel bridge only two hundred feet away--she could see the darting figure of the girl leaping over the timbers as they flew up, and the bridge crumbled under the torrent, but she escaped in some miraculous fashion and reached the opposite bank just as the entire structure went down the muddy gulf of wreckage, and she ran on facing the oncoming train, stopping it on the very brink of death.

     "If course it was all made up, but the danger was really all there," Inez said, as she sat looking at the film, every pulse beating with strange desire to do something as heroic.

     And now, out of her exaggerated romance, of her own ambition she was out there in the silent morning to test her own heart and dare to do what she dreamed she might some time have to do--she would wait until No. 9 was just showing on the inward curve of the hill and race across the bridge in time to--she scarcely gave herself a thought of how the distance should be measured, but she had seen No. 9 cross the space between the curve and the creek so often that she seemed to know, without knowing why, just how much time she ought to allow herself before entering the end of the bridge.

     Once on the bridge there could be no turning back and there was very little space on the sides--she had been through it more than once when the little creek was bank high with a great thunder storm and there was no danger of trains--but now she was seeking danger for its own sake for the thrill of it, for the novelty, life was so tame in Red Hill, so little of any real interest ever happened to her--Yes, she said to herself, she would enjoy all the fullness of life she wanted--there! now! the headlight was just showing around the curve and she ran up the middle of the track and into the bridge which was in deep shadow as the curve on the hill extended nearly to the bridge entrance.

     She recalled, sitting there on the High School steps, just how she touched every other tie as she ran, and the life-time of horror she felt in the one second when she slipped and fell within ten feet of the other end of the bridge and said to herself, "It is all over." And the next second she was on her feet again, feeling the hot breath of the monster as it came charging into the opening, and she was outside, half way down the bank up to her ankles in the sand and cinders sobbing hysterically and yet with a curious feeling of pride over her escape and a half formed promise to try it again, such as one feels, they say, who has charged up a hill in battle and escaped unhurt among the bullets that have killed half the regiment.

     And as she climbed painfully back up to the rails she felt for her scarf. It was gone. She went down the embankment a little ways but could not find it, and, going on through the bridge again, she searched along the ties at the spot where she fell, but no scarf was there and she said to herself, "It must have slipped between the ties and gone down into the creek."

     Going on with her retrospect as she sat there on the High School steps she recalled her surprise and fear lest she should be found out, when, two days later, an item came into her father's office from one of the paper's contributors living in the county seat ten miles from Red Hill.

     "When Tom Radcliff, engineer on No. 9, got down at Underhill to-day to oil old Abe he found on his pilot, caught on a splinter, a nice scarf. The lady it belonged to was not on the pilot and Tom is wondering at what station she got off. Bill Granger, the fireman, says he thought he saw something like a ghost on the bridge at Ross Creek Crossing, Red Hill, last Tuesday, but Bill has always been superstitious and this is not the first ghost he has seen this year. No one claimed the scarf, so Tom took it home to his wife. It is not every day, he says, that the pilot picks up a good article of clothing without the owner."

     Inez ran the item into the paper and her father, reading it, commented on it briefly.

     "Did I ever tell you, Inez, your mother, when she was a girl, rode on the pilot of No. 9 from Fairoaks to Aldrich on the Irvington Division of the Santa Fe? She did it on a challenge from her brother, and nearly lost her life. She was very reckless sometimes, your mother was."

     Inez's mother had been dead fifteen years and Inez, who was seventeen when she graduated, could not recall her. All she knew was her father idolised the daughter and seldom spoke of the mother. But for all his idolising he did not understand his daughter and Inez seldom confided any real life feeling to him. The last thing George Clark could picture was the sight of Inez racing up the Santa Fe track to beat No. 9 at the end of the Creek bridge. He knew she was fond of the movies and always asking to go and going without asking, but the girl's real passion for novelty and adventure, and her revolt at the humdrum office life in the dull little town was entirely unknown to him, and the girl had no confidant, either man or woman.

     And there was another secret Inez was keeping from her father. It was so new, it had leaped into her heart so quickly, she was so astonishingly childish about it that she was afraid--she might some time tell her father about No. 9, that was an old secret, but new secrets are not to be lightly related to any one. And this had to do with the new minister.

     "After all," Inez said to herself, as the Monday morning after Howard's first service she sat in the office picking up type for a stupid letter from an ignorant county contributor who had to be noticed, "after all, I am not to blame if I try to make life interesting in this poky town. Nothing ever happens here unless you make it yourself. And the new minister is the most interesting person I have ever seen or heard. If I should----"

     She was sitting at the case, a type between her fingers, when Howard Chase came in. It was very early, and Inez looked around to see where her father was and then remembered he had said he was going up to the house to get some copy he had left in another coat, but would be right back.

     Howard came up near the case and said with his usual cheerful abruptness:

     "It's Miss Clark, isn't it? I meant to have met all my choir singers yesterday, but there was such a crowd I couldn't meet them all."

     "Yes," said Inez. "I----"

     Howard went on with careless disregard of conversation, that was part of his quickness of mental and physical motion and not an intentional rudeness.

     "I know it's pretty early, but I wanted to get out some dodgers as soon as possible. But I wanted to talk with your father about them, and see that the printing was going on in a certain way."

     "I think father will be back soon," said Inez. "He said he would be right back. Perhaps if you are in a hurry I can tell you what you want."

     Howard looked surprised and Inez anticipated his question by saying, "I think I can set up the copy as you want it. I do most of the job work here."

     "No. Do you?" Howard had been thinking of her as just a young girl. She seemed to resent his unspoken thought of her and said quickly:

     "If you don't believe I can do it let me see the copy, and tell me what you want."

     Howard laughed in his boyish way, and came up nearer the case.

     "I didn't know you did the actual work yourself. Here's what I want." He spread out his "copy" on top of the case and went over it rapidly. "I want this all double leaded and in ten point. Put the head line `Do You Go to Church?' right in the centre of the page, fourteen point, not at the top, and these sentences on each end up and down instead of across. And I wonder if your father has a cut of the church building anywhere?"

     "I don't know of any, Mr. Chase. But why are you having these dodgers printed?"

     As Inez asked it, the question sounded bold, and yet in her heart she was simply talking to keep him in the office as long as she could, in her eagerness to make his visit a part of her new adventure in life.

     Howard looked at her in surprise, as if the question were one he would not expect from a girl like Inez. And this time he noted the fact that she was older than his first thought of her, and there was a look there that made him instantly and with intuitive quickness change his own attitude, which had been that of careless friendliness with one of his own flock--but his absolutely clean, untarnished young manhood had never once been at fault in its sense of peril wherever woman was concerned, and he had never yielded in the smallest degree to the power he must have known that he possessed.

     He moved back from the case just a little and in reply to Inez's question he said with a quiet gravity which had an instant effect on her, "Why shouldn't I get them printed?"

     "I don't see what is the use of inviting people to come to church when the church won't hold those who do come."

     Howard laughed. It was so loud and almost boisterous that Inez was startled and confused.

     "But I'm not getting out the dodgers for those who come. Only for those who don't. And I'm sure there must be a lot of people in Red Hill who have never been. Besides, I'm afraid those who have begun to come won't keep it up unless I do something to remind them. The dodgers are just to help 'em get the habit."

     "O," said Inez. She couldn't think of anything else to say. And just then her father came in and Howard turned instantly with his copy to him.

     "I know it's early, Mr. Clark, but I want to get this printing out to-day if possible, and I've just been talking with your daughter about it. You see I want something attractive for my boys to hand out."

     Clark looked over the copy, and after a few suggestions which Howard accepted, he said, with a curious look at the new minister, "Pardon me, Mr. Chase, but I don't quite understand what you want these dodgers for. The church is full already. What will you do with the people you are inviting to come to church, if they come? Where will you seat them?"

     Howard laughed, and Inez chimed in, a silvery chime with just a swift look at the minister and then back to her typesetting again.

     "I'm going after every person in Red Hill and vicinity. Half these dodgers are going out into the country. I understand the farmers around here have quit going to church. If we can't get folks into the building we'll go outdoors. There is a fine lot of land around the church, and we might as well use it."

     Clark could not help giving the new minister a look of admiration.

     "All right. Of course I don't object to the printing. It's what I live by. And the outdoor meetings strike me all right. You could build out the front platform a little, put up electric lights around the yard and---"

     "Yes," broke in Howard with cheerful indifference to Clark's unfinished sentence. "Yes! Look here!"

     He took the first sheet of paper his fingers could reach and began to draw a sketch in rough outline.

     "Here's the front of the church. The platform is almost big enough. We can build it out here about six feet, and add, say five here and seat our chorus right here at the left of the door. Run the electric lights out here, and hitch onto these trees along the side. We have seventy-five chairs in the Sunday School room and we can get as many more from Deacon Burton's undertaking room and build some benches here. We ought to be able to seat two hundred and fifty people in the church grounds. Then we can range the farmers up in the road with their auto mobiles, parking them in two deep, so that one hundred or maybe two hundred can hear--that is----" Howard looked up from his sketch including Inez and her father with one of his characteristic grins which came over him when he was absolutely absorbed in his own enthusiasms and the people around him were impersonal, "that is, I mean, of course, the farmers, not the machines. Why, we ought to be able to get a crowd of five hundred people to an outdoor service."

     He looked up from his sketch at Clark. Inez had become so interested in Howard's fiery eagerness that she had left her place at the case and was leaning over the composing-stone where Howard's rough sketch lay. Clark was gazing at Howard openmouthed and grave.

     "You don't mean to say, Mr. Chase, that you expect to get an audience of farmers numbering two hundred, to go to church service on Sunday night? Why, there aren't twenty farmers in all the county ever came to church in Red Hill. You never can----"

     "That's the reason they ought to come then," broke in Howard. "And there's no reason, come to think of it, why we shouldn't begin with next Sunday. I can build that extension to the platform myself, and have everything all ready. Let me have that copy. I'll put on an invitation to an outdoor service."

     He took steps over to the case where Clark had put the copy. But Inez had somehow anticipated him with a swift movement, and their hands touched over the bit of paper. Her face was instantly flooded with colour and she stammered, "Oh! excuse me." Howard never showed by the slightest quiver any embarrassment, but he took the paper over to where Clark was standing and began to write at the bottom of the page:

     "Next Sunday evening, if the weather permits, services will be held outdoors. Seats for all. Those who come in automobiles can see and hear in their cars. Service will begin at eight. Good music by the Chorus. The subject of the sermon will be `The Foolish Farmer.'

     "There! How's that? That ought to bring the farmers!"

     He laughed again, the almost rude, loud laugh that had made Inez shrink back. And then immediately his eyes seemed to gather great depth and his face became stern and his whole attitude put Clark and his daughter wholly out of his thought, and they seemed to feel as they looked at him, that he was removed from them by miles of distance, thinking over his own thoughts in a world of his own, from which he had excluded every one but himself.

     "How many copies do you want?" Clark was saying after a moment of complete silence.

     "How? How many? O! make it five hundred. And when can I get them?" He had come back into the shop from his abstraction and spoke in his regular straight forward wide-awake manner.

     "I can have them ready by to-morrow morning."

     "Thank you, Mr. Clark. I'll appreciate that. Goodbye."

     He took off his hat as he bowed, turned and went quickly out, stopping the swing of the door in time to prevent its banging.

     Clark picked up the copy and carried it over to Inez, saying, "Great fellow, isn't he? He'll make the trustees situp. You can begin on that. See how neat a job you can do, Inez."

     The girl did not answer as her father went back to his desk at the other side of the shop. From where she sat she could see the minister as he crossed the street and she watched him as he reached the other side and started to go down the walk.

     Then a little thing happened, a small event in any human life, but as the girl watched it from where she sat it burned into her memory like something eternal, and her heart beat quicker and her pulses throbbed with new meaning.

     The first door across the street from Clark's printing shop was a milk depot. Just as the minister was passing this door it opened suddenly and a little girl came running out with a bottle of milk. A small dog was lying on a step in front of the door and as the child came out, it rose suddenly and barked.

     The child started back and in her fright dropped the bottle. It fell on the sidewalk and broke. The dog at once turned its attention to the spilled milk. Chase was between the child and Inez, but his action filled in the details of the little drama, for the next moment the minister and the child disappeared into the milk depot and a minute later came out, Chase with a new bottle of milk and the child walking by his side holding his hand as if she had known him always and the minister laughing and evidently carrying on a great and important conversation.

     Inez went over to the window and watched the two figures, the stalwart, athletic man, and the little girl, until they turned a corner.

     And then she went back to her seat at the case and sat there with burning cheeks, eyeing the copy for the minister's "dodger." But before she began work upon it she covered her face with her hands and when she took them away they were wet with hot tears.

     Howard Chase had not turned the corner before he had learned the name and residence of his new acquaintance.

     "Did you say Wilson?"

     "Yes, sir, Lida Wilson. And I live next door to Deacon Burton."

     "Miss Wilson, with your permission I will see you safe home with this milk. Are you willing?"

     "Yes, sir. I know you. You are the new Congre--Congre--gestional minister, aren't you? We are Methodists."

     "I won't let that prejudice me, Miss Wilson. I think just as much of you as if you were a Congregestionalist."

     The child looked up at him with the deep gravity of six years of experience.

     "My mother won't like it to have me break the bottle. I broke one last week."

     "I'll tell her how the dog frightened you. Really we should have brought the dog along to show her. My mistake. But the milk wasn't wasted. Really that dog was waiting for you, I believe. It was his only show to get a breakfast, and I don't believe he had a cent in his pocket."

     "Mother will pay you for the bottle, Mr.--Mr.----"

     "Mr. Chase is my name. I should have introduced myself before," Howard managed to shift the bottle under his arm and took off his hat.

     The child laughed and tightened her hold on his hand.

     "You're funny, Mr. Chase, but I like you."

     Howard looked down at her--she was a very little girl--and said very gravely.

     "Thank you. Little girls almost always like me. I don't just know why."

     "Don't big girls like you, too?"

     "O dear, I'm afraid they do, Miss Wilson. But we're getting into deep conversational waters. Good thing we're almost at your residence."

     "There's Miss Burton. She's a big girl."

     Howard caught sight of Deacon Burton's daughter out in the yard picking roses from a bush near the front porch. And as he came up by the yard she looked up and smiled while Howard stopped to say good-morning.

     "What wonderful mornings you have out here, Miss Burton. But I did not know it could be so hot in May. It's just like summer."

     "Yes, it's the climate of the prairie. I hope you and your sister are going to like it."

     "Oh, we're in love with it already. And Red Hill is full of adventures. I've just had an exciting one with Miss Wilson here."

     "Let me have the bottle, please, Mr. Chase, and I'll run in and get the money."

     Miss Wilson seized the bottle, holding it very carefully in both hands and ran into the next house adjoining the Burton's. Howard gave Miss Burton a humorous sketch of his morning adventure and then told of his Sunday evening plan.

     "I put down on the notice `Good music by the Chorus.' You will see to that, won't you, Miss Burton?"

     "Yes. We can sing some of the old hymns like `The Way of the Cross Leads Home' and ask every one to join in the Chorus."

     She had gradually come down to the front of the yard by the walk, holding the flowers she had picked against her white dress and Howard had a momentary troubled vision of the lilacs on the edge of the pulpit Sunday morning and was wondering--when little Miss Wilson came running out.

     "Mother hadn't any change and I had to shake it out of my bank. That's why it took so long," the little maid said, as she gravely put the moist pennies into Howard's hand.

     "And mother said to thank you for getting the bottle."

     "Excuse me, Miss Burton, I expect I ought to complete my adventure by explaining to Miss Wilson's mother how it all happened."

     He bowed as he took off his hat with a formal goodbye, and Miss Burton turned to go back into the house. But on the porch she turned again to look at the new minister and Miss Wilson. Lida had hold of his hand again, and Mrs. Wilson had come to the door. The houses were close together and Agnes Burton, lingering on the porch, could hear the neighbour say heartily:

     "Thank you, Mr. Chase, for your kindness to Lida. She is a shy little girl, but you made a conquest of her right off."

     Howard laughed and very briefly told the story of the dog, the spilled milk and the crying child. He was interrupted by Lida.

     "Mother, I wish we were Congregestionalists, instead of Methodists. Then I could go to Mr. Chase's church."

     Mrs. Wilson laughed as Howard turned to go back to the main business street.

     "I'm afraid you'll break up our church, if you keep on, Mr. Chase. You must come in now, Lida. Say good-bye to Mr. Chase."

     "Good-bye and thank you," said Lida, dropping his hand reluctantly.

     "Good-bye, Miss Wilson. Happy to have met you." He included in his farewell Mrs. Wilson and Agnes Burton, who still lingered on the deacon's porch.

     The Wilsons and Burtons held frequent porch conversations, the houses were so near together and their lawns joining.

     "Your new minister is a very attractive young man, Agnes, don't you think?"/

     "Yes," said Miss Burton, slowly.

     "You won't be able to keep him long. Such bright preachers don't stay long in small towns."

     "I suppose not," said Miss Burton as she picked the petals off of a rose and let them drop on the porch floor.

     "I didn't hear him last Sunday, but I think I'll go in the evening if I can get in."

     Miss Burton spoke of the minister's plan for the outdoor services, and Mrs. Wilson seemed greatly interested.

     "Your minister is going to get all our folks over to his services, Agnes, if he keeps on. But he'll have to be awful careful. He's an unusually attractive and smart young man and he isn't married. I expect all the young ladies in Red Hill are after him already."

     "I don't think Mr. Chase is in any danger." Agnes spoke hastily, seemed about to add another sentence then shut her lips resolutely and went into the house. Mrs. Wilson shook her head as if she knew more than she would tell, as Agnes disappeared.

     Howard Chase stopped in to see Deacon Burton as he went up the main street to talk over his plan for evening services.

     He found the deacon a little doubtful about the plan on account of the unsettled weather.

     "You see, Mr. Chase, I think the idea is fine, but you don't know this prairie country as we do who have lived on it all our lives. We have some most tremendous thunderstorms here in May and June and they generally come up out of the southwest late in the afternoon, very often at seven or eight o'clock. They are terrific. And will always be a part of the prairie country."

     "You don't have cyclones here, do you? The eastern papers were always quoting Kansas as the home of the cyclone and the blizzard."

     "No," Deacon Burton exploded. "We never did have a cyclone in Red Hill. Last year Georgia headed the list of states in the United States for the largest number of cyclones. It's a slander on Kansas to call it a cyclone state. But--we do have some great wind and thunder storms at this time of the year. I'm afraid if you start outdoor meetings they will be interrupted by storms."

     "But I'm having dodgers printed announcing the meetings to begin next Sunday."

     "You are!" Deacon Burton seemed disturbed, then he laughed.

     "O go ahead. Have you spoken to any of the other church officers about it?"

     "Why no. I never thought of it. I thought the church called me to work the best way I could."

     Deacon Burton exploded again.

     "It's all right as far as I'm concerned. Go ahead.

     "But I would advise you to consult with Deacon Allen before you begin stringing your electric lights. He is pretty touchy about being consulted. And by the way how are you going to pay for the platform and the wiring and the incidentals, the printing and so forth?"

     "Why, I'm paying for the printing myself. And if the church won't buy the lumber and the wire, I will. I'll do all the work for nothing. Why, it's a part of my job. It's what I came out here for."

     Deacon Burton looked at the new minister a moment without a word. Then he threw up his hands and exclaimed:

     "You can go through me and get all I have. You've got the drop on me. But I can't answer for Deacon Allen. He will have to be shown. How much do you want for the lumber?"

     "I haven't figured it out yet. I'll tell you after dinner. I'll go right over and see Deacon Allen now and be back in a few minutes."

     He went out of the store with the swift but noiseless stride peculiar to his physical nature and Deacon Burton chuckled as he turned to a customer as he muttered, "I reckon Clark was right when he said our new minister was not going to give the saints any rest in Zion."

     It seemed only a few minutes before Howard was back in the store, calmly saying to Deacon Burton, "It's all right with Deacon Allen. I saw him and he offered to give five dollars towards expenses."

     "Have you got the money?"

     "No. But I'll get it. Now tell me where to get the lumber and the wire and I'll get busy with the platform, and not trouble you any more to-day."

     The deacon gave him the necessary information and as Howard shot out of the store he muttered to himself, "I'd give five dollars to know what the young fellow said to Deacon Allen to get his consent. And if he can get five dollars out of him besides, well, a six foot miracle has come to Red Hill on two feet."

     The good deacon was still puzzling over the matter when half an hour later Deacon Allen came in. Deacon Allen kept an implement store and was popularly supposed by Red Hill, which knew everybody's income, to be worth at least fifteen thousand dollars.

     "Mr. Chase has just been over to see me about a plan he has for outdoor Sunday evening services. He asked me if I wouldn't come over and counsel with you about it. He said he had already spoken to you."

     "Yes. I think it's a great plan if the thunder storms let it alone. And it will be extra expense."

     "Yes. I thought of that, and asked him about it. He said if the church couldn't afford it he would pay for it and do the work. That didn't seem just fair so I offered to subscribe five dollars."

     "I'll give you ten if you'll tell me, deacon, how the minister got you to do it."

     Deacon Allen turned red, evaded Deacon Burton's look, then he turned and faced him directly.

     "I tell you, Burton, I don't know myself how he did it."

     "Have you paid him the money yet?"

     "No. But of course----"

     "Give it to me and, I'll put ten with it. The young fellow ought to be encouraged. And you know, Deacon, we've got money to burn."

     "Speak for yourself," said Deacon Allen, a little gruffly. But he pulled out a fat pocket book, extracted from it the dirtiest five it contained and handed it over to Deacon Burton.

     Burton chuckled as he took it. "There's so much saved from burning anyhow."

     "It'll burn in a big electric light bill all right," said Deacon Allen as he went out of the store. "But after all, I don't mind. We don't get preachers like him in Red Hill every day. He's smart, he is."

     Deacon Burton grinned over the incident several times that morning and after dinner he walked around by the church. The lumber was out in the church yard and Howard was in his shirt sleeves sawing and pounding away and whistling as he worked.

     "I'll send one of the boys up this afternoon to help," the deacon said. "And here's Deacon Allen's subscription and mine."

     He handed Howard three clean five dollar bills--he had been to the bank to get them--and Howard with a smile tucked the money into his pocket.

     "I think that will about cover the entire expense. I appreciate it. And I won't forget it when I come to preach your funeral sermons."

     "What did you say to Deacon Allen? I'd give another five to know."

     Howard grinned.

     "I haven't time to tell now. Too busy. Why don't you ask him?"

     "I did, and he said he didn't know how you did it."

     Howard laid down his hammer and laughed, the rude, boisterous laugh that did not seem to belong to him.

     "The deacon never had any fun with his money. Won't it be a good turn for him if we can make him have some before he goes to the land where nothing but character is legal tender?"

     As the deacon turned to go away he said, "Oh, I forgot. Mrs. Burton asked me to give your sister and you a special invitation to Sunday dinner."

     "Thank you. We'll be glad to come," said Howard as he picked up his hammer and began work again.

     He worked with such energy that with the help of two young men from the deacon's store the platform and the wiring were finished by Wednesday night, and some extra benches made. His dodgers had been distributed through the town and out through the county and Clark had a handsome notice in the Friday Sun.

     "I believe it will be a go, Rose," Howard had said when Saturday night came and he and his sister had gone over to the church to see if anything more were needed.

     He went into the little vestibule and turned on the lights. Everything was all right. Extra seats were in the Sunday School room ready to be carried out, and Howard had secured the services of a number of his boys to act as ushers. Red Hill was talking about the scheme to a household. And the farmers ten miles out were reading his dodgers and many of them planning to go to church who had not gone for years.

     Sunday morning dawned hot and still. The morning service was almost a repetition of the first Sunday. Not quite so many out, but a number of new faces. And Howard preached with all his might. He was dripping at the end of the service and had to go over to the parsonage and change his clothes before joining his sister to go over to Deacon Burton's.

     A meal at the Burton's was a liberal education in the art of domestic science. Howard who was a hearty eater soon found out that Mrs. Burton and Agnes did all the cooking, and he did not try to conceal his pleasure, but to the evident disappointment of the Burtons excused himself immediately after the meal in order to complete his plans for the evening.

     "I'd like to visit but I can't. Never took a nap Sunday afternoon in my life. There's a number of things I want to look after. Miss Burton, you have the chorus well in hand and I leave that part of the service to you."

     "We have a great chorus," Agnes said with eagerness. "Over thirty volunteers and more promised."

     The deacon stepped out on the porch as Howard left the house and walked to the end looking out to the southwest.

     A grey line was spreading over the sky clearly defined against the blue. There was no breeze stirring. A moist, muggy heat rose up from the dusty road.

     "Don't want to discourage you, Chase. But if I know anything about prairie weather we are in for a big storm sometime this afternoon or evening."

     Howard laughed. "Why, the sky is clear. No sign of rain."

     "Sign enough," said the deacon shortly. The one touchy place about Deacon Burton was his weather prophecy.

     Howard went over to the church after the Sunday School session and finding it cooler there than in his little study at the parsonage he stayed there working on his evening sermon, going over his points again and again, now and then walking up and down the aisle and speaking aloud.

     He was absorbed in his task so deeply that he came to himself with a start at the sound of a peal of thunder that rolled over the church and into the open windows like a solid thing.

     He ran out on the platform. The grey line that Deacon Burton had noticed had swept up over the sky and covered the sun and back under the line was a great green-black cloud covering all the southwest heaven, through the green band intense electric power flashed and a faint breeze stirred the leaves of the boxelder trees out in the church yard.

     He took out his watch. It was half past five. He went back into the church and closed the windows. When he came out and shut the door and stood on the platform the green-black cloud had swept up with astonishing quickness and it was getting dark. As he started across the church yard to the parsonage a patter of hail stones fell around him and before he had reached the little porch big drops of rain spattered over the grass. A warm air touched his cheek, and out back of the houses in the next block the trees suddenly bent over and a dull roar came to his ear like the beat of the surf on the old Maine coast where he was born. And for the first time in his life as he ran up the stairs to shut the windows the young minister at Red Hill felt a clutch of something like fear at his heart as the prairie thunderstorm in all its fury came bounding in from its wide prairie stretches and fell with wild roar over parsonage and church, blotting out the sunlight and crashing with all its elemental power over the crouching and terrified town.

Go to previous chapter   Go to next chapter   Return to Contents