Bill and the Bell
Bill and the Bell
By Hugh Pendexter
After six months of stone walls and prison taint he was free. He had no idea how he reached the covert. By the western sun he knew he was north of the State institution. This realization pleased him in a vague way, but, on the whole, his whirling thoughts left him in a chaos, and as he crouched and sought to crowd his gray-garbed form into the very earth he could only gasp, "Free! free!"
Then a horrible dread began to filter through his mind. From the moment he dropped over the high wall until he found himself cowering in the bushes he had no recollection of what he had done, or how. The hiatus teemed with possibilities. What if he had dashed madly through the streets and had taken the hillside in view of all? Even now the hard-faced keepers might be closing in.
Could it be possible they were not there—were not holding back in wanton mockery? Again the clanging of the bell bruited abroad the news of his escape, and as its discordant warning rose and sank on the breeze he shuddered and hungrily eyed the dusky depths of a near-by pine grove. But he must wait until night had blotted out the meadow.
For six months he had paid the price of another's crime. It seemed as if the bell must understand and cease its ringing.
"I never burned no buildin's," he expostulated huskily. "I never, I tell ye. An' yet they jugged me, a innercent man. An' my wife an' boy was th' only ones ter believe in me."
His emotion so overcame him that after a wild-eyed pause he shrieked aloud, as if for the first time remembering the plight of the two left unprotected. The cattle on the edge of the pasture lifted their heads at his outcry, and this sobered him.
"I must be careful," he repeated over and over again in a strangled monotone. Yes, he must be very careful for a little while; then he would go back and pay the remainder of the price—for his incentive was so heartrending that once he had finished his errand he cared little what wrong men did him.
It was only the day before that he heard the news. It seemed ages. He was working in the broom-shop at the time, and the warden ushered in a batch of visitors. He hung his head on recognizing a man from his village, and the man, not observing him, bleated his name and asked his whereabouts, and in the same breath said that—here he did not catch the name—was dying. He leaped from his bench and asked which one—which one? His sorrowing wife, or the little boy? He would have shaken the fearful truth from his alarmed and astounded townsman had not the warden intervened and hurried the visitors away.
Then he was bustled off to his cell, his soul sick unto death and his face so distorted by misery that even the guard, hardened to all phases of human despair, sought clumsily to cheer him. Which one was dying? His wife, so trusting, his only friend? Or was it the youngster, who wept when they led him away?
This awful half intelligence gave him superhuman strength, daring, and cunning, and enabled him to accomplish the almost impossible feat of getting away from the prison in broad daylight. The same strength that had brought him to the hillside should take him home to the death-bed.
But first he must get rid of his prison suit. It was the last hour of the day before he dared to venture from his hiding-place. Without delaying to pick and choose, he skirted the nearest farmhouse and gained the barn. He had no light, but after a long reconnaissance he found himself in the harness-room, with a thread of a moonbeam feeding through the cobwebbed window. Some clothing hung on the hooks. He took a pair of overalls and a jumper.
Caution now whispered that he must avoid the highway, but the horrible dread of being too late held him to the road, always making for the north. He would have dared the daylight and plunged on, only now he realized that his legs were growing limp, and he remembered that he had eaten nothing since the noon before.
To obtain food he must steal it; but he did not see his chance until a man, carrying two pails, crossed the road and entered a barn ahead of him. Making a détour, the fugitive approached the building from the rear, where he found a small door ajar. Luck smiled on him a bit, for a woman's querulous voice caused the milker to leave his task. The intruder gained with noiseless steps the line of champing cattle and seized a pail. It was half full until it reached his dry lips. For the rest of the day he remained hidden near an orchard.
He was dizzy and faint when he again faced the broad, full moon, but his exhaustion kept his thoughts shifting about and possibly saved him from a full measure of mental anguish. At midnight a market-gardener's heavy, hooded wagon swung in from a crossroad in front of him, its driver half asleep on the high-backed seat. The fugitive caught the tail-board and drew himself in. He rode all night, undetected, and even managed to doze a bit at times on a pile of empty bags. At dawn he slipped out into the road.
One more friendly period of blackness and he would be home. One more body-racking effort and he would meet the worst, face to face, and exhaust all suffering. Then the jumble in his brain cleared and the heart-sickness returned and assailed him, and he writhed in his hiding-place, groaning, "Which one, oh. Lord!—which?" Would he be too late?
The third and last march brought no moon to light his flight, nor unsuspecting carter to give him a lift. Instead, low clouds began at evening to send a chilling, deliberate downpour, which fettered his lagging feet with mud and checked his progress. But it was tonight or never, and he ran and staggered as his jaded will flogged on his unwilling limbs. Near morning the clouds melted away and he told himself again and again that nothing should stop his advance—but he had need to dig his fist into his side in taking each step.
"I'm too near ter be held up," he gasped; "too near ter her an' him."
Later, as the sun rose high, he mounted the last hill and saw the roofs of the village. His home was on the right, quite near. If he could but reach the threshold and her! If he——
Boom! tolled a bell.
Boom! and he fell in the mud.
God! It was the death-bell! The sexton was tolling the age of the departed.
He pressed his hands to his ears, but did not attempt to rise. Boom! Boom!
"Which one?" he essayed to cry out, but he made only an inarticulate sound.
Thirty-two were her years, and he bowed his head and wept in horrible gasps. But stay—and the new thought brought no relief—had he counted right? Had it not tolled five without a break, his son's age?
Slowly he regained his feet and moved downward. He feared nothing from man now. No one could deny him the right to stand beside his dead. And his step, though dragging, was deliberate as he entered the familiar street, as one who follows behind a hearse. Nor did he sense that his old neighbors were staring at his uncouth, mud-incrusted figure in wide amazement and speaking his name mechanically.
Then he found his way blocked by a group of men and women, while Constable Durgin's hand rested heavily on his bowed shoulder.
"Bill, Bill," was all the old officer could say.
"Stand aside, Durgin! Let me pass! Stand aside, or I'll—stand aside, for God's sake!" choked the newcomer. "I can't git away! I'm dead tuckered. Ye can have me after I've seen 'em jest fer a minute." Then, in ultimate agony, "As ye have a good wife yerself, which one?"
"Oh, William!" moaned a hysterical woman.
"I heard th' bell!" gasped the fugitive, as if some one had contradicted him. "I tell ye, I did hear it! But I kinder lost count, an' I don't know whether 'twas thirty-two or a five." And he swerved unsteadily.
"William! Oh, my man!" shrieked another voice, and a pale-faced woman, with arms outstretched, stood in the doorway of his home.
"It's th' boy what's gone—th' little boy," he slowly explained to the gaping circle before lurching forward.
"Favver," piped up a child's treble from behind the woman's skirts, and a small face peeped out and stayed the man's steps.
"What does it mean?" cried Bill, clenching his hands until the nails cut the flesh. "Th' bell! I tell ye, I heard it."
"It was fer Jedge Whitvel, th' man who sentenced ye!" cried the constable. "Didn't ye count it? Forty-one years."
"Gimme five minutes with them two," choked Bill, darting to the doorway. "Five minutes an' I'm yer prisoner ag'in," he pleaded over his shoulder, as he caught woman and child in his arms. "Don't worry any—I'm tuckered; I can't git away."
"Dod rot it!" howled the constable. "I've tried ter break it ter ye gently, but if ye must have it in a lump, here goes. Th' jedge sentenced ye injustly. Th' real culprit has confessed. About ten minutes after ye skedaddled, they got word at th' prison that ye was innercent an' was ter be let out ter once. That's why they didn't try ter catch ye. Th' papers has been full of it. Ye couldn't git back in there ag'in with a ax.