Bridge seized the boy's arm and wrenched the weapon from him. "Be careful!" he cried. "You'll hurt someone. You didn't miss the girl much that time--she's on the bed right in front of the door."
The Oskaloosa Kid pressed closer to the man as though he sought protection from the unknown menace without. The girl sprang from the bed and crossed to the opposite side of the room. A flash of lightning illuminated the chamber for an instant and the roof of the verandah without. The girl noted the latter and the open window.
"Look!" she cried. "Suppose it went out of another window upon this porch. It could get us so easily that way!"
"Shut up, you fool!" whispered one of the two newcomers. "It might hear you." The girl subsided into silence.
There was no sound from the hallway.
"I reckon you croaked IT," suggested the second newcomer, hopefully; but, as though the THING without had heard and understood, the clanking of the chain recommenced at once; but now it was retreating along the hallway, and soon they heard it descending the stairs.
Sighs of relief escaped more than a single pair of lips. "IT didn't hear me," whispered the girl.
Bridge laughed. "We're a nice lot of babies seeing things at night," he scoffed.
"If you're so nervy why don't you go down an' see wot it is?" asked one of the late arrivals.
"I believe I shall," replied Bridge and pulled the bed away from the door.
Instantly a chorus of protests arose, the girl and The Oskaloosa Kid being most insistent. What was the use? What good could he accomplish? It might be nothing; yet on the other hand what had brought death so horribly to the cold clay on the floor below? At last their pleas prevailed and Bridge replaced the bed before the door.
For two hours the five sat about the room waiting for daylight. There could be no sleep for any of them. Occasionally they spoke, usually advancing and refuting suggestions as to the identity of the nocturnal prowler below-stairs. The THING seemed to have retreated again to the cellar, leaving the upper floor to the five strangely assorted prisoners and the first floor to the dead man.
During the brief intervals of conversation the girl repeated snatches of her story and once she mentioned The Oskaloosa Kid as the murderer of the unnamed victim. The two men who had come last pricked up their ears at this and Bridge felt the boy's hand just touch his arm as though in mute appeal for belief and protection. The man half smiled.
"We seen The Oskaloosa Kid this evenin'" volunteered one of the newcomers.
"You did?" exclaimed the girl. "Where?"
"He'd just pulled off a job in Oakdale an' had his pockets bulgin' wid sparklers an' kale. We was follerin' him an' when we seen your light up here we t'ought it was him."
The Oskaloosa Kid shrank closer to Bridge. At last he recognized the voice of the speaker. While he had known that the two were of The Sky Pilot's band he had not been sure of the identity of either; but now it was borne in upon him that at least one of them was the last person on earth he cared to be cooped up in a small, unlighted room with, and a moment later when one of the two rolled a 'smoke' and lighted it he saw in the flare of the flame the features of both Dopey Charlie and The General. The Oskaloosa Kid gasped once more for the thousandth time that night.
It had been Dopey Charlie who lighted the cigarette and in the brief illumination his friend The General had grasped the opportunity to scan the features of the other members of the party. Schooled by long years of repression he betrayed none of the surprise or elation he felt when he recognized the features of The Oskaloosa Kid.
If The General was elated The Oskaloosa Kid was at once relieved and terrified. Relieved by ocular proof that he was not a murderer and terrified by the immediate presence of the two who had sought his life.
His cigarette drawing well Dopey Charlie resumed: "This Oskaloosa Kid's a bad actor," he volunteered. "The little shrimp tried to croak me; but he only creased my ribs. I'd like to lay my mits on him. I'll bet there won't be no more Oskaloosa Kid when I get done wit him."
The boy drew Bridge's ear down toward his own lips. "Let's go," he said. "I don't hear anything more downstairs, or maybe we could get out on this roof and slide down the porch pillars."
Bridge laid a strong, warm hand on the small, cold one of his new friend.
"Don't worry, Kid," he said. "I'm for you."
The two other men turned quickly in the direction of the speaker.
"Is de Kid here?" asked Dopey Charlie.
"He is, my degenerate friend," replied Bridge; "and furthermore he's going to stay here and be perfectly safe. Do you grasp me?"
"Who are you?" asked The General.
"That is a long story," replied Bridge; "but if you chance to recall Dink and Crumb you may also be able to visualize one Billy Burke and Billy Byrne and his side partner, Bridge. Yes? Well, I am the side partner."
Before the yeggman could make reply the girl spoke up quickly. "This man cannot be The Oskaloosa Kid," she said. "It was The Oskaloosa Kid who threw me from the car."
"How do you know he ain't?" queried The General. "Youse was knocked out when these guys picks you up. It's so dark in here you couldn't reco'nize no one. How do you know this here bird ain't The Oskaloosa Kid, eh?"
"I have heard both these men speak," replied the girl; "their voices were not those of any men I have known. If one of them is The Oskaloosa Kid then there must be two men called that. Strike a match and you will see that you are mistaken."
The General fumbled in an inside pocket for a package of matches carefully wrapped against possible damage by rain. Presently he struck one and held the light in the direction of The Kid's face while he and the girl and Dopey Charlie leaned forward to scrutinize the youth's features.
"It's him all right," said Dopey Charlie.
"You bet it is," seconded The General.
"Why he's only a boy," ejaculated the girl. "The one who threw me from the machine was a man."
"Well, this one said he was The Oskaloosa Kid," persisted The General.
"An' he shot me up," growled Dopey Charlie.
"It's too bad he didn't kill you," remarked Bridge pleasantly. "You're a thief and probably a murderer into the bargain--you tried to kill this boy just before he shot you."
"Well wots he?" demanded Dopey Charlie. "He's a thief--he said he was--look in his pockets--they're crammed wid swag, an' he's a gun-man, too, or he wouldn't be packin' a gat. I guess he ain't got nothin' on me."
The darkness hid the scarlet flush which mounted to the boy's cheeks--so hot that he thought it must surely glow redly through the night. He waited in dumb misery for Bridge to demand the proof of his guilt. Earlier in the evening he had flaunted the evidence of his crime in the faces of the six hobos; but now he suddenly felt a great shame that his new found friend should believe him a house-breaker.
But Bridge did not ask for any substantiation of Charlie's charges, he merely warned the two yeggmen that they would have to leave the boy alone and in the morning, when the storm had passed and daylight had lessened the unknown danger which lurked below-stairs, betake themselves upon their way.
"And while we're here together in this room you two must sit over near the window," he concluded. "You've tried to kill the boy once to-night; but you're not going to try it again--I'm taking care of him now."
"You gotta crust, bo," observed Dopey Charlie, belligerently. "I guess me an' The General'll sit where we damn please, an' youse can take it from me on the side that we're goin' to have ours out of The Kid's haul. If you tink you're goin' to cop the whole cheese you got another tink comin'."
"You are banking," replied Bridge, "on the well known fact that I never carry a gun; but you fail to perceive, owing to the Stygian gloom which surrounds us, that I have the Kid's automatic in my gun hand and that the business end of it is carefully aiming in your direction."
"Cheese it," The General advised his companion; and the two removed themselves to the opposite side of the apartment, where they whispered, grumblingly, to one another.
The girl, the boy, and Bridge waited as patiently as they could for the coming of the dawn, talking of the events of the night and planning against the future. Bridge advised the girl to return at once to her father; but this she resolutely refused to do, admitting with utmost candor that she lacked the courage to face her friends even though her father might still believe in her.
The youth begged that he might accompany Bridge upon the road, pleading that his mother was dead and that he could not return home after his escapade. And Bridge could not find it in his heart to refuse him, for the man realized that the boyish waif possessed a subtle attraction, as forceful as it was inexplicable. Not since he had followed the open road in company with Billy Byrne had Bridge met one with whom he might care to 'Pal' before The Kid crossed his path on the dark and storm swept pike south of Oakdale.
In Byrne, mucker, pugilist, and MAN, Bridge had found a physical and moral counterpart of himself, for the slender Bridge was muscled as a Greek god, while the stocky Byrne, metamorphosed by the fire of a woman's love, possessed all the chivalry of the care free tramp whose vagabondage had never succeeded in submerging the evidences of his cultural birthright.
In the youth Bridge found an intellectual equal with the added charm of a physical dependent. The man did not attempt to fathom the evident appeal of the other's tacitly acknowledged cowardice; he merely knew that he would not have had the youth otherwise if he could not have changed him. Ordinarily he accepted male cowardice with the resignation of surfeited disgust; but in the case of The Oskaloosa Kid he realized a certain artless charm which but tended to strengthen his liking for the youth, so brazen and unaffected was the boy's admission of his terror of both the real and the unreal menaces of this night of horror.
That the girl also was well bred was quite evident to Bridge, while both the girl and the youth realized the refinement of the strange companion and protector which Fate had ordered for them, while they also saw in one another social counterparts of themselves. Thus, as the night dragged its slow course, the three came to trust each other more entirely and to speculate upon the strange train of circumstances which had brought them thus remarkably together--the thief, the murderer's accomplice, and the vagabond.
It was during a period of thoughtful silence when the night was darkest just before the dawn and the rain had settled to a dismal drizzle unrelieved by lightning or by thunder that the five occupants of the room were suddenly startled by a strange pattering sound from the floor below. It was as the questioning fall of a child's feet upon the uncarpeted boards in the room beneath them. Frozen to silent rigidity, the five sat straining every faculty to catch the minutest sound from the black void where the dead man lay, and as they listened there came up to them, mingled with the inexplicable footsteps, the hollow reverberation from the dank cellar--the hideous dragging of the chain behind the nameless horror which had haunted them through the interminable eons of the ghastly night.
Up, up, up it came toward the first floor. The pattering of the feet ceased. The clanking rose until the five heard the scraping of the chain against the door frame at the head of the cellar stairs. They heard it pass across the floor toward the center of the room and then, loud and piercing, there rang out against the silence of the awful night a woman's shriek.
Instantly Bridge leaped to his feet. Without a word he tore the bed from before the door.
"What are you doing?" cried the girl in a muffled scream.
"I am going down to that woman," said Bridge, and he drew the bolt, rusty and complaining, from its corroded seat.
"No!" screamed the girl, and seconding her the youth sprang to his feet and threw his arms about Bridge.
"Please! Please!" he cried. "Oh, please don't leave me."
The girl also ran to the man's side and clutched him by the sleeve.
"Don't go!" she begged. "Oh, for God's sake, don't leave us here alone!"
"You heard a woman scream didn't you?" asked Bridge. "Do you suppose I can stay in up here when a woman may be facing death a few feet below me?"
For answer the girl but held more tightly to his arm while the youth slipped to the floor and embraced the man's knees in a vice-like hold which he could not break without hurting his detainer.
"Come! Come!" expostulated Bridge. "Let me go."
"Wait!" begged the girl. "Wait until you know that it is a human voice that screams through this horrible place."
The youth only strained his hold tighter about the man's legs. Bridge felt a soft cheek pressed to his knee; and, for some unaccountable reason, the appeal was stronger than the pleading of the girl. Slowly Bridge realized that he could not leave this defenseless youth alone even though a dozen women might be menaced by the uncanny death below. With a firm hand he shot the bolt. "Leave go of me," he said; "I shan't leave you unless she calls for help in articulate words."
The boy rose and, trembling, pressed close to the man who, involuntarily, threw a protecting arm about the slim figure. The girl, too, drew nearer, while the two yeggmen rose and stood in rigid silence by the window. From below came an occasional rattle of the chain, followed after a few minutes by the now familiar clanking as the iron links scraped across the flooring. Mingled with the sound of the chain there rose to them what might have been the slow and ponderous footsteps of a heavy man, dragging painfully across the floor. For a few moments they heard it, and then all was silent.
For a dozen tense minutes the five listened; but there was no repetition of any sound from below. Suddenly the girl breathed a deep sigh, and the spell of terror was broken. Bridge felt rather than heard the youth sobbing softly against his breast, while across the room The General gave a quick, nervous laugh which he as immediately suppressed as though fearful unnecessarily of calling attention to their presence. The other vagabond fumbled with his hypodermic needle and the narcotic which would quickly give his fluttering nerves the quiet they craved.
Bridge, the boy, and the girl shivered together in their soggy clothing upon the edge of the bed, feeling now in the cold dawn the chill discomfort of which the excitement of the earlier hours of the night had rendered them unconscious. The youth coughed.
"You've caught cold," said Bridge, his tone almost self-reproachful, as though he were entirely responsible for the boy's condition. "We're a nice aggregation of mollycoddles--five of us sitting half frozen up here with a stove on the floor below, and just because we heard a noise which we couldn't explain and hadn't the nerve to investigate." He rose. "I'm going down, rustle some wood and build a fire in that stove--you two kids have got to dry those clothes of yours and get warmed up or we'll have a couple of hospital cases on our hands."
Once again rose a chorus of pleas and objections. Oh, wouldn't he wait until daylight? See! the dawn was even then commencing to break. They didn't dare go down and they begged him not to leave them up there alone.
At this Dopey Charlie spoke up. The 'hop' had commenced to assert its dominion over his shattered nervous system instilling within him a new courage and a feeling of utter well-being. "Go on down," said he to Bridge. "The General an' I'll look after the kids--won't we bo?"
"Sure," assented The General; "we'll take care of 'em."
"I'll tell you what we'll do," said Bridge; "we'll leave the kids up here and we three'll go down. They won't go, and I wouldn't leave them up here with you two morons on a bet."
The General and Dopey Charlie didn't know what a moron was but they felt quite certain from Bridge's tone of voice that a moron was not a nice thing, and anyway no one could have bribed them to descend into the darkness of the lower floor with the dead man and the grisly THING that prowled through the haunted chambers; so they flatly refused to budge an inch.
Bridge saw in the gradually lighting sky the near approach of full daylight; so he contented himself with making the girl and the youth walk briskly to and fro in the hope that stimulated circulation might at least partially overcome the menace of the damp clothing and the chill air, and thus they occupied the remaining hour of the night.
From below came no repetition of the inexplicable noises of that night of terror and at last, with every object plainly discernible in the light of the new day, Bridge would delay no longer; but voiced his final determination to descend and make a fire in the old kitchen stove. Both the boy and the girl insisted upon accompanying him. For the first time each had an opportunity to study the features of his companions of the night. Bridge found in the girl and the youth two dark eyed, good-looking young people. In the girl's face was, perhaps, just a trace of weakness; but it was not the face of one who consorts habitually with criminals. The man appraised her as a pretty, small-town girl who had been led into a temporary escapade by the monotony of village life, and he would have staked his soul that she was not a bad girl.
The boy, too, looked anything other than the role he had been playing. Bridge smiled as he looked at the clear eyes, the oval face, and the fine, sensitive mouth and thought of the youth's claim to the crime battered sobriquet of The Oskaloosa Kid. The man wondered if the mystery of the clanking chain would prove as harmlessly infantile as these two whom some accident of hilarious fate had cast in the roles of debauchery and crime.
Aloud, he said: "I'll go first, and if the spook materializes you two can beat it back into the room." And to the two tramps: "Come on, boes, we'll all take a look at the lower floor together, and then we'll get a good fire going in the kitchen and warm up a bit."
Down the hall they went, Bridge leading with the boy and girl close at his heels while the two yeggs brought up the rear. Their footsteps echoed through the deserted house; but brought forth no answering clanking from the cellar. The stairs creaked beneath the unaccustomed weight of so many bodies as they descended toward the lower floor. Near the bottom Bridge came to a questioning halt. The front room lay entirely within his range of vision, and as his eyes swept it he gave voice to a short exclamation of surprise.
The youth and the girl, shivering with cold and nervous excitement, craned their necks above the man's shoulder.
"O-h-h!" gasped The Oskaloosa Kid. "He's gone," and, sure enough, the dead man had vanished.
Bridge stepped quickly down the remaining steps, entered the rear room which had served as dining room and kitchen, inspected the two small bedrooms off this room, and the summer kitchen beyond. All were empty; then he turned and re-entering the front room bent his steps toward the cellar stairs. At the foot of the stairway leading to the second floor lay the flash lamp that the boy had dropped the night before. Bridge stooped, picked it up and examined it. It was uninjured and with it in his hand he continued toward the cellar door.
"Where are you going?" asked The Oskaloosa Kid.
"I'm going to solve the mystery of that infernal clanking," he replied.
"You are not going down into that dark cellar!" It was an appeal, a question, and a command; and it quivered gaspingly upon the verge of hysteria.
Bridge turned and looked into the youth's face. The man did not like cowardice and his eyes were stern as he turned them on the lad from whom during the few hours of their acquaintance he had received so many evidences of cowardice; but as the clear brown eyes of the boy met his the man's softened and he shook his head perplexedly. What was there about this slender stripling which so disarmed criticism?
"Yes," he replied, "I am going down. I doubt if I shall find anything there; but if I do it is better to come upon it when I am looking for it than to have it come upon us when we are not expecting it. If there is to be any hunting I prefer to be hunter rather than hunted."
He wheeled and placed a foot upon the cellar stairs. The youth followed him.
"What are you going to do?" asked the man.
"I am going with you," said the boy. "You think I am a coward because I am afraid; but there is a vast difference between cowardice and fear."
The man made no reply as he resumed the descent of the stairs, flashing the rays of the lamp ahead of him; but he pondered the boy's words and smiled as he admitted mentally that it undoubtedly took more courage to do a thing in the face of fear than to do it if fear were absent. He felt a strange elation that this youth should choose voluntarily to share his danger with him, for in his roaming life Bridge had known few associates for whom he cared.
The beams of the little electric lamp, moving from side to side, revealed a small cellar littered with refuse and festooned with cob-webs. At one side tottered the remains of a series of wooden racks upon which pans of milk had doubtless stood to cool in a long gone, happier day. Some of the uprights had rotted away so that a part of the frail structure had collapsed to the earthen floor. A table with one leg missing and a crippled chair constituted the balance of the contents of the cellar and there was no living creature and no chain nor any other visible evidence of the presence which had clanked so lugubriously out of the dark depths during the vanished night. The boy breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief and Bridge laughed, not without a note of relief either.
"You see there is nothing," he said--"nothing except some firewood which we can use to advantage. I regret that James is not here to attend me; but since he is not you and I will have to carry some of this stuff upstairs," and together they returned to the floor above, their arms laden with pieces of the dilapidated milk rack. The girl was awaiting them at the head of the stairs while the two tramps whispered together at the opposite side of the room.
It took Bridge but a moment to have a roaring fire started in the old stove in the kitchen, and as the warmth rolled in comforting waves about them the five felt for the first time in hours something akin to relief and well being. With the physical relaxation which the heat induced came a like relaxation of their tongues and temporary forgetfulness of their antagonisms and individual apprehensions. Bridge was the only member of the group whose conscience was entirely free. He was not 'wanted' anywhere, he had no unexpiated crimes to harry his mind, and with the responsibilities of the night removed he fell naturally into his old, carefree manner. He hazarded foolish explanations of the uncanny noises of the night and suggested various theories to account for the presence and the mysterious disappearance of the dead man.
The General, on the contrary, seriously maintained that the weird sounds had emanated from the ghost of the murdered man who was, unquestionably, none other than the long dead Squibb returned to haunt his former home, and that the scream had sprung from the ghostly lungs of his slain wife or daughter.
"I wouldn't spend anudder night in this dump," he concluded, "for both them pockets full of swag The Oskaloosa Kid's packin' around."
Immediately all eyes turned upon the flushing youth. The girl and Bridge could not prevent their own gazes from wandering to the bulging coat pockets, the owner of which moved uneasily, at last shooting a look of defiance, not unmixed with pleading, at Bridge.
"He's a bad one," interjected Dopey Charlie, a glint of cunning in his ordinarily glassy eyes. "He flashes a couple o' mitsful of sparklers, chesty-like, and allows as how he's a regular burglar. Then he pulls a gun on me, as wasn't doin' nothin' to him, and 'most croaks me. It's even money that if anyone's been croaked in Oakdale last night they won't have to look far for the guy that done it. Least-wise they won't have to look far if he doesn't come across," and Dopey Charlie looked meaningly and steadily at the side pockets of The Oskaloosa Kid.
"I think," said Bridge, after a moment of general silence, "that you two crooks had better beat it. Do you get me?" and he looked from Dopey Charlie to The General and back again.
"We don't go," said Dopey Charlie, belligerently, "until we gets half the Kid's swag."
"You go now," said Bridge, "without anybody's swag," and he drew the boy's automatic from his side pocket. "You go now and you go quick--beat it!"
The two rose and shuffled toward the door. "We'll get you, you colledge Lizzy," threatened Dopey Charlie, "an' we'll get that phoney punk, too."
"'And speed the parting guest,'" quoted Bridge, firing a shot that splintered the floor at the crook's feet.