It was a breathless Willie who broke into his mother's kitchen wide eyed and gasping from the effects of excitement and a long, hard run.
"Fer lan' sakes!" exclaimed Mrs. Case. "Whatever in the world ails you?"
"I got 'em; I got 'em!" cried Willie, dashing for the telephone.
"Fer lan' sakes! I should think you did hev 'em," retorted his mother as she trailed after him in the direction of the front hall. "'N' whatever you got, you got 'em bad. Now you stop right where you air 'n' tell me whatever you got. 'Taint likely its measles, fer you've hed them three times, 'n' whoopin' cough ain't 'them,' it's 'it,' 'n'--." Mrs. Case paused and gasped--horrified. "Fer lan' sakes, Willie Case, you come right out o' this house this minute ef you got anything in your head." She made a grab for Willie's arm; but the boy dodged and reached the telephone.
"Shucks!" he cried. "I ain't got nothin' in my head," nor did either sense the unconscious humor of the statement. "What I got is a gang o' thieves an' murderers, an' I'm callin' up thet big city deetectiff to come arter 'em."
Mrs. Case sank into a chair, prostrated by the weight of her emotions, while Willie took down the receiver after ringing the bell to attract central. Finally he obtained his connection, which was with Jonas Prim's bank where detective Burton was making his headquarters. Here he learned that Burton had not returned; but finally gave his message reluctantly to Jonas Prim after exacting a promise from that gentleman that he would be personally responsible for the payment of the reward. What Willie Case told Jonas Prim had the latter in a machine, with half a dozen deputy sheriffs and speeding southward from Oakdale inside of ten minutes.
A short distance out from town they met detective Burton with his two prisoners. After a hurried consultation Dopey Charlie and The General were unloaded and started on the remainder of their journey afoot under guard of two of the deputies, while Burton's companions turned and followed the other car, Burton taking a seat beside Prim.
"He said that he could take us right to where Abigail is," Mr. Prim was explaining to Burton, "and that this Oskaloosa Kid is with her, and another man and a foreign looking girl. He told a wild story about seeing them burying a dead man in the woods back of Squibbs' place. I don't know how much to believe, or whether to believe any of it; but we can't afford not to run down every clew. I can't believe that my daughter is wilfully consorting with such men. She always has been full of life and spirit; but she's got a clean mind, and her little escapades have always been entirely harmless--at worst some sort of boyish prank. I simply won't believe it until I see it with my own eyes. If she's with them she's being held by force."
Burton made no reply. He was not a man to jump to conclusions. His success was largely due to the fact that he assumed nothing; but merely ran down each clew quickly yet painstakingly until he had a foundation of fact upon which to operate. His theory was that the simplest way is always the best way and so he never befogged the main issue with any elaborate system of deductive reasoning based on guesswork. Burton never guessed. He assumed that it was his business to KNOW, nor was he on any case long before he did know. He was employed now to find Abigail Prim. Each of the several crimes committed the previous night might or might not prove a clew to her whereabouts; but each must be run down in the process of elimination before Burton could feel safe in abandoning it.
Already he had solved one of them to his satisfaction; and Dopey Charlie and The General were, all unknown to themselves, on the way to the gallows for the murder of Old John Baggs. When Burton had found them simulating sleep behind the bushes beside the road his observant eyes had noticed something that resembled a hurried cache. The excuse of a lost note book had taken him back to investigate and to find the loot of the Baggs's crime wrapped in a bloody rag and hastily buried in a shallow hole.
When Burton and Jonas Prim arrived at the Case farm they were met by a new Willie. A puffed and important young man swaggered before them as he retold his tale and led them through the woods toward the spot where they were to bag their prey. The last hundred yards was made on hands and knees; but when the party arrived at the clearing there was no one in sight, only the hovel stood mute and hollow-eyed before them.
"They must be inside," whispered Willie to the detective.
Burton passed a whispered word to his followers. Stealthily they crept through the underbrush until the cabin was surrounded; then, at a signal from their leader they rose and advanced upon the structure.
No evidence of life indicated their presence had been noted, and Burton came to the very door of the cabin unchallenged. The others saw him pause an instant upon the threshold and then pass in. They closed behind him. Three minutes later he emerged, shaking his head.
"There is no one here," he announced.
Willie Case was crestfallen. "But they must be," he pleaded. "They must be. I saw 'em here just a leetle while back."
Burton turned and eyed the boy sternly. Willie quailed. "I seen 'em," he cried. "Hones' I seen 'em. They was here just a few minutes ago. Here's where they burrit the dead man," and he pointed to the little mound of earth near the center of the clearing.
"We'll see," commented Burton, tersely, and he sent two of his men back to the Case farm for spades. When they returned a few minutes' labor revealed that so much of Willie's story was true, for a quilt wrapped corpse was presently unearthed and lying upon the ground beside its violated grave. Willie's stock rose once more to par.
In an improvised litter they carried the dead man back to Case's farm where they left him after notifying the coroner by telephone. Half of Burton's men were sent to the north side of the woods and half to the road upon the south of the Squibbs' farm. There they separated and formed a thin line of outposts about the entire area north of the road. If the quarry was within it could not escape without being seen. In the mean time Burton telephoned to Oakdale for reinforcements, as it would require fifty men at least to properly beat the tangled underbrush of the wood.
* * * * * * *
In a clump of willows beside the little stream which winds through the town of Payson a party of four halted on the outskirts of the town. There were two men, two young women and a huge brown bear. The men and women were, obviously, Gypsies. Their clothing, their head-dress, their barbaric ornamentation proclaimed the fact to whoever might pass; but no one passed.
"I think," said Bridge, "that we will just stay where we are until after dark. We haven't passed or seen a human being since we left the cabin. No one can know that we are here and if we stay here until late tonight we should be able to pass around Payson unseen and reach the wood to the south of town. If we do meet anyone to-night we'll stop them and inquire the way to Oakdale --that'll throw them off the track."
The others acquiesced in his suggestion; but there were queries about food to be answered. It seemed that all were hungry and that the bear was ravenous.
"What does he eat?" Bridge asked of Giova.
"Mos' anything," replied the girl. "He like garbage fine. Often I take him into towns late, ver' late at night an' he eat swill. I do that to-night. Beppo, he got to be fed or he eat Giova. I go feed Beppo, you go get food for us; then we all meet at edge of wood just other side town near old mill."
During the remainder of the afternoon and well after dark the party remained hidden in the willows. Then Giova started out with Beppo in search of garbage cans, Bridge bent his steps toward a small store upon the outskirts of town where food could be purchased, The Oskaloosa Kid having donated a ten dollar bill for the stocking of the commissariat, and the youth and the girl made their way around the south end of the town toward the meeting place beside the old mill.
As Bridge moved through the quiet road at the outskirts of the little town he let his mind revert to the events of the past twenty four hours and as he pondered each happening since he met the youth in the dark of the storm the preceding night he asked himself why he had cast his lot with these strangers. In his years of vagabondage Bridge had never crossed that invisible line which separates honest men from thieves and murderers and which, once crossed, may never be recrossed. Chance and necessity had thrown him often among such men and women; but never had he been of them. The police of more than one city knew Bridge--they knew him, though, as a character and not as a criminal. A dozen times he had been arraigned upon suspicion; but as many times had he been released with a clean bill of morals until of late Bridge had become almost immune from arrest. The police who knew him knew that he was straight and they knew, too, that he would give no information against another man. For this they admired him as did the majority of the criminals with whom he had come in contact during his rovings.
The present crisis, however, appeared most unpromising to Bridge. Grave crimes had been committed in Oakdale, and here was Bridge conniving in the escape of at least two people who might readily be under police suspicion. It was difficult for the man to bring himself to believe that either the youth or the girl was in any way actually responsible for either of the murders; yet it appeared that the latter had been present when a murder was committed and now by attempting to elude the police had become an accessory after the fact, since she possessed knowledge of the identity of the actual murderer; while the boy, by his own admission, had committed a burglary.
Bridge shook his head wearily. Was he not himself an accessory after the fact in the matter of two crimes at least? These new friends, it seemed, were about to topple him into the abyss which he had studiously avoided for so long a time. But why should he permit it? What were they to him?
A freight train was puffing into the siding at the Payson station. Bridge could hear the complaining brakes a mile away. It would be easy to leave the town and his dangerous companions far behind him; but even as the thought forced its way into his mind another obtruded itself to shoulder aside the first. It was recollection of the boy's words: "Oh, Bridge, I don't want to leave you--ever."
"I couldn't do it," mused Bridge. "I don't know just why; but I couldn't. That kid has certainly got me. The first thing someone knows I'll be starting a foundlings' home. There is no question but that I am the soft mark, and I wonder why it is--why a kid I never saw before last night has a strangle hold on my heart that I can't shake loose--and don't want to. Now if it was a girl I could understand it." Bridge stopped suddenly in the middle of the road. From his attitude he might have been startled either by a surprising noise or by a surprising thought. For a minute he stood motionless; then he shook his head again and proceeded along his way toward the little store; evidently if he had heard anything he was assured that it constituted no menace.
As he entered the store to make his purchases a foxeyed man saw him and stepped quickly behind the huge stove which had not as yet been taken down for the summer. Bridge made his purchases, the volume of which required a large gunny-sack for transportation, and while he was thus occupied the fox-eyed man clung to his coign of vantage, himself unnoticed by the purchaser. When Bridge departed the other followed him, keeping in the shadow of the trees which bordered the street. Around the edge of town and down a road which led southward the two went until Bridge passed through a broken fence and halted beside an abandoned mill. The watcher saw his quarry set down his burden, seat himself beside it and proceed to roll a cigarette; then he faded away in the darkness and Bridge was alone.
Five or ten minutes later two slender figures appeared dimly out of the north. They approached timidly, stopping often and looking first this way and then that and always listening. When they arrived opposite the mill Bridge saw them and gave a low whistle. Immediately the two passed through the fence and approached him.
"My!" exclaimed one, "I thought we never would get here; but we didn't see a soul on the road. Where is Giova?"
"She hadn't come yet," replied Bridge, "and she may not. I don't see how a girl can browse around a town like this with a big bear at night and not be seen, and if she is seen she'll be followed--it would be too much of a treat for the rubes ever to be passed up--and if she's followed she won't come here. At least I hope she won't."
"What's that?" exclaimed The Oskaloosa Kid. Each stood in silence, listening.
The girl shuddered. "Even now that I know what it is it makes me creep," she whispered, as the faint clanking of a distant chain came to their ears.
"We ought to be used to it by this time, Miss Prim," said Bridge. "We heard it all last night and a good part of to-day."
The girl made no comment upon the use of the name which he had applied to her, and in the darkness he could not see her features, nor did he see the odd expression upon the boy's face as he heard the name addressed to her. Was he thinking of the nocturnal raid he so recently had made upon the boudoir of Miss Abigail Prim? Was he pondering the fact that his pockets bulged to the stolen belongings of that young lady? But whatever was passing in his mind he permitted none of it to pass his lips.
As the three stood waiting in silence Giova came presently among them, the beast Beppo lumbering awkwardly at her side.
"Did he find anything to eat?" asked the man.
"Oh, yes," exclaimed Giova. "He fill up now. That mak him better nature. Beppo not so ugly now."
"Well, I'm glad of that," said Bridge. "I haven't been looking forward much to his company through the woods to-night--especially while he was hungry!"
Giova laughed a low, musical little laugh. "I don' think he no hurt you anyway," she said. "Now he know you my frien'."
"I hope you are quite correct in your surmise," replied Bridge. "But even so I'm not taking any chances."
* * * * * * *
Willie Case had been taken to Payson to testify before the coroner's jury investigating the death of Giova's father, and with the dollar which The Oskaloosa Kid had given him in the morning burning in his pocket had proceeded to indulge in an orgy of dissipation the moment that he had been freed from the inquest. Ice cream, red pop, peanuts, candy, and soda water may have diminished his appetite but not his pride and self satisfaction as he sat alone and by night for the first time in a public eating place. Willie was now a man of the world, a bon vivant, as he ordered ham and eggs from the pretty waitress of The Elite Restaurant on Broadway; but at heart he was not happy for never before had he realized what a great proportion of his anatomy was made up of hands and feet. As he glanced fearfully at the former, silhouetted against the white of the table cloth, he flushed scarlet, assured as he was that the waitress who had just turned away toward the kitchen with his order was convulsed with laughter and that every other eye in the establishment was glued upon him. To assume an air of nonchalance and thereby impress and disarm his critics Willie reached for a toothpick in the little glass holder near the center of the table and upset the sugar bowl. Immediately Willie snatched back the offending hand and glared ferociously at the ceiling. He could feel the roots of his hair being consumed in the heat of his skin. A quick side glance that required all his will power to consummate showed him that no one appeared to have noticed his faux pas and Willie was again slowly returning to normal when the proprietor of the restaurant came up from behind and asked him to remove his hat.
Never had Willie Case spent so frightful a half hour as that within the brilliant interior of The Elite Restaurant. Twenty-three minutes of this eternity was consumed in waiting for his order to be served and seven minutes in disposing of the meal and paying his check. Willie's method of eating was in itself a sermon on efficiency--there was no lost motion--no waste of time. He placed his mouth within two inches of his plate after cutting his ham and eggs into pieces of a size that would permit each mouthful to enter without wedging; then he mixed his mashed potatoes in with the result and working his knife and fork alternately with bewildering rapidity shot a continuous stream of food into his gaping maw.
In addition to the meat and potatoes there was one vegetable in a side-dish and as dessert four prunes. The meat course gone Willie placed the vegetable dish on the empty plate, seized a spoon in lieu of knife and fork and--presto! the side-dish was empty. Whereupon the prune dish was set in the empty side-dish--four deft motions and there were no prunes--in the dish. The entire feat had been accomplished in 6:34 1/2, setting a new world's record for red-headed farmer boys with one splay foot.
In the remaining twenty five and one half seconds Willie walked what seemed to him a mile from his seat to the cashier's desk and at the last instant bumped into a waitress with a tray full of dishes. Clutched tightly in Willie's hand was thirty five cents and his check with a like amount written upon it. Amid the crash of crockery which followed the collision Willie slammed check and money upon the cashier's desk and fled. Nor did he pause until in the reassuring seclusion of a dark side street. There Willie sank upon the curb alternately cold with fear and hot with shame, weak and panting, and into his heart entered the iron of class hatred, searing it to the core.
Fortunately for youth it recuperates rapidly from mortal blows, and so it was that another half hour found Willie wandering up and down Broadway but at the far end of the street from The Elite Restaurant. A motion picture theater arrested his attention; and presently, parting with one of his two remaining dimes, he entered. The feature of the bill was a detective melodrama. Nothing in the world could have better suited Willie's psychic needs. It recalled his earlier feats of the day, in which he took pardonable pride, and raised him once again to a self-confidence he had not felt since be entered the ever to be hated Elite Restaurant.
The show over Willie set forth afoot for home. A long walk lay ahead of him. This in itself was bad enough; but what lay at the end of the long walk was infinitely worse, as Willie's father had warned him to return immediately after the inquest, in time for milking, preferably. Before he had gone two blocks from the theater Willie had concocted at least three tales to account for his tardiness, either one of which would have done credit to the imaginative powers of a Rider Haggard or a Jules Verne; but at the end of the third block he caught a glimpse of something which drove all thoughts of home from his mind and came but barely short of driving his mind out too. He was approaching the entrance to an alley. Old trees grew in the parkway at his side. At the street corner a half block away a high flung arc swung gently from its supporting cables, casting a fair light upon the alley's mouth, and just emerging from behind the nearer fence Willie Case saw the huge bulk of a bear. Terrified, Willie jumped behind a tree; and then, fearful lest the animal might have caught sight or scent of him he poked his head cautiously around the side of the bole just in time to see the figure of a girl come out of the alley behind the bear. Willie recognized her at the first glance--she was the very girl he had seen burying the dead man in the Squibbs woods. Instantly Willie Case was transformed again into the shrewd and death defying sleuth. At a safe distance he followed the girl and the bear through one alley after another until they came out upon the road which leads south from Payson. He was across the road when she joined Bridge and his companions. When they turned toward the old mill he followed them, listening close to the rotting clapboards for any chance remark which might indicate their future plans. He heard them debating the wisdom of remaining where they were for the night or moving on to another location which they had evidently decided upon but no clew to which they dropped.
"The objection to remaining here," said Bridge, "is that we can't make a fire to cook by--it would be too plainly visible from the road."
"But I can no fin' road by dark," explained Giova. "It bad road by day, ver' much worse by night. Beppo no come 'cross swamp by night. No, we got stay here til morning."
"All right," replied Bridge, "we can eat some of this canned stuff and have our ham and coffee after we reach camp tomorrow morning, eh?"
"And now that we've gotten through Payson safely," suggested The Oskaloosa Kid, "let's change back into our own clothes. This disguise makes me feel too conspicuous."
Willie Case had heard enough. His quarry would re- main where it was over night, and a moment later Willie was racing toward Payson and a telephone as fast as his legs would carry him.