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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Oakdale Affair - Chapter One (Cont. 3)
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The Oakdale Affair - Chapter One (Cont. 3) Post by :Hendry_Lee Category :Long Stories Author :Edgar Rice Burroughs Date :May 2012 Read :727

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The Oakdale Affair - Chapter One (Cont. 3)

At last the grave was dug. The girl climbed out and stood looking down upon the quilt wrapped thing at her feet. For a moment she stood there as silent and motionless as the dead. Only the twittering of birds disturbed the quiet of the wood. Bridge felt a soft hand slipped into his and slender fingers grip his own, He turned his eyes to see the boy at his side gazing with wide eyes and trembling lips at the tableau within the clearing. Involuntarily the man's hand closed tightly upon the youth's.

And as they stood thus the silence was shattered by a loud and human sneeze from the thicket not fifty feet from where they stood. Instantly the girl in the clearing was electrified into action. Like a tigress charging those who stalked her she leaped swiftly across the clearing toward the point from which the disturbance had come. There was an answering commotion in the underbrush as the girl crashed through, a slender knife gleaming in her hand.

Bridge and his companions heard the sounds of a swift and short pursuit followed by voices, one masterful, the other frightened and whimpering; and a moment afterward the girl reappeared dragging a boy with her--a wide-eyed, terrified, country boy who begged and blubbered to no avail.

Beside the dead man the girl halted and then turned on her captive. In her right hand she still held the menacing blade.

"What you do there watching me for?" she demanded. "Tell me the truth, or I kill you," and she half raised the knife that he might profit in his decision by this most potent of arguments.

The boy cowered. "I didn't come fer to watch you," he whimpered. "I'm lookin' for somebody else. I'm goin' to be a dee-tectiff, an' I'm shadderin' a murderer;" and he gasped and stammered: "But not you. I'm lookin' for another murderer."

For the first time the watchers saw a faint smile touch the girl's lips.

"What other murderer?" she asked. "Who has been murdered?"

"Two an' mebby three in Oakdale last night," said Willie Case more glibly now that a chance for disseminating gossip momentarily outweighed his own fears. "Reginald Paynter was murdered an' ol' man Baggs an' Abigail Prim's missin'. Like es not she's been murdered too, though they do say as she had a hand in it, bein' seen with Paynter an' The Oskaloosie Kid jest afore the murder."

As the boy's tale reached the ears of the three hidden in the underbrush Bridge glanced quickly at his companions. He saw the boy's horror-stricken expression follow the announcement of the name of the murdered Paynter, and he saw the girl flush crimson.

Without urging, Willie Case proceeded with his story. He told of the coming of The Oskaloosa Kid to his father's farm that morning and of seeing some of the loot and hearing the confession of robbery and killing in Oakdale the night before. Bridge looked down at the youth beside him; but the other's face was averted and his eyes upon the ground. Then Willie told of the arrival of the great detective, of the reward that had been offered and of his decision to win it and become rich and famous in a single stroke. As he reached the end of his narrative he leaned close to the girl, whispering in her ear the while his furtive gaze wandered toward the spot where the three lay concealed.

Bridge shrugged his shoulders as the palpable inference of that cunning glance was borne in upon him. The boy's voice had risen despite his efforts to hold it to a low whisper for what with the excitement of the adventure and his terror of the girl with the knife he had little or no control of himself, yet it was evident that he did not realize that practically every word he had spoken had reached the ears of the three in hiding and that his final precaution as he divulged the information to the girl was prompted by an excess of timidity and secretiveness.

The eyes of the girl widened in surprise and fear as she learned that three watchers lay concealed at the verge of the clearing. She bent a long, searching look in the direction indicated by the boy and then turned her eyes quickly toward the hut as though to summon aid. At the same moment Bridge stepped from hiding into the clearing. His pleasant 'Good morning!' brought the girl around, facing him.

"What you want?" she snapped.

"I want you and this young man," said Bridge, his voice now suddenly stern. "We have been watching you and followed you from the Squibbs house. We found the dead man there last night;" Bridge nodded toward the quilt enveloped thing upon the ground; "and we suspect that you had an accomplice." Here he frowned meaningly upon Willie Case. The youth trembled and stammered.

"I never seen her afore," he cried. "I don' know nothin' about it. Honest I don't." But the girl did not quail.

"You get out," she commanded. "You a bad man. Kill, steal. He know; he tell me. You get out or I call Beppo. He keel you. He eat you."

"Come, come, now, my dear," urged Bridge, "be calm. Let us get at the root of this thing. Your young friend accuses me of being a murderer, does he? And he tells about murders in Oakdale that I have not even heard of. It seems to me that he must have some guilty knowledge himself of these affairs. Look at him and look at me. Notice his ears, his chin, his forehead, or rather the places where his chin and forehead should be, and then look once more at me. Which of us might be a murderer and which a detective? I ask you.

"And as for yourself. I find you here in the depths of the wood digging a lonely grave for a human corpse. I ask myself: was this man murdered? but I do not say that he was murdered. I wait for an explanation from you, for you do not look a murderer, though I cannot say as much for your desperate companion."

The girl looked straight into Bridge's eyes for a full minute before she replied as though endeavoring to read his inmost soul.

"I do not know this boy," she said. "That is the truth. He was spying on me, and when I found him he told me that you and your companions were thieves and murderers and that you were hiding there watching me. You tell me the truth, all the truth, and I will tell you the truth. I have nothing to fear. If you do not tell me the truth I shall know it. Will you?"

"I will," replied Bridge, and then turning toward the brush he called: "Come here!" and presently a boy and a girl, dishevelled and fearful, crawled forth into sight. Willie Case's eyes went wide as they fell upon the Oskaloosa Kid.

Quickly and simply Bridge told the girl the story of the past night, for he saw that by enlisting her sympathy he might find an avenue of escape for his companions, or at least a haven of refuge where they might hide until escape was possible. "And then," he said in conclusion, "when the searchers arrived we followed the foot prints of yourself and the bear until we came upon you digging this grave."

Bridge's companions and Willie Case looked their surprise at his mention of a bear; but the gypsy girl only nodded her head as she had occasionally during his narrative.

"I believe you," said the girl. "It is not easy to deceive Giova. Now I tell you. This here," she pointed toward the dead man, "he my father. He bad man. Steal; kill; drink; fight; but always good to Giova. Good to no one else but Beppo. He afraid Beppo. Even our people drive us out he, my father, so bad man. We wander 'round country mak leetle money when Beppo dance; mak lot money when HE steal. Two days he no come home. I go las' night look for him. Sometimes he too drunk come home he sleep Squeebs. I go there. I find heem dead. He have fits, six, seven year. He die fit. Beppo stay guard heem. I carry heem home. Giova strong, he no very large man. Beppo come too. I bury heem. No one know we leeve here. Pretty soon I go way with Beppo. Why tell people he dead. Who care? Mak lot trouble for Giova whose heart already ache plenty. No one love heem, only Beppo and Giova. No one love Giova, only Beppo; but some day Beppo he keel Giova now HE is dead, for Beppo vera large, strong bear--fierce bear--ogly bear. Even Giova who love Beppo is afraid Beppo. Beppo devil bear! Beppo got evil eye.

"Well," said Bridge, "I guess, Giova, that you and we are in the same boat. We haven't any of us done anything so very bad but it would be embarrassing to have to explain to the police what we have done," here he glanced at The Oskaloosa Kid and the girl standing beside the youth. "Suppose we form a defensive alliance, eh? We'll help you and you help us. What do you say?"

"All right," acquiesced Giova; "but what we do with this?" and she jerked her thumb toward Willie Case.

"If he don't behave we'll feed him to Beppo," suggested Bridge.

Willie shook in his boots, figuratively speaking, for in reality he shook upon his bare feet. "Lemme go," he wailed, "an' I won't tell nobody nothin'."

"No," said Bridge, "you don't go until we're safely out of here. I wouldn't trust that vanishing chin of yours as far as I could throw Beppo by the tail."

"Wait!" exclaimed The Oskaloosa Kid. "I have it!"

"What have you?" asked Bridge.

"Listen!" cried the boy excitedly. "This boy has been offered a hundred dollars for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the men who robbed and murdered in Oakdale last night. I'll give him a hundred dollars if he'll go away and say nothing about us."

"Look here, son," said Bridge, "every time you open your mouth you put your foot in it. The less you advertise the fact that you have a hundred dollars the better off you'll be. I don't know how you come by so much wealth; but in view of several things which occurred last night I should not be crazy, were I you, to have to make a true income tax return. Somehow I have faith in you; but I doubt if any minion of the law would be similarly impressed."

The Oskaloosa Kid appeared hurt and crestfallen. Giova shot a suspicious glance at him. The other girl involuntarily drew away. Bridge noted the act and shook his head. "No," he said, "we mustn't judge one another hastily, Miss Prim, and I take it you are Miss Prim?" The girl made a half gesture of denial, started to speak, hesitated and then resumed. "I would rather not say who I am, please," she said.

"Well," said the man, "let's take one another at face value for a while, without digging too deep into the past; and now for our plans. This wood will be searched; but I don't see how we are to get out of it before dark as the roads are doubtless pretty well patrolled, or at least every farmer is on the lookout for suspicious strangers. So we might as well make the best of it here for the rest of the day. I think we're reasonably safe for the time being--if we keep Willie with us."

Willie had been an interested auditor of all that passed between his captors. He was obviously terrified; but his terror did not prevent him from absorbing all that he heard, nor from planning how he might utilize the information. He saw not only one reward but several and a glorious publicity which far transcended the most sanguine of his former dreams. He saw his picture not only in the Oakdale Tribune but in the newspapers of every city of the country. Assuming a stern and arrogant expression, or rather what he thought to be such, he posed, mentally, for the newspaper cameramen; and such is the power of association of ideas that he was presently strolling nonchalantly before a battery of motion picture machines. "Gee!" he murmured, "wont the other fellers be sore! I s'ppose Pinkerton'll send for me 'bout the first thing 'n' offer me twenty fi' dollars a week, er mebbie more 'n thet. Gol durn, ef I don't hold out fer thirty! Gee!" Words, thoughts even, failed him.

As the others planned they rather neglected Willie and when they came to assisting Giova in lowering her father into the grave and covering him over with earth they quite forgot Willie entirely. It was The Oskaloosa Kid who first thought of him. "Where's the boy?" he cried suddenly. The others looked quickly about the clearing, but no Willie was to be seen.

Bridge shook his head ruefully. "We'll have to get out of this in a hurry now," he said. "That little defective will have the whole neighborhood on us in an hour."

"Oh, what can we do?" cried the girl. "They mustn't find us! I should rather die than be found here with--" She stopped abruptly, flushed scarlet as the other three looked at her in silence, and then: "I am sorry," she said. "I didn't know what I was saying. I am so frightened. You have all been good to me."

"I tell you what we do." It was Giova speaking in the masterful voice of one who has perfect confidence in his own powers. "I know fine way out. This wood circle back south through swamp mile, mile an' a half. The road past Squeebs an' Case's go right through it. I know path there I fin' myself. We on'y have to cross road, that only danger. Then we reach leetle stream south of woods, stream wind down through Payson. We all go Gypsies. I got lot clothing in house. We all go Gypsies, an' when we reach Payson we no try hide--jus' come out on street with Beppo. Mak' Beppo dance. No one think we try hide. Then come night we go 'way. Find more wood an' leetle lake other side Payson. I know place. We hide there long time. No one ever fin' us there. We tell two, three, four people in Payson we go Oakdale. They look Oakdale for us if they wan' fin' us. They no think look where we go. See?"

"Oh, I can't go to Payson," exclaimed the other girl. "Someone would be sure to recognize me."

"You come in house with me," Giova assured her, "I feex you so your own mother no know you. You mens come too. I geeve you what to wear like Gypsy mens. We got lots things. My father, him he steal many things from our people after they drive us out. He go back by nights an' steal."

The three followed her toward the little hovel since there seemed no better plan than that which she had offered. Giova and the other girl were in the lead, followed by Bridge and the boy. The latter turned to the man and placed a hand upon his arm. "Why don't you leave us," he asked. "You have done nothing. No one is looking for you. Why don't you go your way and save yourself from suspicion."

Bridge did not reply.

"I believe," the youth went on, "that you are doing it for me; but why I can't guess."

"Maybe I am," Bridge half acknowledged. "You're a good little kid, but you need someone to look after you. It would be easier though if you'd tell me the truth about yourself, which you certainly haven't up to now."

"Please don't ask me," begged the boy. "I can't; honestly I can't."

"Is it as bad as that?" asked the man.

"Oh, its worse," cried The Oskaloosa Kid. "It's a thousand times worse. Don't make me tell you, for if I do tell I shall have to leave you, and--and, oh, Bridge, I don't want to leave you--ever!"

They had reached the door of the cabin now and were looking in past the girl who had halted there as Giova entered. Before them was a small room in which a large, vicious looking brown bear was chained.

"Behold our ghost of last night!" exclaimed Bridge. "By George! though, I'd as soon have hunted a real ghost in the dark as to have run into this fellow."

"Did you know last night that it was a bear?" asked the Kid. "You told Giova that you followed the footprints of herself and her bear; but you had not said anything about a bear to us."

"I had an idea last night," explained Bridge, "that the sounds were produced by some animal dragging a chain; but I couldn't prove it and so I said nothing, and then this morning while we were following the trail I made up my mind that it was a bear. There were two facts which argued that such was the case. The first is that I don't believe in ghosts and that even if I did I would not expect a ghost to leave footprints in the mud, and the other is that I knew that the footprints of a bear are strangely similar to those of the naked feet of man. Then when I saw the Gypsy girl I was sure that what we had heard last night was nothing more nor less than a trained bear. The dress and appearance of the dead man lent themselves to a furtherance of my belief and the wisp of brown hair clutched in his fingers added still further proof."

Within the room the bear was now straining at his collar and growling ferociously at the strangers. Giova crossed the room, scolding him and at the same time attempting to assure him that the newcomers were friends; but the wicked expression upon the beast's face gave no indication that he would ever accept them as aught but enemies.

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 to-night 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 cigaret; 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 trayful 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 he 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 remain 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.

In an old brick structure a hundred yards below the mill where the lighting machinery of Payson had been installed before the days of the great central power plant a hundred miles away four men were smoking as they lay stretched upon the floor.

"I tell you I seen him," asserted one of the party. "I follered this Bridge guy from town to the mill. He was got up like a Gyp; but I knew him all right, all right. This scenery of his made me tink there was something phoney doin', or I wouldn't have trailed him, an' its a good ting I done it, fer he hadn't ben there five minutes before along comes The Kid an' a skirt and pretty soon a nudder chicken wid a calf on a string, er mebbie it was a sheep--it was pretty husky lookin' fer a sheep though. An' I sticks aroun' a minute until I hears this here Bridge guy call the first skirt 'Miss Prim.'"

He ceased speaking to note the effect of his words on his hearers. They were electrical. The Sky Pilot sat up straight and slapped his thigh. Soup Face opened his mouth, letting his pipe fall out into his lap, setting fire to his ragged trousers. Dirty Eddie voiced a characteristic obscenity.

"So you sees," went on Columbus Blackie, "we got a chanct to get both the dame and The Kid. Two of us can take her to Oakdale an' claim the reward her old man's offerin' an' de odder two can frisk de Kid, an'--an'--."

"An' wot?" queried The Sky Pilot.

"Dere's de swamp handy," suggested Soup Face.

"I was tinkin' of de swamp," said Columbus Blackie.

"Eddie and I will return Miss Prim to her bereaved parents," interrupted The Sky Pilot. "You, Blackie, and Soup Face can arrange matters with The Oskaloosa Kid. I don't care for details. We will all meet in Toledo as soon as possible and split the swag. We ought to make a cleaning on this job, boes."

"You split a mout'ful then," said Columbus Blackie.

They fell to discussing way and means.

"We'd better wait until they're asleep," counseled The Sky Pilot. "Two of us can tackle this Bridge and hand him the k.o. quick. Eddie and Soup Face had better attend to that. Blackie can nab The Kid an' I'll annex Miss Abigail Prim. The lady with the calf we don't want. We'll tell her we're officers of the law an' that she'd better duck with her live stock an' keep her trap shut if she don't want to get mixed up with a murder trial."

*****

Detective Burton was at the county jail in Oakdale administering the third degree to Dopey Charlie and The General when there came a long distance telephone call for him.

"Hello!" said the voice at the other end of the line; "I'm Willie Case, an' I've found Miss Abigail Prim."

"Again?" queried Burton.

"Really," asserted Willie. "I know where she's goin' to be all night. I heard 'em say so. The Oskaloosie Kid's with her an' annuder guy an' the girl I seen with the dead man in Squibbs' woods an' they got a BEAR!" It was almost a shriek. "You'd better come right away an' bring Mr. Prim. I'll meet you on the ol' Toledo road right south of Payson, an' say, do I get the whole reward?"

"You'll get whatever's coming to you, son," replied Burton. "You say there are two men and two women--are you sure that is all?"

"And the bear," corrected Willie.

"All right, keep quiet and wait for me," cautioned Burton. "You'll know me by the spot light on my car--I'll have it pointed straight up into the air. When you see it coming get into the middle of the road and wave your hands to stop us. Do you understand?"

"Yes," said Willie.

"And don't talk to anyone," Burton again cautioned him.

A few minutes later Burton left Oakdale with his two lieutenants and a couple of the local policemen, the car turning south toward Payson and moving at ever accelerating speed as it left the town streets behind it and swung smoothly onto the country road.

*****

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It was after midnight when four men cautiously approached the old mill. There was no light nor any sign of life within as they crept silently through the doorless doorway. Columbus Blackie was in the lead. He flashed a quick light around the interior revealing four forms stretched upon the floor, deep in slumber. Into the blacker shadows of the far end of the room the man failed to shine his light for the first flash had shown him those whom he sought. Picking out their quarry the intruders made a sudden rush upon the sleepers.Bridge awoke to find two men
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