THE OAKDALE AFFAIR
By Edgar Rice Burroughs
Chapter One [And only chapter ED.]
The house on the hill showed lights only upon the first floor—in the spacious reception hall, the dining room, and those more or less mysterious purlieus thereof from which emanate disagreeable odors and agreeable foods.
From behind a low bush across the wide lawn a pair of eyes transferred to an alert brain these simple perceptions from which the brain deduced with Sherlockian accuracy and Raffleian purpose that the family of the president of The First National Bank of—Oh, let's call it Oakdale—was at dinner, that the servants were below stairs and the second floor deserted.
The owner of the eyes had but recently descended from the quarters of the chauffeur above the garage which he had entered as a thief in the night and quitted apparelled in a perfectly good suit of clothes belonging to the gentlemanly chauffeur and a soft, checked cap which was now pulled well down over a pair of large brown eyes in which a rather strained expression might have suggested to an alienist a certain neophytism which even the stern set of well shaped lips could not effectually belie.
Apparently this was a youth steeling himself against a natural repugnance to the dangerous profession he had espoused; and when, a moment later, he stepped out into the moonlight and crossed the lawn toward the house, the slender, graceful lines which the ill-fitting clothes could not entirely conceal carried the conviction of youth if not of innocence.
The brazen assurance with which the lad crossed the lawn and mounted the steps to the verandah suggested a familiarity with the habits and customs of the inmates of the house upon the hill which bespoke long and careful study of the contemplated job. An old timer could not have moved with greater confidence. No detail seemed to have escaped his cunning calculation. Though the door leading from the verandah into the reception hall swung wide to the balmy airs of late Spring the prowler passed this blatant invitation to the hospitality of the House of Prim. It was as though he knew that from his place at the head of the table, with his back toward the great fire place which is the pride of the Prim dining hall, Jonas Prim commands a view of the major portion of the reception hall.
Stooping low the youth passed along the verandah to a window of the darkened library—a French window which swung open without noise to his light touch. Stepping within he crossed the room to a door which opened at the foot of a narrow stairway—a convenient little stairway which had often let the Hon. Jonas Prim to pass from his library to his second floor bed-room unnoticed when Mrs. Prim chanced to be entertaining the feminine elite of Oakdale across the hall. A convenient little stairway for retiring husbands and diffident burglars—yes, indeed!
The darkness of the upper hallway offered no obstacle to this familiar housebreaker. He passed the tempting luxury of Mrs. Prim's boudoir, the chaste elegance of Jonas Prim's bed-room with all the possibilities of forgotten wallets and negotiable papers, setting his course straight for the apartments of Abigail Prim, the spinster daughter of the First National Bank of Oakdale. Or should we utilize a more charitable and at the same time more truthful word than spinster? I think we should, since Abigail was but nineteen and quite human, despite her name.
Upon the dressing table of Abigail reposed much silver and gold and ivory, wrought by clever artisans into articles of great beauty and some utility; but with scarce a glance the burglar passed them by, directing his course straight across the room to a small wall safe cleverly hidden by a bit of tapestry.
How, Oh how, this suggestive familiarity with the innermost secrets of a virgin's sacred apartments upon the part of one so obviously of the male persuasion and, by his all too apparent calling, a denizen of that underworld of which no Abigail should have intimate knowledge? Yet, truly and with scarce a faint indication of groping, though the room was dark, the marauder walked directly to the hidden safe, swung back the tapestry in its frame, turned the knob of the combination and in a moment opened the circular door of the strong box.
A fat roll of bills and a handful of jewelry he transferred to the pockets of his coat. Some papers which his hand brushed within the safe he pushed aside as though preadvised of their inutility to one of his calling. Then he closed the safe door, closed the tapestry upon it and turned toward a dainty dressing table. From a drawer in this exquisite bit of Sheraton the burglar took a small, nickel plated automatic, which he slipped into an inside breast pocket of his coat, nor did he touch another article therein or thereon, nor hesitate an instant in the selection of the drawer to be rifled. His knowledge of the apartment of the daughter of the house of Prim was little short of uncanny. Doubtless the fellow was some plumber's apprentice who had made good use of an opportunity to study the lay of the land against a contemplated invasion of these holy precincts.
But even the most expert of second story men nod and now that all seemed as though running on greased rails a careless elbow raked a silver candle-stick from the dressing table to the floor where it crashed with a resounding din that sent cold shivers up the youth's spine and conjured in his mind a sudden onslaught of investigators from the floor below.
The noise of the falling candlestick sounded to the taut nerved house-breaker as might the explosion of a stick of dynamite during prayer in a meeting house. That all Oakdale had heard it seemed quite possible, while that those below stairs were already turning questioning ears, and probably inquisitive footsteps, upward was almost a foregone conclusion.
Adjoining Miss Prim's boudoir was her bath and before the door leading from the one to the other was a cretonne covered screen behind which the burglar now concealed himself the while he listened in rigid apprehension for the approach of the enemy; but the only sound that came to him from the floor below was the deep laugh of Jonas Prim. A profound sigh of relief escaped the beardless lips; for that laugh assured the youth that, after all, the noise of the fallen candlestick had not alarmed the household.
With knees that still trembled a bit he crossed the room and passed out into the hallway, descended the stairs, and stood again in the library. Here he paused a moment listening to the voices which came from the dining room. Mrs. Prim was speaking. "I feel quite relieved about Abigail," she was saying. "I believe that at last she sees the wisdom and the advantages of an alliance with Mr. Benham, and it was almost with enthusiasm that she left this morning to visit his sister. I am positive that a week or two of companionship with him will impress upon her the fine qualities of his nature. We are to be congratulated, Jonas, upon settling our daughter so advantageously both in the matter of family and wealth."
Jonas Prim grunted. "Sam Benham is old enough to be the girl's father," he growled. "If she wants him, all right; but I can't imagine Abbie wanting a bald-headed husband with rheumatism. I wish you'd let her alone, Pudgy, to find her own mate in her own way—someone nearer her own age."
"The child is not old enough to judge wisely for herself," replied Mrs. Prim. "It was my duty to arrange a proper alliance; and, Jonas, I will thank you not to call me Pudgy—it is perfectly ridiculous for a woman of my age—and position."
The burglar did not hear Mr. Prim's reply for he had moved across the library and passed out onto the verandah. Once again he crossed the lawn, taking advantage of the several trees and shrubs which dotted it, scaled the low stone wall at the side and was in the concealing shadows of the unlighted side street which bounds the Prim estate upon the south. The streets of Oakdale are flanked by imposing battalions of elm and maple which over-arch and meet above the thoroughfares; and now, following an early Spring, their foliage eclipsed the infrequent arclights to the eminent satisfaction of those nocturnal wayfarers who prefer neither publicity nor the spot light. Of such there are few within the well ordered precincts of law abiding Oakdale; but to-night there was at least one and this one was deeply grateful for the gloomy walks along which he hurried toward the limits of the city.
At last he found himself upon a country road with the odors of Spring in his nostrils and the world before him. The night noises of the open country fell strangely upon his ears accentuating rather than relieving the myriad noted silence of Nature. Familiar sounds became unreal and weird, the deep bass of innumerable bull frogs took on an uncanny humanness which sent a half shudder through the slender frame. The burglar felt a sad loneliness creeping over him. He tried whistling in an effort to shake off the depressing effects of this seeming solitude through which he moved; but there remained with him still the hallucination that he moved alone through a strange, new world peopled by invisible and unfamiliar forms—menacing shapes which lurked in waiting behind each tree and shrub.
He ceased his whistling and went warily upon the balls of his feet, lest he unnecessarily call attention to his presence. If the truth were to be told it would chronicle the fact that a very nervous and frightened burglar sneaked along the quiet and peaceful country road outside of Oakdale. A lonesome burglar, this, who so craved the companionship of man that he would almost have welcomed joyously the detaining hand of the law had it fallen upon him in the guise of a flesh and blood police officer from Oakdale.
In leaving the city the youth had given little thought to the practicalities of the open road. He had thought, rather vaguely, of sleeping in a bed of new clover in some hospitable fence corner; but the fence corners looked very dark and the wide expanse of fields beyond suggested a mysterious country which might be peopled by almost anything but human beings.
At a farm house the youth hesitated and was almost upon the verge of entering and asking for a night's lodging when a savage voiced dog shattered the peace of the universe and sent the burglar along the road at a rapid run.
A half mile further on a straw stack loomed large within a fenced enclosure. The youth wormed his way between the barbed wires determined at last to let nothing prevent him from making a cozy bed in the deep straw beside the stack. With courage radiating from every pore he strode toward the stack. His walk was almost a swagger, for thus does youth dissemble the bravery it yearns for but does not possess. He almost whistled again; but not quite, since it seemed an unnecessary provocation to disaster to call particular attention to himself at this time. An instant later he was extremely glad that he had refrained, for as he approached the stack a huge bulk slowly loomed from behind it; and silhouetted against the moonlit sky he saw the vast proportions of a great, shaggy bull. The burglar tore the inside of one trousers' leg and the back of his coat in his haste to pass through the barbed wire fence onto the open road. There he paused to mop the perspiration from his forehead, though the night was now far from warm.
For another mile the now tired and discouraged house-breaker plodded, heavy footed, the unending road. Did vain compunction stir his youthful breast? Did he regret the safe respectability of the plumber's apprentice? Or, if he had not been a plumber's apprentice did he yearn to once again assume the unharried peace of whatever legitimate calling had been his before he bent his steps upon the broad boulevard of sin? We think he did.
And then he saw through the chinks and apertures in the half ruined wall of what had once been a hay barn the rosy flare of a genial light which appeared to announce in all but human terms that man, red blooded and hospitable, forgathered within. No growling dogs, no bulking bulls contested the short stretch of weed grown ground between the road and the disintegrating structure; and presently two wide, brown eyes were peering through a crack in the wall of the abandoned building. What they saw was a small fire built upon the earth floor in the center of the building and around the warming blaze the figures of six men. Some reclined at length upon old straw; others squatted, Turk fashion. All were smoking either disreputable pipes or rolled cigarets. Blear-eyed and foxy-eyed, bearded and stubbled cheeked, young and old, were the men the youth looked upon. All were more or less dishevelled and filthy; but they were human. They were not dogs, or bulls, or croaking frogs. The boy's heart went out to them. Something that was almost a sob rose in his throat, and then he turned the corner of the building and stood in the doorway, the light from the fire playing upon his lithe young figure clothed in its torn and ill fitting suit and upon his oval face and his laughing brown eyes. For several seconds he stood there looking at the men around the fire. None of them had noticed him.
"Tramps!" thought the youth. "Regular tramps." He wondered that they had not seen him, and then, clearing his throat, he said: "Hello, tramps!"
Six heads snapped up or around. Six pairs of eyes, blear or foxy, were riveted upon the boyish figure of the housebreaker. "Wotinel!" ejaculated a frowzy gentleman in a frock coat and golf cap. "Wheredju blow from?" inquired another. "'Hello, tramps'!" mimicked a third.
The youth came slowly toward the fire. "I saw your fire," he said, "and I thought I'd stop. I'm a tramp, too, you know."
"Oh," sighed the elderly person in the frock coat. "He's a tramp, he is. An' does he think gents like us has any time for tramps? An' where might he be trampin', sonny, without his maw?"
The youth flushed. "Oh say!" he cried; "you needn't kid me just because I'm new at it. You all had to start sometime. I've always longed for the free life of a tramp; and if you'll let me go along with you for a little while, and teach me, I'll not bother you; and I'll do whatever you say."
The elderly person frowned. "Beat it, kid!" he commanded. "We ain't runnin' no day nursery. These you see here is all the real thing. Maybe we asks fer a handout now and then; but that ain't our reg'lar lay. You ain't swift enough to travel with this bunch, kid, so you'd better duck. Why we gents, here, if we was added up is wanted in about twenty-seven cities fer about everything from rollin' a souse to crackin' a box and croakin' a bull. You gotta do something before you can train wid gents like us, see?" The speaker projected a stubbled jaw, scowled horridly and swept a flattened palm downward and backward at a right angle to a hairy arm in eloquent gesture of finality.
The boy had stood with his straight, black eyebrows puckered into a studious frown, drinking in every word. Now he straightened up. "I guess I made a mistake," he said, apologetically. "You ain't tramps at all. You're thieves and murderers and things like that." His eyes opened a bit wider and his voice sank to a whisper as the words passed his lips. "But you haven't so much on me, at that," he went on, "for I'm a regular burglar, too," and from the bulging pockets of his coat he drew two handfuls of greenbacks and jewelry. The eyes of the six registered astonishment, mixed with craft and greed. "I just robbed a house in Oakdale," explained the boy. "I usually rob one every night."
For a moment his auditors were too surprised to voice a single emotion; but presently one murmured, soulfully: "Pipe de swag!" He of the frock coat, golf cap, and years waved a conciliatory hand. He tried to look at the boy's face; but for the life of him he couldn't raise his eyes above the dazzling wealth clutched in the fingers of those two small, slim hands. From one dangled a pearl necklace which alone might have ransomed, if not a king, at least a lesser member of a royal family, while diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds scintillated in the flaring light of the fire. Nor was the fistful of currency in the other hand to be sneezed at. There were greenbacks, it is true; but there were also yellowbacks with the reddish gold of large denominations. The Sky Pilot sighed a sigh that was more than half gasp.
"Can't yuh take a kid?" he inquired. "I knew youse all along. Yuh can't fool an old bird like The Sky Pilot—eh, boys?" and he turned to his comrades for confirmation.
"He's The Oskaloosa Kid," exclaimed one of the company. "I'd know 'im anywheres."
"Pull up and set down," invited another.
The boy stuffed his loot back into his pockets and came closer to the fire. Its warmth felt most comfortable, for the Spring night was growing chill. He looked about him at the motley company, some half-spruce in clothing that suggested a Kuppenmarx label and a not too far association with a tailor's goose, others in rags, all but one unshaven and all more or less dirty—for the open road is close to Nature, which is principally dirt.
"Shake hands with Dopey Charlie," said The Sky Pilot, whose age and corpulency appeared to stamp him with the hall mark of authority. The youth did as he was bid, smiling into the sullen, chalk-white face and taking the clammy hand extended toward him. Was it a shudder that passed through the lithe, young figure or was it merely a subconscious recognition of the final passing of the bodily cold before the glowing warmth of the blaze? "And Soup Face," continued The Sky Pilot. A battered wreck half rose and extended a pudgy hand. Red whiskers, matted in little tangled wisps which suggested the dried ingredients of an infinite procession of semi-liquid refreshments, rioted promiscuously over a scarlet countenance.
"Pleased to meetcha," sprayed Soup Face. It was a strained smile which twisted the rather too perfect mouth of The Oskaloosa Kid, an appellation which we must, perforce, accept since the youth did not deny it.
Columbus Blackie, The General, and Dirty Eddie were formally presented. As Dirty Eddie was, physically, the cleanest member of the band the youth wondered how he had come by his sobriquet—that is, he wondered until he heard Dirty Eddie speak, after which he was no longer in doubt. The Oskaloosa Kid, self-confessed 'tramp' and burglar, flushed at the lurid obscenity of Dirty Eddie's remarks.
"Sit down, bo," invited Soup Face. "I guess you're a regular all right. Here, have a snifter?" and he pulled a flask from his side pocket, holding it toward The Oskaloosa Kid.
"Thank you, but;—er—I'm on the wagon, you know," declined the youth.
"Have a smoke?" suggested Columbus Blackie. "Here's the makin's."
The change in the attitude of the men toward him pleased The Oskaloosa Kid immensely. They were treating him as one of them, and after the lonely walk through the dark and desolate farm lands human companionship of any kind was to him as the proverbial straw to the man who rocked the boat once too often.
Dopey Charlie and The General, alone of all the company, waxed not enthusiastic over the advent of The Oskaloosa Kid and his priceless loot. These two sat scowling and whispering in the back-ground. "Dat's a wrong guy," muttered the former to the latter. "He's a stool pigeon or one of dese amatoor mugs."
"It's the pullin' of that punk graft that got my goat," replied The General. "I never seen a punk yet that didn't try to make you think he was a wise guy an' dis stiff don't belong enough even to pull a spiel that would fool a old ladies' sewin' circle. I don't see wot The Sky Pilot's cozyin' up to him fer."
"You don't?" scoffed Dopey Charlie. "Didn't you lamp de oyster harness? To say nothin' of de mitful of rocks and kale."
"That 'ud be all right, too," replied the other, "if we could put the guy to sleep; but The Sky Pilot won't never stand for croakin' nobody. He's too scared of his neck. We'll look like a bunch o' wise ones, won't we? lettin' a stranger sit in now—after last night. Hell!" he suddenly exploded. "Don't you know that you an' me stand to swing if any of de bunch gets gabby in front of dis phoney punk?"
The two sat silent for a while, The General puffing on a short briar, Dopey Charlie inhaling deep draughts from a cigarette, and both glaring through narrowed lids at the boy warming himself beside the fire where the others were attempting to draw him out the while they strove desperately but unavailingly to keep their eyes from the two bulging sidepockets of their guest's coat.
Soup Face, who had been assiduously communing with a pint flask, leaned close to Columbus Blackie, placing his whiskers within an inch or so of the other's nose as was his habit when addressing another, and whispered, relative to the pearl necklace: "Not a cent less 'n fifty thou, bo!"
"Fertheluvomike!" ejaculated Blackie, drawing back and wiping a palm quickly across his lips. "Get a plumber first if you want to kiss me—you leak."
"He thinks you need a shower bath," said Dirty Eddie, laughing.
"The trouble with Soup Face," explained The Sky Pilot, "is that he's got a idea he's a human atomizer an' that the rest of us has colds."
"Well, I don't want no atomizer loaded with rot-gut and garlic shot in my mug," growled Blackie. "What Soup Face needs is to be learned ettyket, an' if he comes that on me again I'm goin' to push his mush through the back of his bean."
An ugly light came into the blear eyes of Soup Face. Once again he leaned close to Columbus Blackie. "Not a cent less 'n fifty thou, you tinhorn!" he bellowed, belligerent and sprayful.
Blackie leaped to his feet, with an oath—a frightful, hideous oath—and as he rose he swung a heavy fist to Soup Face's purple nose. The latter rolled over backward; but was upon his feet again much quicker than one would have expected in so gross a bulk, and as he came to his feet a knife flashed in his hand. With a sound that was more bestial than human he ran toward Blackie; but there was another there who had anticipated his intentions. As the blow was struck The Sky Pilot had risen; and now he sprang forward, for all his age and bulk as nimble as a cat, and seized Soup Face by the wrist. A quick wrench brought a howl of pain to the would-be assassin, and the knife fell to the floor.
"You gotta cut that if you travel with this bunch," said The Sky Pilot in a voice that was new to The Oskaloosa Kid; "and you, too, Blackie," he continued. "The rough stuff don't go with me, see?" He hurled Soup Face to the floor and resumed his seat by the fire.
The youth was astonished at the physical strength of this old man, seemingly so softened by dissipation; but it showed him the source of The Sky Pilot's authority and its scope, for Columbus Blackie and Soup Face quitted their quarrel immediately.
Dirty Eddie rose, yawned and stretched. "Me fer the hay," he announced, and lay down again with his feet toward the fire. Some of the others followed his example. "You'll find some hay in the loft there," said The Sky Pilot to The Oskaloosa Kid. "Bring it down an' make your bed here by me, there's plenty room."
A half hour later all were stretched out upon the hard dirt floor upon improvised beds of rotted hay; but not all slept. The Oskaloosa Kid, though tired, found himself wider awake than he ever before had been. Apparently sleep could never again come to those heavy eyes. There passed before his mental vision a panorama of the events of the night. He smiled as he inaudibly voiced the name they had given him, the right to which he had not seen fit to deny. "The Oskaloosa Kid." The boy smiled again as he felt the 'swag' hard and lumpy in his pockets. It had given him prestige here that he could not have gained by any other means; but he mistook the nature of the interest which his display of stolen wealth had aroused. He thought that the men now looked upon him as a fellow criminal to be accepted into the fraternity through achievement; whereas they suffered him to remain solely in the hope of transferring his loot to their own pockets.
It is true that he puzzled them. Even The Sky Pilot, the most astute and intelligent of them all, was at a loss to fathom The Oskaloosa Kid. Innocence and unsophistication flaunted their banners in almost every act and speech of The Oskaloosa Kid. The youth reminded him in some ways of members of a Sunday school which had flourished in the dim vistas of his past when, as an ordained minister of the Gospel, he had earned the sobriquet which now identified him. But the concrete evidence of the valuable loot comported not with The Sky Pilot's idea of a Sunday school boy's lark. The young fellow was, unquestionably, a thief; but that he had ever before consorted with thieves his speech and manners belied.
"He's got me," murmured The Sky Pilot; "but he's got the stuff on him, too; and all I want is to get it off of him without a painful operation. Tomorrow'll do," and he shifted his position and fell asleep.
Dopey Charlie and The General did not, however, follow the example of their chief. They remained very wide awake, a little apart from the others, where their low whispers could not be overheard.
"You better do it," urged The General, in a soft, insinuating voice. "You're pretty slick with the toad stabber, an' any way one more or less won't count."
"We can go to Sout' America on dat stuff an' live like gents," muttered Dopey Charlie. "I'm goin' to cut out de Hop an' buy a farm an' a ottymobeel and—"
"Come out of it," admonished The General. "If we're lucky we'll get as far as Cincinnati, get a stew on and get pinched. Den one of us'll hang an' de other get stir fer life."
The General was a weasel faced person of almost any age between thirty-five and sixty. Sometimes he could have passed for a hundred and ten. He had won his military title as a boy in the famous march of Coxey's army on Washington, or, rather, the title had been conferred upon him in later years as a merited reward of service. The General, profiting by the precepts of his erstwhile companions in arms, had never soiled his military escutcheon by labor, nor had he ever risen to the higher planes of criminality. Rather as a mediocre pickpocket and a timorous confidence man had he eked out a meager existence, amply punctuated by seasons of straight bumming and intervals spent as the guest of various inhospitably hospitable states. Now, for the first time in his life, The General faced the possibility of a serious charge; and his terror made him what he never before had been, a dangerous criminal.
"You're a cheerful guy," commented Dopey Charlie; "but you may be right at dat. Dey can't hang a guy any higher fer two 'an they can fer one an' dat's no pipe; so wots de use. Wait till I take a shot—it'll be easier," and he drew a small, worn case from an inside pocket, bared his arm to the elbow and injected enough morphine to have killed a dozen normal men.
From a pile of mouldy hay across the barn the youth, heavy eyed but sleepless, watched the two through half closed lids. A qualm of disgust sent a sudden shudder through his slight frame. For the first time he almost regretted having embarked upon a life of crime. He had seen that the two men were conversing together earnestly, though he could over-hear nothing they said, and that he had been the subject of their nocturnal colloquy, for several times a glance or a nod in his direction assured him of this. And so he lay watching them—not that he was afraid, he kept reassuring himself, but through curiosity. Why should he be afraid? Was it not a well known truth that there was honor among thieves?
But the longer he watched the heavier grew his lids. Several times they closed to be dragged open again only by painful effort. Finally came a time that they remained closed and the young chest rose and fell in the regular breathing of slumber.
The two ragged, rat-hearted creatures rose silently and picked their way, half-crouched, among the sleepers sprawled between them and The Oskaloosa Kid. In the hand of Dopey Charlie gleamed a bit of shiny steel and in his heart were fear and greed. The fear was engendered by the belief that the youth might be an amateur detective. Dopey Charlie had had one experience of such and he knew that it was easily possible for them to blunder upon evidence which the most experienced of operatives might pass over unnoticed, and the loot bulging pockets furnished a sufficient greed motive in themselves.
Beside the boy kneeled the man with the knife. He did not raise his hand and strike a sudden, haphazard blow. Instead he placed the point carefully, though lightly, above the victim's heart, and then, suddenly, bore his weight upon the blade.
Abigail Prim always had been a thorn in the flesh of her stepmother—a well-meaning, unimaginative, ambitious, and rather common woman. Coming into the Prim home as house-keeper shortly after the death of Abigail's mother, the second Mrs. Prim had from the first looked upon Abigail principally as an obstacle to be overcome. She had tried to 'do right by her'; but she had never given the child what a child most needs and most craves—love and understanding. Not loving Abigail, the house-keeper could, naturally, not give her love; and as for understanding her one might as reasonably have expected an adding machine to understand higher mathematics.
Jonas Prim loved his daughter. There was nothing, within reason, that money could buy which he would not have given her for the asking; but Jonas Prim's love, as his life, was expressed in dollar signs, while the love which Abigail craved is better expressed by any other means at the command of man.
Being misunderstood and, to all outward appearances of sentiment and affection, unloved had not in any way embittered Abigail's remarkably joyous temperament made up for it in some measure by getting all the fun and excitement out of life which she could discover therein, or invent through the medium of her own resourceful imagination.
But recently the first real sorrow had been thrust into her young life since the half-forgotten mother had been taken from her. The second Mrs. Prim had decided that it was her 'duty' to see that Abigail, having finished school and college, was properly married. As a matchmaker the second Mrs. Prim was as a Texas steer in a ten cent store. It was nothing to her that Abigail did not wish to marry anyone, or that the man of Mrs. Prim's choice, had he been the sole surviving male in the Universe, would have still been as far from Abigail's choice as though he had been an inhabitant of one of Orion's most distant planets.
As a matter of fact Abigail Prim detested Samuel Benham because he represented to her everything in life which she shrank from—age, avoirdupois, infirmity, baldness, stupidity, and matrimony. He was a prosaic old bachelor who had amassed a fortune by the simple means of inheriting three farms upon which an industrial city subsequently had been built. Necessity rather than foresight had compelled him to hold on to his property; and six weeks of typhoid, arriving and departing, had saved him from selling out at a low figure. The first time he found himself able to be out and attend to business he likewise found himself a wealthy man, and ever since he had been growing wealthier without personal effort.
All of which is to render evident just how impossible a matrimonial proposition was Samuel Benham to a bright, a beautiful, a gay, an imaginative, young, and a witty girl such as Abigail Prim, who cared less for money than for almost any other desirable thing in the world.
Nagged, scolded, reproached, pestered, threatened, Abigail had at last given a seeming assent to her stepmother's ambition; and had forthwith been packed off on a two weeks visit to the sister of the bride-groom elect. After which Mr. Benham was to visit Oakdale as a guest of the Prims, and at a dinner for which cards already had been issued—so sure was Mrs. Jonas Prim of her position of dictator of the Prim menage—the engagement was to be announced.
It was some time after dinner on the night of Abigail's departure that Mrs. Prim, following a habit achieved by years of housekeeping, set forth upon her rounds to see that doors and windows were properly secured for the night. A French window and its screen opening upon the verandah from the library she found open. "The house will be full of mosquitoes!" she ejaculated mentally as she closed them both with a bang and made them fast. "I should just like to know who left them open. Upon my word, I don't know what would become of this place if it wasn't for me. Of all the shiftlessness!" and she turned and flounced upstairs. In Abigail's room she flashed on the center dome light from force of habit, although she knew that the room had been left in proper condition after the girl's departure earlier in the day. The first thing amiss that her eagle eye noted was the candlestick lying on the floor beside the dressing table. As she stooped to pick it up she saw the open drawer from which the small automatic had been removed, and then, suspicions, suddenly aroused, as suddenly became fear; and Mrs. Prim almost dove across the room to the hidden wall safe. A moment's investigation revealed the startling fact that the safe was unlocked and practically empty. It was then that Mrs. Jonas Prim screamed.
Her scream brought Jonas and several servants upon the scene. A careful inspection of the room disclosed the fact that while much of value had been ignored the burglar had taken the easily concealed contents of the wall safe which represented fully ninety percentum of the value of the personal property in Abigail Prim's apartments.
Mrs. Prim scowled suspiciously upon the servants. Who else, indeed, could have possessed the intimate knowledge which the thief had displayed. Mrs. Prim saw it all. The open library window had been but a clever blind to hide the fact that the thief had worked from the inside and was now doubtless in the house at that very moment.
"Jonas," she directed, "call the police at once, and see that no one, absolutely no one, leaves this house until they have been here and made a full investigation."
"Shucks, Pudgy!" exclaimed Mr. Prim. "You don't think the thief is waiting around here for the police, do you?"
"I think that if you get the police here at once, Jonas, we shall find both the thief and the loot under our very roof," she replied, not without asperity.
"You don't mean—" he hesitated. "Why, Pudgy, you don't mean you suspect one of the servants?"
"Who else could have known?" asked Mrs. Prim. The servants present looked uncomfortable and cast sheepish eyes of suspicion at one another.
"It's all tommy rot!" ejaculated Mr. Prim; "but I'll call the police, because I got to report the theft. It's some slick outsider, that's who it is," and he started down stairs toward the telephone. Before he reached it the bell rang, and when he had hung up the receiver after the conversation the theft seemed a trivial matter. In fact he had almost forgotten it, for the message had been from the local telegraph office relaying a wire they had just received from Mr. Samuel Benham.
"I say, Pudgy," he cried, as he took the steps two at a time for the second floor, "here's a wire from Benham saying Gail didn't come on that train and asking when he's to expect her."
"Impossible!" ejaculated Mrs. Prim. "I certainly saw her aboard the train myself. Impossible!"
Jonas Prim was a man of action. Within half an hour he had set in motion such wheels as money and influence may cause to revolve in search of some clew to the whereabouts of the missing Abigail, and at the same time had reported the theft of jewels and money from his home; but in doing this he had learned that other happenings no less remarkable in their way had taken place in Oakdale that very night.
The following morning all Oakdale was thrilled as its fascinated eyes devoured the front page of Oakdale's ordinarily dull daily. Never had Oakdale experienced a plethora of home-grown thrills; but it came as near to it that morning, doubtless, as it ever had or ever will. Not since the cashier of The Merchants and Farmers Bank committed suicide three years past had Oakdale been so wrought up, and now that historic and classical event paled into insignificance in the glaring brilliancy of a series of crimes and mysteries of a single night such as not even the most sanguine of Oakdale's thrill lovers could have hoped for.
There was, first, the mysterious disappearance of Abigail Prim, the only daughter of Oakdale's wealthiest citizen; there was the equally mysterious robbery of the Prim home. Either one of these would have been sufficient to have set Oakdale's multitudinous tongues wagging for days; but they were not all. Old John Baggs, the city's best known miser, had suffered a murderous assault in his little cottage upon the outskirts of town, and was even now lying at the point of death in The Samaritan Hospital. That robbery had been the motive was amply indicated by the topsy-turvy condition of the contents of the three rooms which Baggs called home. As the victim still was unconscious no details of the crime were obtainable. Yet even this atrocious deed had been capped by one yet more hideous.
Reginald Paynter had for years been looked upon half askance and yet with a certain secret pride by Oakdale. He was her sole bon vivant in the true sense of the word, whatever that may be. He was always spoken of in the columns of The Oakdale Tribune as 'that well known man-about-town,' or 'one of Oakdale's most prominent clubmen.' Reginald Paynter had been, if not the only, at all events the best dressed man in town. His clothes were made in New York. This in itself had been sufficient to have set him apart from all the other males of Oakdale. He was widely travelled, had an independent fortune, and was far from unhandsome. For years he had been the hope and despair of every Oakdale mother with marriageable daughters. The Oakdale fathers, however, had not been so keen about Reginald. Men usually know more about the morals of men than do women. There were those who, if pressed, would have conceded that Reginald had no morals.
But what place has an obituary in a truthful tale of adventure and mystery! Reginald Paynter was dead. His body had been found beside the road just outside the city limits at mid-night by a party of automobilists returning from a fishing trip. The skull was crushed back of the left ear. The position of the body as well as the marks in the road beside it indicated that the man had been hurled from a rapidly moving automobile. The fact that his pockets had been rifled led to the assumption that he had been killed and robbed before being dumped upon the road.
Now there were those in Oakdale, and they were many, who endeavored to connect in some way these several events of horror, mystery, and crime. In the first place it seemed quite evident that the robbery at the Prim home, the assault upon Old Baggs, and the murder of Paynter had been the work of the same man; but how could such a series of frightful happenings be in any way connected with the disappearance of Abigail Prim? Of course there were many who knew that Abigail and Reginald were old friends; and that the former had, on frequent occasions, ridden abroad in Reginald's French roadster, that he had escorted her to parties and been, at various times, a caller at her home; but no less had been true of a dozen other perfectly respectable young ladies of Oakdale. Possibly it was only Abigail's added misfortune to have disappeared upon the eve of the night of Reginald's murder.
But later in the day when word came from a nearby town that Reginald had been seen in a strange touring car with two unknown men and a girl, the gossips commenced to wag their heads. It was mentioned, casually of course, that this town was a few stations along the very road upon which Abigail had departed the previous afternoon for that destination which she had not reached. It was likewise remarked that Reginald, the two strange men and the GIRL had been first noticed after the time of arrival of the Oakdale train! What more was needed? Absolutely nothing more. The tongues ceased wagging in order that they might turn hand-springs.
Find Abigail Prim, whispered some, and the mystery will be solved. There were others charitable enough to assume that Abigail had been kidnapped by the same men who had murdered Paynter and wrought the other lesser deeds of crime in peaceful Oakdale. The Oakdale Tribune got out an extra that afternoon giving a resume of such evidence as had appeared in the regular edition and hinting at all the numerous possibilities suggested by such matter as had come to hand since. Even fear of old Jonas Prim and his millions had not been enough to entirely squelch the newspaper instinct of the Tribune's editor. Never before had he had such an opportunity and he made the best of it, even repeating the vague surmises which had linked the name of Abigail to the murder of Reginald Paynter.
Jonas Prim was too busy and too worried to pay any attention to the Tribune or its editor. He already had the best operative that the best detective agency in the nearest metropolis could furnish. The man had come to Oakdale, learned all that was to be learned there, and forthwith departed.
This, then, will be about all concerning Oakdale for the present. We must leave her to bury her own dead.
The sudden pressure of the knife point against the breast of the Oskaloosa Kid awakened the youth with a startling suddenness which brought him to his feet before a second vicious thrust reached him. For a time he did not realize how close he had been to death or that he had been saved by the chance location of the automatic pistol in his breast pocket—the very pistol he had taken from the dressing table of Abigail Prim's boudoir.
The commotion of the attack and escape brought the other sleepers to heavy-eyed wakefulness. They saw Dopey Charlie advancing upon the Kid, a knife in his hand. Behind him slunk The General, urging the other on. The youth was backing toward the doorway. The tableau persisted but for an instant. Then the would-be murderer rushed madly upon his victim, the latter's hand leaped from beneath the breast of his torn coat—there was a flash of flame, a staccato report and Dopey Charlie crumpled to the ground, screaming. In the same instant The Oskaloosa Kid wheeled and vanished into the night.
It had all happened so quickly that the other members of the gang, awakened from deep slumber, had only time to stumble to their feet before it was over. The Sky Pilot, ignoring the screaming Charlie, thought only of the loot which had vanished with the Oskaloosa Kid.
"Come on! We gotta get him," he cried, as he ran from the barn after the fugitive. The others, all but Dopey Charlie, followed in the wake of their leader. The wounded man, his audience departed, ceased screaming and, sitting up, fell to examining himself. To his surprise he discovered that he was not dead. A further and more minute examination disclosed the additional fact that he was not even badly wounded. The bullet of The Kid had merely creased the flesh over the ribs beneath his right arm. With a grunt that might have been either disgust or relief he stumbled to his feet and joined in the pursuit.
Down the road toward the south ran The Oskaloosa Kid with all the fleetness of youth spurred on by terror. In five minutes he had so far outdistanced his pursuers that The Sky Pilot leaped to the conclusion that the quarry had left the road to hide in an adjoining field. The resultant halt and search upon either side of the road delayed the chase to a sufficient extent to award the fugitive a mile lead by the time the band resumed the hunt along the main highway. The men were determined to overhaul the youth not alone because of the loot upon his person but through an abiding suspicion that he might indeed be what some of them feared he was—an amateur detective—and there were at least two among them who had reason to be especially fearful of any sort of detective from Oakdale.
They no longer ran; but puffed arduously along the smooth road, searching with troubled and angry eyes to right and left and ahead of them as they went.
The Oskaloosa Kid puffed, too; but he puffed a mile away from the searchers and he walked more rapidly than they, for his muscles were younger and his wind unimpaired by dissipation. For a time he carried the small automatic in his hand; but later, hearing no evidence of pursuit, he returned it to the pocket in his coat where it had lain when it had saved him from death beneath the blade of the degenerate Charlie.
For an hour he continued walking rapidly along the winding country road. He was very tired; but he dared not pause to rest. Always behind him he expected the sudden onslaught of the bearded, blear-eyed followers of The Sky Pilot. Terror goaded him to supreme physical effort. Recollection of the screaming man sinking to the earthen floor of the hay barn haunted him. He was a murderer! He had slain a fellow man. He winced and shuddered, increasing his gait until again he almost ran —ran from the ghost pursuing him through the black night in greater terror than he felt for the flesh and blood pursuers upon his heels.
And Nature drew upon her sinister forces to add to the fear which the youth already felt. Black clouds obscured the moon blotting out the soft kindliness of the greening fields and transforming the budding branches of the trees to menacing and gloomy arms which appeared to hover with clawlike talons above the dark and forbidding road. The wind soughed with gloomy and increasing menace, a sudden light flared across the southern sky followed by the reverberation of distant thunder.
Presently a great rain drop was blown against the youth's face; the vividness of the lightning had increased; the rumbling of the thunder had grown to the proportions of a titanic bombardment; but he dared not pause to seek shelter.
Another flash of lightning revealed a fork in the road immediately ahead—to the left ran the broad, smooth highway, to the right a dirt road, overarched by trees, led away into the impenetrable dark.
The fugitive paused, undecided. Which way should he turn? The better travelled highway seemed less mysterious and awesome, yet would his pursuers not naturally assume that he had followed it? Then, of course, the right hand road was the road for him. Yet still he hesitated, for the right hand road was black and forbidding; suggesting the entrance to a pit of unknown horrors.
As he stood there with the rain and the wind, the thunder and the lightning, horror of the past and terror of the future his only companions there broke suddenly through the storm the voice of a man just ahead and evidently approaching along the highway.
The youth turned to flee; but the thought of the men tracking him from that direction brought him to a sudden halt. There was only the road to the right, then, after all. Cautiously he moved toward it, and at the same time the words of the voice came clearly through the night:
"'... as, swinging heel and toe,
'We tramped the road to Anywhere, the magic road
'The tragic road to Anywhere, such dear, dim years
The voice seemed reassuring—its quality and the annunciation of the words bespoke for its owner considerable claim to refinement. The youth had halted again, but he now crouched to one side fearing to reveal his presence because of the bloody crime he thought he had committed; yet how he yearned to throw himself upon the compassion of this fine voiced stranger! How his every fibre cried out for companionship in this night of his greatest terror; but he would have let the invisible minstrel pass had not Fate ordained to light the scene at that particular instant with a prolonged flare of sheet lightning, revealing the two wayfarers to one another.
The youth saw a slight though well built man in ragged clothes and disreputable soft hat. The image was photographed upon his brain for life—the honest, laughing eyes, the well moulded features harmonizing so well with the voice, and the impossible garments which marked the man hobo and bum as plainly as though he wore a placard suspended from his neck.
The stranger halted. Once more darkness enveloped them. "Lovely evening for a stroll," remarked the man. "Running out to your country place? Isn't there danger of skidding on these wet roads at night? I told James, just before we started, to be sure to see that the chains were on all around; but he forgot them. James is very trying sometimes. Now he never showed up this evening and I had to start out alone, and he knows perfectly well that I detest driving after dark in the rain."
The youth found himself smiling. His fear had suddenly vanished. No one could harbor suspicion of the owner of that cheerful voice.
"I didn't know which road to take," he ventured, in explanation of his presence at the cross road.
"Oh," exclaimed the man, "are there two roads here? I was looking for this fork and came near passing it in the dark. It was a year ago since I came this way; but I recall a deserted house about a mile up the dirt road. It will shelter us from the inclemencies of the weather."
"Oh!" cried the youth. "Now I know where I am. In the dark and the storm and after all that has happened to me tonight nothing seemed natural. It was just as though I was in some strange land; but I know now. Yes, there is a deserted house a little less than a mile from here; but you wouldn't want to stop there at night. They tell some frightful stories about it. It hasn't been occupied for over twenty years—not since the Squibbs were found murdered there—the father, mother three sons, and a daughter. They never discovered the murderer, and the house has stood vacant and the farm unworked almost continuously since. A couple of men tried working it; but they didn't stay long. A night or so was enough for them and their families. I remember hearing as a little—er—child stories of the frightful things that happened there in the house where the Squibbs were murdered—things that happened after dark when the lights were out. Oh, I wouldn't even pass that place on a night like this."
The man smiled. "I slept there alone one rainy night about a year ago," he said. "I didn't see or hear anything unusual. Such stories are ridiculous; and even if there was a little truth in them, noises can't harm you as much as sleeping out in the storm. I'm going to encroach once more upon the ghostly hospitality of the Squibbs. Better come with me."
The youth shuddered and drew back. From far behind came faintly the shout of a man.
"Yes, I'll go," exclaimed the boy. "Let's hurry," and he started off at a half-run toward the dirt road.
The man followed more slowly. The darkness hid the quizzical expression of his eyes. He, too, had heard the faint shout far to the rear. He recalled the boy's "after all that has happened to me tonight," and he shrewdly guessed that the latter's sudden determination to brave the horrors of the haunted house was closely connected with the hoarse voice out of the distance.
When he had finally come abreast of the youth after the latter, his first panic of flight subsided, had reduced his speed, he spoke to him in his kindly tones.
"What was it that happened to you to-night?" he asked. "Is someone following you? You needn't be afraid of me. I'll help you if you've been on the square. If you haven't, you still needn't fear me, for I won't peach on you. What is it? Tell me."
The youth was on the point of unburdening his soul to this stranger with the kindly voice and the honest eyes; but a sudden fear stayed his tongue. If he told all it would be necessary to reveal certain details that he could not bring himself to reveal to anyone, and so he commenced with his introduction to the wayfarers in the deserted hay barn. Briefly he told of the attack upon him, of his shooting of Dopey Charlie, of the flight and pursuit. "And now," he said in conclusion, "that you know I'm a murderer I suppose you won't have any more to do with me, unless you turn me over to the authorities to hang." There was almost a sob in his voice, so real was his terror.
The man threw an arm across his companion's shoulder. "Don't worry, kid," he said. "You're not a murderer even if you did kill Dopey Charlie, which I hope you did. You're a benefactor of the human race. I have known Charles for years. He should have been killed long since. Furthermore, as you shot in self defence no jury would convict you. I fear, however, that you didn't kill him. You say you could hear his screams as long as you were within earshot of the barn—dead men don't scream, you know."
"How did you know my name?" asked the youth.
"I don't," replied the man.
"But you called me 'Kid' and that's my name—I'm The Oskaloosa Kid."
The man was glad that the darkness hid his smile of amusement. He knew The Oskaloosa Kid well, and he knew him as an ex-pug with a pock marked face, a bullet head, and a tin ear. The flash of lightning had revealed, upon the contrary, a slender boy with smooth skin, an oval face, and large dark eyes.
"Ah," he said, "so you are The Oskaloosa Kid! I am delighted, sir, to make your acquaintance. Permit me to introduce myself: my name is Bridge. If James were here I should ask him to mix one of his famous cocktails that we might drink to our mutual happiness and the longevity of our friendship."
"I am glad to know you, Mr. Bridge," said the youth. "Oh, I can't tell you how glad I am to know you. I was so lonely and so afraid," and he pressed closer to the older man whose arm still encircled his shoulder, though at first he had been inclined to draw away in some confusion.
Talking together the two moved on along the dark road. The storm had settled now into a steady rain with infrequent flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. There had been no further indications of pursuit; but Bridge argued that The Sky Pilot, being wise with the wisdom of the owl and cunning with the cunning of the fox, would doubtless surmise that a fugitive would take to the first road leading away from the main artery, and that even though they heard nothing it would be safe to assume that the gang was still upon the boy's trail. "And it's a bad bunch, too," he continued. "I've known them all for years. The Sky Pilot has the reputation of never countenancing a murder; but that is because he is a sly one. His gang kills; but when they kill under The Sky Pilot they do it so cleverly that no trace of the crime remains. Their victim disappears—that is all."
The boy trembled. "You won't let them get me?" he pleaded, pressing closer to the man. The only response was a pressure of the arm about the shoulders of The Oskaloosa Kid.
Over a low hill they followed the muddy road and down into a dark and gloomy ravine. In a little open space to the right of the road a flash of lightning revealed the outlines of a building a hundred yards from the rickety and decaying fence which bordered the Squibbs' farm and separated it from the road.
"Here we are!" cried Bridge, "and spooks or no spooks we'll find a dry spot in that old ruin. There was a stove there last year and it's doubtless there yet. A good fire to dry our clothes and warm us up will fit us for a bully good sleep, and I'll wager a silk hat that The Oskaloosa Kid is a mighty sleepy kid, eh?"
The boy admitted the allegation and the two turned in through the gateway, stepping over the fallen gate and moving through knee high weeds toward the forbidding structure in the distance. A clump of trees surrounded the house, their shade adding to the almost utter blackness of the night.
The two had reached the verandah when Bridge, turning, saw a brilliant light flaring through the night above the crest of the hill they had just topped in their descent into the ravine, or, to be more explicit, the small valley, where stood the crumbling house of Squibbs. The purr of a rapidly moving motor rose above the rain, the light rose, fell, swerved to the right and to the left.
"Someone must be in a hurry," commented Bridge.
"I suppose it is James, anxious to find you and explain his absence," suggested The Oskaloosa Kid. They both laughed.
"Gad!" cried Bridge, as the car topped the hill and plunged downward toward them, "I'd hate to ride behind that fellow on a night like this, and over a dirt road at that!"
As the car swung onto the straight road before the house a flash of lightning revealed dimly the outlines of a rapidly moving touring car with lowered top. Just as the machine came opposite the Squibbs' gate a woman's scream mingled with the report of a pistol from the tonneau and the watchers upon the verandah saw a dark bulk hurled from the car, which sped on with undiminished speed, climbed the hill beyond and disappeared from view.
Bridge started on a run toward the gateway, followed by the frightened Kid. In the ditch beside the road they found in a dishevelled heap the body of a young woman. The man lifted the still form in his arms. The youth wondered at the great strength of the slight figure. "Let me help you carry her," he volunteered; but Bridge needed no assistance. "Run ahead and open the door for me," he said, as he bore his burden toward the house.
Forgetful, in the excitement of the moment, of his terror of the horror ridden ruin, The Oskaloosa Kid hastened ahead, mounted the few steps to the verandah, crossed it and pushed open the sagging door. Behind him came Bridge as the youth entered the dark interior. A half dozen steps he took when his foot struck against a soft and yielding mass. Stumbling, he tried to regain his equilibrium only to drop full upon the thing beneath him. One open palm, extended to ease his fall, fell upon the upturned features of a cold and clammy face. With a shriek of horror The Kid leaped to his feet and shrank, trembling, back.
"What is it? What's the matter?" cried Bridge, with whom The Kid had collided in his precipitate retreat.
"O-o-o!" groaned The Kid, shuddering. "It's dead! It's dead!"
"What's dead?" demanded Bridge.
"There's a dead man on the floor, right ahead of us," moaned The Kid.
"You'll find a flash lamp in the right hand pocket of my coat," directed Bridge. "Take it and make a light."
With trembling fingers the Kid did as he was bid, and when after much fumbling he found the button a slim shaft of white light, fell downward upon the upturned face of a man cold in death—a little man, strangely garbed, with gold rings in his ears, and long black hair matted in the death sweat of his brow. His eyes were wide and, even in death, terror filled, his features were distorted with fear and horror. His fingers, clenched in the rigidity of death, clutched wisps of dark brown hair. There were no indications of a wound or other violence upon his body, that either the Kid or Bridge could see, except the dried remains of bloody froth which flecked his lips.
Bridge still stood holding the quiet form of the girl in his arms, while The Kid, pressed close to the man's side, clutched one arm with a fierce intensity which bespoke at once the nervous terror which filled him and the reliance he placed upon his new found friend.
To their right, in the faint light of the flash lamp, a narrow stairway was revealed leading to the second story. Straight ahead was a door opening upon the blackness of a rear apartment. Beside the foot of the stairway was another door leading to the cellar steps.
Bridge nodded toward the rear room. "The stove is in there," he said. "We'd better go on and make a fire. Draw your pistol—whoever did this has probably beat it; but it's just as well to be on the safe side."
"I'm afraid," said The Oskaloosa Kid. "Let's leave this frightful place. It's just as I told you it was; just as I always heard."
"We can't leave this woman, my boy," replied Bridge. "She isn't dead. We can't leave her, and we can't take her out into the storm in her condition. We must stay. Come! buck up. There's nothing to fear from a dead man, and—"
He never finished the sentence. From the depths of the cellar came the sound of a clanking chain. Something scratched heavily upon the wooden steps. Whatever it was it was evidently ascending, while behind it clanked the heavy links of a dragged chain.
The Oskaloosa Kid cast a wide eyed glance of terror at Bridge. His lips moved in an attempt to speak; but fear rendered him inarticulate. Slowly, ponderously the THING ascended the dark stairs from the gloom ridden cellar of the deserted ruin. Even Bridge paled a trifle. The man upon the floor appeared to have met an unnatural death—the frightful expression frozen upon the dead face might even indicate something verging upon the supernatural. The sound of the THING climbing out of the cellar was indeed uncanny—so uncanny that Bridge discovered himself looking about for some means of escape. His eyes fell upon the stairway leading to the second floor.
"Quick!" he whispered. "Up the stairs! You go first; I'll follow."
The Kid needed no second invitation. With a bound he was half way up the rickety staircase; but a glance ahead at the darkness above gave him pause while he waited for Bridge to catch up with him. Coming more slowly with his burden the man followed the boy, while from below the clanking of the chain warned them that the THING was already at the top of the cellar stairs.
"Flash the lamp down there," directed Bridge. "Let's have a look at it, whatever it is."
With trembling hands The Oskaloosa Kid directed the lens over the edge of the swaying and rotting bannister, his finger slipped from the lighting button plunging them all into darkness. In his frantic effort to find the button and relight the lamp the worst occurred—he fumbled the button and the lamp slipped through his fingers, falling over the bannister to the floor below. Instantly the sound of the dragging chain ceased; but the silence was even more horrible than the noise which had preceded it.
For a long minute the two at the head of the stairs stood in tense silence listening for a repetition of the gruesome sounds from below. The youth was frankly terrified; he made no effort to conceal the fact; but pressed close to his companion, again clutching his arm tightly. Bridge could feel the trembling of the slight figure, the spasmodic gripping of the slender fingers and hear the quick, short, irregular breathing. A sudden impulse to throw a protecting arm about the boy seized him—an impulse which he could not quite fathom, and one to which he could not respond because of the body of the girl he carried.
He bent toward the youth. "There are matches in my coat pocket," he whispered, "—the same pocket in which you found the flash lamp. Strike one and we'll look for a room here where we can lay the girl."
The boy fumbled gropingly in search of the matches. It was evident to the man that it was only with the greatest exertion of will power that he controlled his muscles at all; but at last he succeeded in finding and striking one. At the flare of the light there was a sound from below—a scratching sound and the creaking of boards as beneath a heavy body; then came the clanking of the chain once more, and the bannister against which they leaned shook as though a hand had been laid upon it below them. The youth stifled a shriek and simultaneously the match went out; but not before Bridge had seen in the momentary flare of light a partially open door at the far end of the hall in which they stood.
Beneath them the stairs creaked now and the chain thumped slowly from one to another as it was dragged upward toward them.
"Quick!" called Bridge. "Straight down the hall and into the room at the end." The man was puzzled. He could not have been said to have been actually afraid, and yet the terror of the boy was so intense, so real, that it could scarce but have had its suggestive effect upon the other; and, too, there was an uncanny element of the supernatural in what they had seen and heard in the deserted house—the dead man on the floor below, the inexplicable clanking of a chain by some unseen THING from the depth of the cellar upward toward them; and, to heighten the effect of these, there were the grim stories of unsolved tragedy and crime. All in all Bridge could not have denied that he was glad of the room at the end of the hall with its suggestion of safety in the door which might be closed against the horrors of the hall and the Stygian gloom below stairs.
The Oskaloosa Kid was staggering ahead of him, scarce able to hold his body erect upon his shaking knees—his gait seemed pitifully slow to the unarmed man carrying the unconscious girl and listening to the chain dragging ever nearer and nearer behind; but at last they reached the doorway and passed through it into the room.
"Close the door," directed Bridge as he crossed toward the center of the room to lay his burden upon the floor, but there was no response to his instructions—only a gasp and the sound of a body slumping to the rotting boards. With an exclamation of chagrin the man dropped the girl and swung quickly toward the door. Halfway down the hall he could hear the chain rattling over loose planking, the THING, whatever it might be, was close upon them. Bridge slammed-to the door and with a shoulder against it drew a match from his pocket and lighted it. Although his clothing was soggy with rain he knew that his matches would still be dry, for this pocket and its flap he had ingeniously lined with waterproof material from a discarded slicker he had found—years of tramping having taught him the discomforts of a fireless camp.
In the resultant light the man saw with a quick glance a large room furnished with an old walnut bed, dresser, and commode; two lightless windows opened at the far end toward the road, Bridge assumed; and there was no door other than that against which he leaned. In the last flicker of the match the man scanned the door itself for a lock and, to his relief, discovered a bolt—old and rusty it was, but it still moved in its sleeve. An instant later it was shot—just as the sound of the dragging chain ceased outside. Near the door was the great bed, and this Bridge dragged before it as an additional barricade; then, bearing nothing more from the hallway, he turned his attention to the two unconscious forms upon the floor. Unhesitatingly he went to the boy first though had he questioned himself he could not have told why; for the youth, undoubtedly, had only swooned, while the girl had been the victim of a murderous assault and might even be at the point of death.
What was the appeal to the man in the pseudo Oskaloosa Kid? He had scarce seen the boy's face, yet the terrified figure had aroused within him, strongly, the protective instinct. Doubtless it was the call of youth and weakness which find, always, an answering assurance in the strength of a strong man.
As Bridge groped toward the spot where the boy had fallen his eyes, now become accustomed to the darkness of the room, saw that the youth was sitting up. "Well?" he asked. "Feeling better?"
"Where is it? Oh, God! Where is it?" cried the boy. "It will come in here and kill us as it killed that—that—down stairs."
"It can't get in," Bridge assured him. "I've locked the door and pushed the bed in front of it. Gad! I feel like an old maid looking under the bed for burglars."
From the hall came a sudden clanking of the chain accompanied by a loud pounding upon the bare floor. With a scream the youth leaped to his feet and almost threw himself upon Bridge. His arms were about the man's neck, his face buried in his shoulder.
"Oh, don't—don't let it get me!" he cried.
"Brace up, son," Bridge admonished him. "Didn't I tell you that it can't get in?"
"How do you know it can't get in?" whimpered the youth. "It's the thing that murdered the man down stairs—it's the thing that murdered the Squibbs—right here in this room. It got in to them—what is to prevent its getting in to us. What are doors to such a THING?"
"Come! come! now," Bridge tried to soothe him. "You have a case of nerves. Lie down here on this bed and try to sleep. Nothing shall harm you, and when you wake up it will be morning and you'll laugh at your fears."
"Lie on THAT bed!" The voice was almost a shriek. "That is the bed the Squibbs were murdered in—the old man and his wife. No one would have it, and so it has remained here all these years. I would rather die than touch the thing. Their blood is still upon it."
"I wish," said Bridge a trifle sternly, "that you would try to control yourself a bit. Hysteria won't help us any. Here we are, and we've to make the best of it. Besides we must look after this young woman—she may be dying, and we haven't done a thing to help her."
The boy, evidently shamed, released his hold upon Bridge and moved away. "I am sorry," he said. "I'll try to do better; but, Oh! I was so frightened. You cannot imagine how frightened I was."
"I had imagined," said Bridge, "from what I had heard of him that it would be a rather difficult thing to frighten The Oskaloosa Kid—you have, you know, rather a reputation for fearlessness."
The darkness hid the scarlet flush which mantled The Kid's face. There was a moment's silence as Bridge crossed to where the young woman still lay upon the floor where he had deposited her. Then The Kid spoke. "I'm sorry," he said, "that I made a fool of myself. You have been so brave, and I have not helped at all. I shall do better now."
"Good," said Bridge, and stooped to raise the young woman in his arms and deposit her upon the bed. Then he struck another match and leaned close to examine her. The flare of the sulphur illuminated the room and shot two rectangles of light against the outer blackness where the unglazed windows stared vacantly upon the road beyond, bringing to a sudden halt a little company of muddy and bedraggled men who slipped, cursing, along the slimy way.
Bridge felt the youth close beside him as he bent above the girl upon the bed.
"Is she dead?" the lad whispered.
"No," replied Bridge, "and I doubt if she's badly hurt." His hands ran quickly over her limbs, bending and twisting them gently; he unbuttoned her waist, getting the boy to strike and hold another match while he examined the victim for signs of a bullet wound.
"I can't find a scratch on her," he said at last. "She's suffering from shock alone, as far as I can judge. Say, she's pretty, isn't she?"
The youth drew himself rather stiffly erect. "Her features are rather coarse, I think," he replied. There was a peculiar quality to the tone which caused Bridge to turn a quick look at the boy's face, just as the match flickered and went out. The darkness hid the expression upon Bridge's face, but his conviction that the girl was pretty was unaltered. The light of the match had revealed an oval face surrounded by dark, dishevelled tresses, red, full lips, and large, dark eyes.
Further discussion of the young woman was discouraged by a repetition of the clanking of the chain without. Now it was receding along the hallway toward the stairs and presently, to the infinite relief of The Oskaloosa Kid, the two heard it descending to the lower floor.
"What was it, do you think?" asked the boy, his voice still trembling upon the verge of hysteria.
"I don't know," replied Bridge. "I've never been a believer in ghosts and I'm not now; but I'll admit that it takes a whole lot of—"
He did not finish the sentence for a moan from the bed diverted his attention to the injured girl, toward whom he now turned. As they listened for a repetition of the sound there came another—that of the creaking of the old bed slats as the girl moved upon the mildewed mattress. Dimly, through the darkness, Bridge saw that the victim of the recent murderous assault was attempting to sit up. He moved closer and leaned above her.
"I wouldn't exert myself," he said. "You've just suffered an accident, and it's better that you remain quiet."
"Who are you?" asked the girl, a note of suppressed terror in her voice. "You are not—?"
"I am no one you know," replied Bridge. "My friend and I chanced to be near when you fell from the car—" with that innate refinement which always belied his vocation and his rags Bridge chose not to embarrass the girl by a too intimate knowledge of the thing which had befallen her, preferring to leave to her own volition the making of any explanation she saw fit, or of none—"and we carried you in here out of the storm."
The girl was silent for a moment. "Where is 'here'?" she asked presently. "They drove so fast and it was so dark that I had no idea where we were, though I know that we left the turnpike."
"We are at the old Squibbs place," replied the man. He could see that the girl was running one hand gingerly over her head and face, so that her next question did not surprise him.
"Am I badly wounded?" she asked. "Do you think that I am going to die?" The tremor in her voice was pathetic—it was the voice of a frightened and wondering child. Bridge heard the boy behind him move impulsively forward and saw him kneel on the bed beside the girl.
"You are not badly hurt," volunteered The Oskaloosa Kid. "Bridge couldn't find a mark on you—the bullet must have missed you."
"He was holding me over the edge of the car when he fired." The girl's voice reflected the physical shudder which ran through her frame at the recollection. "Then he threw me out almost simultaneously. I suppose he thought that he could not miss at such close range." For a time she was silent again, sitting stiffly erect. Bridge could feel rather than see wide, tense eyes staring out through the darkness upon scenes, horrible perhaps, that were invisible to him and the Kid.
Suddenly the girl turned and threw herself face downward upon the bed. "O, God!" she moaned. "Father! Father! It will kill you—no one will believe me—they will think that I am bad. I didn't do it! I didn't do it! I've been a silly little fool; but I have never been a bad girl—and—-and—I had nothing to do with that awful thing that happened to-night."
Bridge and the boy realized that she was not talking to them—that for the moment she had lost sight of their presence—she was talking to that father whose heart would be breaking with the breaking of the new day, trying to convince him that his little girl had done no wrong.
Again she sat up, and when she spoke there was no tremor in her voice.
"I may die," she said. "I want to die. I do not see how I can go on living after last night; but if I do die I want my father to know that I had nothing to do with it and that they tried to kill me because I wouldn't promise to keep still. It was the little one who murdered him—the one they called 'Jimmie' and 'The Oskaloosa Kid.' The big one drove the car—his name was 'Terry.' After they killed him I tried to jump out—I had been sitting in front with Terry—and then they dragged me over into the tonneau and later—the Oskaloosa Kid tried to kill me too, and threw me out."
Bridge heard the boy at his side gulp. The girl went on.
"To-morrow you will know about the murder—everyone will know about it; and I will be missed; and there will be people who saw me in the car with them, for someone must have seen me. Oh, I can't face it! I want to die. I will die! I come of a good family. My father is a prominent man. I can't go back and stand the disgrace and see him suffer, as he will suffer, for I was all he had—his only child. I can't bear to tell you my name—you will know it soon enough—but please find some way to let my father know all that I have told you—I swear that it is the truth—by the memory of my dead mother, I swear it!"
Bridge laid a hand upon the girl's shoulder. "If you are telling us the truth," he said, "you have only a silly escapade with strange men upon your conscience. You must not talk of dying now—your duty is to your father. If you take your own life it will be a tacit admission of guilt and will only serve to double the burden of sorrow and ignominy which your father is bound to feel when this thing becomes public, as it certainly must if a murder has been done. The only way in which you can atone for your error is to go back and face the consequences with him—do not throw it all upon him; that would be cowardly."
The girl did not reply; but that the man's words had impressed her seemed evident. For a while each was occupied with his own thoughts; which were presently disturbed by the sound of footsteps upon the floor below—the muffled scraping of many feet followed a moment later by an exclamation and an oath, the words coming distinctly through the loose and splintered flooring.
"Pipe the stiff," exclaimed a voice which The Oskaloosa Kid recognized immediately as that of Soup Face.
"The Kid musta croaked him," said another.
A laugh followed this evidently witty sally.
"The guy probably lamped the swag an' died of heart failure," suggested another.
The men were still laughing when the sound of a clanking chain echoed dismally from the cellar. Instantly silence fell upon the newcomers upon the first floor, followed by a—"Wotinel's that?" Two of the men had approached the staircase and started to ascend it. Slowly the uncanny clanking drew closer to the first floor. The girl on the bed turned toward Bridge.
"What is it?" she gasped.
"We don't know," replied the man. "It followed us up here, or rather it chased us up; and then went down again just before you regained consciousness. I imagine we shall hear some interesting developments from below."
"It's The Sky Pilot and his gang," whispered The Oskaloosa Kid.
"It's The Oskaloosa Kid," came a voice from below.
"But wot was that light upstairs then?" queried another.
"An' wot croaked this guy here?" asked a third. "It wasn't nothin' nice—did you get the expression on his mug an' the red foam on his lips? I tell youse there's something in this house beside human bein's. I know the joint—its hanted—they's spooks in it. Gawd! there it is now," as the clanking rose to the head of the cellar stairs; and those above heard a sudden rush of footsteps as the men broke for the open air—all but the two upon the stairway. They had remained too long and now, their retreat cut off, they scrambled, cursing and screaming, to the second floor.
Along the hallway they rushed to the closed door at the end—the door of the room in which the three listened breathlessly—hurling themselves against it in violent effort to gain admission.
"Who are you and what do you want?" cried Bridge.
"Let us in! Let us in!" screamed two voices. "Fer God's sake let us in. Can't you hear IT? It'll be comin' up here in a minute."
The sound of the dragging chain could be heard at intervals upon the floor below. It seemed to the tense listeners above to pause beside the dead man as though hovering in gloating exultation above its gruesome prey and then it moved again, this time toward the stairway where they all heard it ascending with a creepy slowness which wrought more terribly upon tense nerves than would a sudden rush.
"The mills of the Gods grind slowly," quoted Bridge.
"Oh, don't!" pleaded The Oskaloosa Kid.
"Let us in," screamed the men without. "Fer the luv o' Mike have a heart! Don't leave us out here! IT's comin'! IT's comin'!"
"Oh, let the poor things in," pleaded the girl on the bed. She was, herself, trembling with terror.
"No funny business, now, if I let you in," commanded Bridge.
"On the square," came the quick and earnest reply.
The THING had reached the head of the stairs when Bridge dragged the bed aside and drew the bolt. Instantly two figures hurled themselves into the room but turned immediately to help Bridge resecure the doorway.
Just as it had done before, when Bridge and The Oskaloosa Kid had taken refuge there with the girl, the THING moved down the hallway to the closed door. The dragging chain marked each foot of its advance. If it made other sounds they were drowned by the clanking of the links over the time roughened flooring.
Within the room the five were frozen into utter silence, and beyond the door an equal quiet prevailed for a long minute; then a great force made the door creak and a weird scratching sounded high up upon the old fashioned panelling. Bridge heard a smothered gasp from the boy beside him, followed instantly by a flash of flame and the crack of a small caliber automatic; The Oskaloosa Kid had fired through the door.
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 cigaret 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 cigaret 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."