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 to Anywhere, 'The tragic road to Anywhere, such dear, dim years ago.'"
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 be 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 he 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.