When the two hoboes had departed the others huddled again close to the stove until Bridge suggested that he and The Oskaloosa Kid retire to another room while the girl removed and dried her clothing; but she insisted that it was not wet enough to matter since she had been covered by a robe in the automobile until just a moment before she had been hurled out.
"Then, after you are warmed up," said Bridge, "you can step into this other room while the kid and I strip and dry our things, for there's no question but that we are wet enough."
At the suggestion the kid started for the door. "Oh, no," he insisted; "it isn't worth while. I am almost dry now, and as soon as we get out on the road I'll be all right. I—I—I like wet clothes," he ended, lamely.
Bridge looked at him questioningly; but did not urge the matter. "Very well," he said; "you probably know what you like; but as for me, I'm going to pull off every rag and get good and dry."
The girl had already quitted the room and now The Kid turned and followed her. Bridge shook his head. "I'll bet the little beggar never was away from his mother before in his life," he mused; "why the mere thought of undressing in front of a strange man made him turn red—and posing as The Oskaloosa Kid! Bless my soul; but he's a humorist—a regular, natural born one."
Bridge found that his clothing had dried to some extent during the night; so, after a brisk rub, he put on the warmed garments and though some were still a trifle damp he felt infinitely more comfortable than he had for many hours.
Outside the house he came upon the girl and the youth standing in the sunshine of a bright, new day. They were talking together in a most animated manner, and as he approached wondering what the two had found of so great common interest he discovered that the discussion hinged upon the relative merits of ham and bacon as a breakfast dish.
"Oh, my heart it is just achin'," quoted Bridge, "For a little bite of bacon, "A hunk of bread, a little mug of brew; "I'm tired of seein' scenery, "Just lead me to a beanery "Where there's something more than only air to chew."
The two looked up, smiling. "You're a funny kind of tramp, to be quoting poetry," said The Oskaloosa Kid, "even if it is Knibbs'."
"Almost as funny," replied Bridge, "as a burglar who recognizes Knibbs when he hears him."
The Oskaloosa Kid flushed. "He wrote for us of the open road," he replied quickly. "I don't know of any other class of men who should enjoy him more."
"Or any other class that is less familiar with him," retorted Bridge; "but the burning question just now is pots, not poetry—flesh pots. I'm hungry. I could eat a cow."
The girl pointed to an adjacent field. "Help yourself," she said.
"That happens to be a bull," said Bridge. "I was particular to mention cow, which, in this instance, is proverbially less dangerous than the male, and much better eating.
"'We kept a-rambling all the time. I rustled grub, he rustled rhyme-
"'Blind baggage, hoof it, ride or climb—we always put it through.' Who's going to rustle the grub?"
The girl looked at The Oskaloosa Kid. "You don't seem like a tramp at all, to talk to," she said; "but I suppose you are used to asking for food. I couldn't do it—I should die if I had to."
The Oskaloosa Kid looked uncomfortable. "So should —" he commenced, and then suddenly subsided. "Of course I'd just as soon," he said. "You two stay here—I'll be back in a minute."
They watched him as be walked down to the road and until he disappeared over the crest of the hill a short distance from the Squibbs' house.
"I like him," said the girl, turning toward Bridge.
"So do I," replied the man.
"There must be some good in him," she continued, "even if he is such a desperate character; but I know he's not The Oskaloosa Kid. Do you really suppose he robbed a house last night and then tried to kill that Dopey person?"
Bridge shook his head. "I don't know," he said; "but I am inclined to believe that he is more imaginative than criminal. He certainly shot up the Dopey person; but I doubt if he ever robbed a house."
While they waited, The Oskaloosa Kid trudged along the muddy road to the nearest farm house. which lay a full mile beyond the Squibbs' home. As he approached the door a lank, sallow man confronted him with a suspicious eye.
"Good morning," greeted The Oskaloosa Kid.
The man grunted.
"I want to get something to eat," explained the youth.
If the boy had hurled a dynamite bomb at him the result could have been no more surprising. The lank, sallow man went up into the air, figuratively. He went up a mile or more, and on the way down he reached his hand inside the kitchen door and brought it forth enveloping the barrel of a shot gun.
"Durn ye!" he cried. "I'll lam ye! Get offen here. I knows ye. Yer one o' that gang o' bums that come here last night, an' now you got the gall to come back beggin' for food, eh? I'll lam ye!" and he raised the gun to his shoulder.
The Oskaloosa Kid quailed but he held his ground. "I wasn't here last night," he cried, "and I'm not begging for food—I want to buy some. I've got plenty of money," in proof of which assertion he dug into a side pocket and brought forth a large roll of bills. The man lowered his gun.
"Wy didn't ye say so in the first place then?" he growled. "How'd I know you wanted to buy it, eh? Where'd ye come from anyhow, this early in the mornin'? What's yer name, eh? What's yer business, that's what Jeb Case'd like to know, eh?" He snapped his words out with the rapidity of a machine gun, nor waited for a reply to one query before launching the next. "What do ye want to buy, eh? How much money ye got? Looks suspicious. That's a sight o' money yew got there, eh? Where'dje get it?"
"It's mine," said The Oskaloosa Kid, "and I want to buy some eggs and milk and ham and bacon and flour and onions and sugar and cream and strawberries and tea and coffee and a frying pan and a little oil stove, if you have one to spare, and—"
Jeb Case's jaw dropped and his eyes widened. "You're in the wrong pasture, bub," he remarked feelingly. "What yer lookin' fer is Sears, Roebuck & Company."
The Oskaloosa Kid flushed up to the tips of his ears. "But can't you sell me something?" he begged.
"I might let ye have some milk an' eggs an' butter an' a leetle bacon an' mebby my ol' woman's got a loaf left from her last bakin'; but we ain't been figgerin' on supplyin' grub fer the United States army ef that's what yew be buyin' fer."
A frowsy, rat-faced woman and a gawky youth of fourteen stuck their heads out the doorway at either side of the man. "I ain't got nothin' to sell," snapped the woman; but as she spoke her eyes fell upon the fat bank roll in the youth's hand. "Or, leastwise," she amended, "I ain't got much more'n we need an' the price o' stuff's gone up so lately that I'll hev to ask ye more'n I would of last fall. 'Bout what did ye figger on wantin'?"
"Anything you can spare," said the youth. "There are three of us and we're awful hungry."
"Where yew stoppin'?" asked the woman.
"We're at the old Squibbs' place," replied The Kid. "We got caught by the storm last night and had to put up there."
"The Squibbs' place!" ejaculated the woman. "Yew didn't stop there over night?"
"Yes we did," replied the youth.
"See anything funny?" asked Mrs. Case.
"We didn't SEE anything," replied The Oskaloosa Kid; "but we heard things. At least we didn't see what we heard; but we saw a dead man on the floor when we went in and this morning he was gone."
The Cases shuddered. "A dead man!" ejaculated Jeb Case. "Yew seen him?"
The Kid nodded.
"I never tuk much stock in them stories," said Jeb, with a shake of his head; "but ef you SEEN it! Gosh! Thet beats me. Come on M'randy, les see what we got to spare," and he turned into the kitchen with his wife.
The lanky boy stepped, out and planting himself in front of The Oskaloosa Kid proceeded to stare at him. "Yew seen it?" be asked in awestruck tone.
"Yes," said the Kid in a low voice, and bending close toward the other; "it had bloody froth on its lips!"
The Case boy shrank back. "An' what did yew hear?" he asked, a glutton for thrills.
"Something that dragged a chain behind it and came up out of the cellar and tried to get in our room on the second floor," explained the youth. "It almost got us, too," he added, "and it did it all night."
"Whew," whistled the Case boy. "Gosh!" Then he scratched his head and looked admiringly at the youth. "What mought yer name be?" he asked.
"I'm The Oskaloosa Kid," replied the youth, unable to resist the admiration of the other's fond gaze. "Look here!" and he fished a handful of jewelry from one of his side pockets; "this is some of the swag I stole last night when I robbed a house."
Case Jr., opened his mouth and eyes so wide that there was little left of his face. "But that's nothing," bragged The Kid. "I shot a man, too."
"Last night?" whispered the boy.
"Yep," replied the bad man, tersely.
"Gosh!" said the young Mr. Case, but there was that in his facial expression which brought to The Oskaloosa Kid a sudden regret that he had thus rashly confided in a stranger.
"Say," said The Kid, after a moment's strained silence. "Don't tell anyone, will you? If you'll promise I'll give you a dollar," and he hunted through his roll of bills for one of that lowly denomination.
"All right," agreed the Case boy. "I won't say a word—where's the dollar?"
The youth drew a bill from his roll and handed it to the other. "If you tell," he whispered, and he bent close toward the other's ear and spoke in a menacing tone; "If you tell, I'll kill you!"
"Gosh!" said Willie Case.
At this moment Case pere and mere emerged from the kitchen loaded with provender. "Here's enough an' more'n enough, I reckon," said Jeb Case. "We got eggs, butter, bread, bacon, milk, an' a mite o' garden sass."
"But we ain't goin' to charge you nothin' fer the garden sass," interjected Mrs. Case.
"That's awfully nice of you," replied The Kid. "How much do I owe you for the rest of it?"
"Oh," said Jeb Case, rubbing his chin, eyeing the big roll of bills and wondering just the limit he might raise to, "I reckon 'bout four dollars an' six bits."
The Oskaloosa Kid peeled a five dollar bill from his roll and proffered it to the farmer. "I'm ever so much obliged," he said, "and you needn't mind about any change. I thank you so much." With which he took the several packages and pails and turned toward the road.
"Yew gotta return them pails!" shouted Mrs. Case after him.
"Oh, of course," replied The Kid.
"Gosh!" exclaimed Mr. Case, feelingly. "I wisht I'd asked six bits more—I mought jest as well o' got it as not. Gosh, eh?"
"Gosh!" murmured Willie Case, fervently.
Back down the sticky road plodded The Oskaloosa Kid, his arms heavy and his heart light, for, was he not 'bringing home the bacon,' literally as well as figuratively. As he entered the Squibbs' gateway he saw the girl and Bridge standing upon the verandah waiting his coming, and as he approached them and they caught a nearer view of his great burden of provisions they hailed him with loud acclaim.
"Some artist!" cried the man. "And to think that I doubted your ability to make a successful touch! Forgive me! You are the ne plus ultra, non est cumquidibus, in hoc signo vinces, only and original kind of hand-out compellers."
"How in the world did you do it?" asked the girl, rapturously.
"Oh, it's easy when you know how," replied The Oskaloosa Kid carelessly, as, with the help of the others, he carried the fruits of his expedition into the kitchen. Here Bridge busied himself about the stove, adding more wood to the fire and scrubbing a portion of the top plate as clean as he could get it with such crude means as he could discover about the place.
The youth he sent to the nearby brook for water after selecting the least dirty of the several empty tin cans lying about the floor of the summer kitchen. He warned against the use of the water from the old well and while the boy was away cut a generous portion of the bacon into long, thin strips.
Shortly after, the water coming to the boil, Bridge lowered three eggs into it, glanced at his watch, greased one of the new cleaned stove lids with a piece of bacon rind and laid out as many strips of bacon as the lid would accommodate. Instantly the room was filled with the delicious odor of frying bacon.
"M-m-m-m!" gloated The Oskaloosa Kid. "I wish I had bo—asked for more. My! but I never smelled anything so good as that in all my life. Are you going to boil only three eggs? I could eat a dozen."
"The can'll only hold three at a time," explained Bridge. "We'll have some more boiling while we are eating these." He borrowed his knife from the girl, who was slicing and buttering bread with it, and turned the bacon swiftly and deftly with the point, then he glanced at his watch. "The three minutes are up," he announced and, with a couple of small, flat sticks saved for the purpose from the kindling wood, withdrew the eggs one at a time from the can.
"But we have no cups!' exclaimed The Oskaloosa Kid, in sudden despair.
Bridge laughed. "Knock an end off your egg and the shell will answer in place of a cup. Got a knife?"
The Kid didn't. Bridge eyed him quizzically. "You must have done most of your burgling near home," he commented.
"I'm not a burglar!" cried the youth indignantly. Somehow it was very different when this nice voiced man called him a burglar from bragging of the fact himself to such as The Sky Pilot's villainous company, or the awestruck, open-mouthed Willie Case whose very expression invited heroics.
Bridge made no reply, but his eyes wandered to the right hand side pocket of the boy's coat. Instantly the latter glanced guiltily downward to flush redly at the sight of several inches of pearl necklace protruding accusingly therefrom. The girl, a silent witness of the occurrence, was brought suddenly and painfully to a realization of her present position and recollection of the happenings of the preceding night. For the time she had forgotten that she was alone in the company of a tramp and a burglar—how much worse either might be she could only guess.
The breakfast, commenced so auspiciously, continued in gloomy silence. At least the girl and The Oskaloosa Kid were silent and gloom steeped. Bridge was thoughtful but far from morose. His spirits were unquenchable.
"I am afraid," he said, "that I shall have to replace James. His defection is unforgivable, and he has misplaced the finger-bowls."
The youth and the girl forced wan smiles; but neither spoke. Bridge drew a pouch of tobacco and some papers from an inside pocket.
"'I had the makings and I smoked "'And wondered over different things, "'Thinkin' as how this old world joked "'In callin' only some men kings "'While I sat there a-blowin' rings.'"
He paused to kindle a sliver of wood at the stove. "In these parlous times," he spoke as though to himself, "one must economize. They are taking a quarter of an ounce out of each five cents worth of chewing, I am told; so doubtless each box must be five or six matches short of full count. Even these papers seem thinner than of yore and they will only sell one book to a customer at that. Indeed Sherman was right."
The youth and the girl remained occupied with their own thoughts, and after a moment's silence the vagabond resumed:
"'Me? I was king of anywhere, "'Peggin' away at nothing, hard. "'Havin' no pet, particular care; "'Havin' no trouble, or no pard; "'"Just me," filled up my callin' card.'
"Say, do you know I've learned to love this Knibbs person. I used to think of him as a poor attic prune grinding away in his New York sky parlor, writing his verse of the things he longed for but had never known; until, one day, I met a fellow between Victorville and Cajon pass who knew His Knibbs, and come to find out this Knibbs is a regular fellow. His attic covers all God's country that is out of doors and he knows the road from La Bajada hill to Barstow a darned sight better than he knows Broadway."
There was no answering sympathy awakened in either of his listeners—they remained mute. Bridge rose and stretched. He picked up his knife, wiped off the blade, closed it and slipped it into a trousers' pocket. Then he walked toward the door. At the threshold he paused and turned. "'Good-bye girls! I'm through,'" he quoted and passed out into the sunlight.
Instantly the two within were on their feet and following him.
"Where are you going?" cried The Oskaloosa Kid. "You're not going to leave us, are you?"
"Oh, please don't!" pleaded the girl.
"I don't know," said Bridge, solemnly, "whether I'm safe in remaining in your society or not. This Oskaloosa Kid is a bad proposition; and as for you, young lady, I rather imagine that the town constable is looking for you right now."
The girl winced. "Please don't," she begged. "I haven't done anything wicked, honestly! But I want to get away so that they can't question me. I was in the car when they killed him; but I had nothing to do with it. It is just because of my father that I don't want them to find me. It would break his heart."
As the three stood back of the Squibbs' summer kitchen Fate, in the guise of a rural free delivery carrier and a Ford, passed by the front gate. A mile beyond he stopped at the Case mail box where Jeb and his son Willie were, as usual, waiting his coming, for the rural free delivery man often carries more news than is contained in his mail sacks.
"Mornin' Jeb," he called, as he swerved his light car from the road and drew up in front of the Case gate.
"Mornin', Jim!" returned Mr. Case. "Nice rain we had last night. What's the news?"
"Plenty! Plenty!" exclaimed the carrier. "Lived here nigh onto forty year, man an' boy, an' never seen such work before in all my life."
"How's that?" questioned the farmer, scenting something interesting.
"Ol' man Baggs's murdered last night," announced the carrier, watching eagerly for the effect of his announcement.
"Gosh!" gasped Willie Case. "Was he shot?" It was almost a scream.
"I dunno," replied Jim. "He's up to the horspital now, an' the doc says he haint one chance in a thousand."
"Gosh!" exclaimed Mr. Case.
"But thet ain't all," continued Jim. "Reggie Paynter was murdered last night, too; right on the pike south of town. They threw his corpse outen a ottymobile."
"By gol!" cried Jeb Case; "I hearn them devils go by last night 'bout midnight er after. 'T woke me up. They must o' ben goin' sixty mile an hour. Er say," he stopped to scratch his head. "Mebby it was tramps. They must a ben a score on 'em round here yesterday and las' night an' agin this mornin'. I never seed so dum many bums in my life."
"An' thet ain't all," went on the carrier, ignoring the others comments. "Oakdale's all tore up. Abbie Prim's disappeared and Jonas Prim's house was robbed jest about the same time Ol' man Baggs 'uz murdered, er most murdered—chances is he's dead by this time anyhow. Doc said he hadn't no chance."
"Gosh!" It was a pater-filius duet.
"But thet ain't all," gloated Jim. "Two of the persons in the car with Reggie Paynter were recognized, an' who do you think one of 'em was, eh? Why one of 'em was Abbie Prim an' tother was a slick crook from Toledo er Noo York that's called The Oskaloosie Kid. By gum, I'll bet they get 'em in no time. Why already Jonas Prim's got a regular dee-dectiff down from Chicago, an' the board o' select-men's offered a re-ward o' fifty dollars fer the arrest an' conviction of the perpetrators of these dastardly crimes!"
"Gosh!" cried Willie Case. "I know—"; but then he paused. If he told all he knew he saw plainly that either the carrier or his father would profit by it and collect the reward. Fifty dollars!! Willie gasped.
"Well," said Jim, "I gotta be on my way. Here's the Tribune—there ain't nothin' more fer ye. So long! Giddap!" and he was gone.
"I don' see why he don't carry a whip," mused Jeb Case. "A-gidappin' to that there tin lizzie," he muttered disgustedly, "jes' like it was as good as a hoss. But I mind the time, the fust day he got the dinged thing, he gets out an' tries to lead it by Lem Smith's threshin' machine."
Jeb Case preferred an audience worthy his mettle; but Willie was better than no one, yet when he turned to note the effect of his remarks on his son, Willie was no where to be seen. If Jeb had but known it his young hopeless was already in the loft of the hay barn deep in a small, red-covered book entitled: "HOW TO BE A DETECTIVE."