Bridge, who had had no intention of deserting his helpless companions, appeared at last to yield reluctantly to their pleas. That indefinable something about the youth which appealed strongly to the protective instinct in the man, also assured him that the other's mask of criminality was for the most part assumed even though the stories of the two yeggmen and the loot bulging pockets argued to the contrary. There was the chance, however, that the boy had really taken the first step upon the road toward a criminal career, and if such were the case Bridge felt morally obligated to protect his new found friend from arrest, secure in the reflection that his own precept and example would do more to lead him back into the path of rectitude than would any police magistrate or penal institute.
For the girl he felt a deep pity. In the past he had had knowledge of more than one other small-town girl led into wrong doing through the deadly monotony and flagrant hypocrisy of her environment. Himself highly imaginative and keenly sensitive, he realized with what depth of horror the girl anticipated a return to her home and friends after the childish escapade which had culminated, even through no fault of hers, in criminal tragedy of the most sordid sort.
As the three held a council of war at the rear of the deserted house they were startled by the loud squeaking of brake bands on the road in front. Bridge ran quickly into the kitchen and through to the front room where he saw three men alighting from a large touring car which had drawn up before the sagging gate. As the foremost man, big and broad shouldered, raised his eyes to the building Bridge smothered an exclamation of surprise and chagrin, nor did he linger to inspect the other members of the party; but turned and ran quickly back to his companions.
"We've got to beat it!" he whispered; "they've brought Burton himself down here."
"Who's Burton?" demanded the youth.
"He's the best operative west of New York City," replied Bridge, as he moved rapidly toward an outhouse directly in rear of the main building.
Once behind the small, dilapidated structure which had once probably housed farm implements, Bridge paused and looked about. "They'll search here," he prophesied, and then; "Those woods look good to me."
The Squibbs' woods, growing rank in the damp ravine at the bottom of the little valley, ran to within a hundred feet of the out-building. Dense undergrowth choked the ground to a height of eight or ten feet around the boles of the close set trees. If they could gain the seclusion of that tangled jungle there was little likelihood of their being discovered, provided they were not seen as they passed across the open space between their hiding place and the wood.
"We'd better make a break for it," advised Bridge, and a moment later the three moved cautiously toward the wood, keeping the out-house between themselves and the farm house. Almost in front of them as they neared the wood they saw a well defined path leading into the thicket. Single-file they entered, to be almost instantly hidden from view, not only from the house but from any other point more than a dozen paces away, for the path was winding, narrow and closely walled by the budding verdure of the new Spring. Birds sang or twittered about them, the mat of dead leaves oozed spongily beneath their feet, giving forth no sound as they passed, save a faint sucking noise as a foot was lifted from each watery seat.
Bridge was in the lead, moving steadily forward that they might put as much distance as possible between themselves and the detective should the latter chance to explore the wood. They had advanced a few hundred yards when the path crossed through a small clearing the center of which was destitute of fallen leaves. Here the path was beaten into soft mud and as Bridge came to it he stopped and bent his gaze incredulously upon the ground. The girl and the youth, halting upon either side, followed the direction of his eyes with theirs. The girl gave a little, involuntary gasp, and the boy grasped Bridge's hand as though fearful of losing him. The man turned a quizzical glance at each of them and smiled, though a bit ruefully.
"It beats me," he said.
"What can it be?" whispered the boy.
"Oh, let's go back," begged the girl.
"And go along to father with Burton?" asked Bridge.
The girl trembled and shook her head. "I would rather die," she said, firmly. "Come, let's go on."
The cause of their perturbation was imprinted deeply in the mud of the pathway—the irregular outlines of an enormous, naked, human foot—a great, uncouth foot that bespoke a monster of another world. While, still more uncanny, in view of what they had heard in the farm house during the previous night, there lay, sometimes partially obliterated by the footprints of the THING, the impress of a small, bare foot—a woman's or a child's—and over both an irregular scoring that might have been wrought by a dragging chain!
In the loft of his father's hay barn Willie Case delved deep into the small red-covered volume, HOW TO BE A DETECTIVE; but though he turned many pages and flitted to and fro from preface to conclusion he met only with disappointment. The pictures of noted bank burglars and confidence men aided him not one whit, for in none of them could he descry the slightest resemblance to the smooth faced youth of the early morning. In fact, so totally different were the types shown in the little book that Willie was forced to scratch his head and exclaim "Gosh!" many times in an effort to reconcile the appearance of the innocent boy to the hardened, criminal faces he found portrayed upon the printed pages.
"But, by gol!" he exclaimed mentally, "he said he was The Oskaloosie Kid, 'n' that he shot a man last night; but what I'd like to know is how I'm goin' to shadder him from this here book. Here it says: 'If the criminal gets on a street car and then jumps off at the next corner the good detective will know that his man is aware that he is being shadowed, and will stay on the car and telephone his office at the first opportunity.' 'N'ere it sez: 'If your man gets into a carriage don't run up an' jump on the back of it; but simply hire another carriage and follow.' How in hek kin I foller this book?" wailed Willie. "They ain't no street cars 'round here. I ain't never see a street car, 'n'as fer a carriage, I reckon he means bus, they's only one on 'em in Oakdale 'n'if they waz forty I'd like to know how in hek I'd hire one when I ain't got no money. I reckon I threw away my four-bits on this book—it don't tell a feller nothin' 'bout false whiskers, wigs 'n' the like," and he tossed the book disgustedly into a corner, rose and descended to the barnyard. Here he busied himself about some task that should have been attended to a week before, and which even now was not destined to be completed that day, since Willie had no more than set himself to it than his attention was distracted by the sudden appearance of a touring car being brought to a stop in front of the gate.
Instantly Willie dropped his irksome labor and slouched lazily toward the machine, the occupants of which were descending and heading for the Case front door. Jeb Case met them before they reached the porch and Willie lolled against a pillar listening eagerly to all that was said.
The most imposing figure among the strangers was the same whom Bridge had seen approaching the Squibbs' house a short time before. It was he who acted as spokesman for the newcomers.
"As you may know," he said, after introducing himself, "a number of crimes were committed in and around Oakdale last night. We are searching for clews to the perpetrators, some of whom must still be in the neighborhood. Have you seen any strange or suspicious characters around lately?"
"I should say we hed," exclaimed Jeb emphatically.
"I seen the wo'st lookin' gang o' bums come outen my hay barn this mornin' thet I ever seed in my life. They must o' ben upward of a dozen on 'em. They waz makin' fer the house when I steps in an' grabs my ol' shot gun. I hollered at 'em not to come a step nigher 'n' I guess they seed it wa'n't safe monkeyin' with me; so they skidaddled."
"Which way did they go?" asked Burton.
"Off down the road yonder; but I don't know which way they turned at the crossin's, er ef they kept straight on toward Millsville."
Burton asked a number of questions in an effort to fix the identity of some of the gang, warned Jeb to telephone him at Jonas Prim's if he saw anything further of the strangers, and then retraced his steps toward the car. Not once bad Jeb mentioned the youth who had purchased supplies from him that morning, and the reason was that Jeb had not considered the young man of sufficient importance, having cataloged him mentally as an unusually early specimen of the summer camper with which he was more or less familiar.
Willie, on the contrary, realized the importance of their morning customer, yet just how he was to cash in on his knowledge was not yet entirely clear. He was already convinced that HOW TO BE A DETECTIVE would help him not at all, and with the natural suspicion of ignorance he feared to divulge his knowledge to the city detective for fear that the latter would find the means to cheat him out of the princely reward offered by the Oakdale village board. He thought of going at once to the Squibbs' house and placing the desperate criminals under arrest; but as fear throttled the idea in its infancy he cast about for some other plan.
Even as he stood there thinking the great detective and his companions were entering the automobile to drive away. In a moment they would be gone. Were they not, after all, the very men, the only men, in fact, to assist him in his dilemma? At least he could test them out. If necessary he would divide the reward with them! Running toward the road Willie shouted to the departing sleuth. The car, moving slowly forward in low, came again to rest. Willie leaped to the running board.
"If I tell you where the murderer is," he whispered hoarsely, "do I git the $50.00?"
Detective Burton was too old a hand to ignore even the most seemingly impossible of aids. He laid a kindly hand on Willie's shoulder. "You bet you do," he replied heartily, "and what's more I'll add another fifty to it. What do you know?"
"I seen the murderer this mornin'," Willie was gasping with excitement and elation. Already the one hundred dollars was as good as his. One hundred dollars! Willie "Goshed!" mentally even as he told his tale. "He come to our house an' bought some vittles an' stuff. Paw didn't know who he wuz; but when Paw went inside he told me he was The Oskaloosie Kid 'n' thet he robbed a house last night and killed a man, 'n' he had a whole pocket full o' money, 'n' he said he'd kill me ef I told."
Detective Burton could scarce restrain a smile as he listened to this wildly improbable tale, yet his professional instinct was too keen to permit him to cast aside as worthless the faintest evidence until he had proven it to be worthless. He stepped from the car again and motioning to Willie to follow him returned to the Case yard where Jeb was already coming toward the gate, having noted the interest which his son was arousing among the occupants of the car. Willie pulled at the detective's sleeve. "Don't tell Paw about the reward," he begged; "he'll keep it all hisself."
Burton reassured the boy with a smile and a nod, and then as he neared Jeb he asked him if a young man had been at his place that morning asking for food.
"Sure," replied Jeb; "but he didn't 'mount to nothin'. One o' these here summer camper pests. He paid fer all he got. Had a roll o' bills 's big as ye fist. Little feller he were, not much older 'n' Willie."
"Did you know that he told your son that he was The Oskaloosa Kid and that he had robbed a house and killed a man last night?"
"Huh?" exclaimed Jeb. Then he turned and cast one awful look at Willie—a look large with menace.
"Honest, Paw," pleaded the boy. "I was a-scairt to tell you, 'cause he said he'd kill me ef I told."
Jeb scratched his head. "Yew know what you'll get ef you're lyin' to me," he threatened.
"I believe he's telling the truth," said detective Burton. "Where is the man now?" he asked Willie.
"Down to the Squibbs' place," and Willie jerked a dirty thumb toward the east.
"Not now," said Burton; "we just came from there; but there has been someone there this morning, for there is still a fire in the kitchen range. Does anyone live there?"
"I should say not," said Willie emphatically; "the place is haunted."
"Thet's right," interjected Jeb. "Thet's what they do say, an' this here Oskaloosie Kid said they heered things las' night an' seed a dead man on the floor, didn't he M'randy?" M'randy nodded her head.
"But I don't take no stock in what Willie's ben tellin' ye," she continued, "'n' ef his paw don't lick him I will. I told him tell I'm good an' tired o' talkin' thet one liar 'round a place wuz all I could stand," and she cast a meaning glance at her husband.
"Honest, Maw, I ain't a-lyin'," insisted Willie. "Wot do you suppose he give me this fer, if it wasn't to keep me from talkin'," and the boy drew a crumpled one dollar bill from his pocket. It was worth the dollar to escape a thrashing.
"He give you thet?" asked his mother. Willie nodded assent.
"'N' thet ain't all he had neither," he said. "Beside all them bills he showed me a whole pocket full o' jewlry, 'n' he had a string o' things thet I don't know jest what you call 'em; but they looked like they was made outen the inside o' clam shells only they was all round like marbles."
Detective Burton raised his eyebrows. "Miss Prim's pearl necklace," he commented to the man at his side. The other nodded. "Don't punish your son, Mrs. Case," he said to the woman. "I believe he has discovered a great deal that will help us in locating the man we want. Of course I am interested principally in finding Miss Prim—her father has engaged me for that purpose; but I think the arrest of the perpetrators of any of last night's crimes will put us well along on the trail of the missing young lady, as it is almost a foregone conclusion that there is a connection between her disappearance and some of the occurrences which have so excited Oakdale. I do not mean that she was a party to any criminal act; but it is more than possible that she was abducted by the same men who later committed the other crimes."
The Cases hung open-mouthed upon his words, while his companions wondered at the loquaciousness of this ordinarily close-mouthed man, who, as a matter of fact, was but attempting to win the confidence of the boy on the chance that even now he had not told all that he knew; but Willie had told all.
Finding, after a few minutes further conversation, that he could glean no additional information the detective returned to his car and drove west toward Millsville on the assumption that the fugitives would seek escape by the railway running through that village. Only thus could he account for their turning off the main pike. The latter was now well guarded all the way to Payson; while the Millsville road was still open.
No sooner had he departed than Willie Case disappeared, nor did he answer at noon to the repeated ringing of the big, farm dinner bell.
Half way between the Case farm and Millsville detective Burton saw, far ahead along the road, two figures scale a fence and disappear behind the fringing blackberry bushes which grew in tangled profusion on either side. When they came abreast of the spot he ordered the driver to stop; but though he scanned the open field carefully he saw no sign of living thing.
"There are two men hiding behind those bushes," he said to his companions in a low whisper. "One of you walk ahead about fifty yards and the other go back the same distance and then climb the fence. When I see you getting over I'll climb it here. They can't get away from us." To the driver he said: "You have a gun. If they make a break go after 'em. You can shoot if they don't stop when you tell 'em to."
The two men walked in opposite directions along the road, and when Burton saw them turn in and start to climb the fence he vaulted over the panel directly opposite the car. He had scarcely alighted upon the other side when his eyes fell upon the disreputable figures of two tramps stretched out upon their backs and snoring audibly. Burton grinned.
"You two sure can go to sleep in a hurry," he said. One of the men opened his eyes and sat up. When he saw who it was that stood over him he grinned sheepishly.
"Can't a guy lie down fer a minute in de bushes widout bein' pinched?" he asked. The other man now sat up and viewed the newcomer, while from either side Burton's companions closed in on the three.
"Wot's de noise?" inquired the second tramp, looking from one to another of the intruders. "We ain't done nothin'."
"Of course not, Charlie," Burton assured him gaily. "Who would ever suspect that you or The General would do anything; but somebody did something in Oakdale last night and I want to take you back there and have a nice, long talk with you. Put your hands up!"
"Put 'em up!" snapped Burton, and when the four grimy fists had been elevated he signalled to his companions to search the two men.
Nothing more formidable than knives, dope, and a needle were found upon them.
"Say," drawled Dopey Charlie. "We knows wot we knows; but hones' to gawd we didn't have nothin' to do wid it. We knows the guy that pulled it off—we spent las' night wid him an' his pal an' a skoit. He creased me, here," and Charlie unbuttoned his clothing and exposed to view the bloody scratch of The Oskaloosa Kid's bullet. "On de level, Burton, we wern't in on it. Dis guy was at dat Squibbs' place wen we pulls in dere outen de rain. He has a pocket full o' kale an' sparklers an' tings, and he goes fer to shoot me up wen I tries to get away."
"Who was he?" asked Burton.
"He called hisself de Oskaloosa Kid," replied Charlie. "A guy called Bridge was wid him. You know him?"
"I've heard of him; but he's straight," replied Burton. "Who was the skirt?"
"I dunno," said Charlie; "but she was gassin' 'bout her pals croakin' a guy an' trunin' 'im outten a gas wagon, an' dis Oskaloosa Kid he croaks some old guy in Oakdale las' night. Mebby he ain't a bad 'un though!"
"Where are they now?" asked Burton.
"We got away from 'em at the Squibbs' place this mornin'," said Charlie.
"Well," said Burton, "you boes come along with me. If you ain't done nothing the worst you'll get'll be three squares and a place to sleep for a few days. I want you where I can lay my hands on you when I need a couple of witnesses," and he herded them over the fence and into the machine. As he himself was about to step in he felt suddenly of his breast pocket.
"What's the matter?" asked one of his companions.
"I've lost my note book," replied Burton; "it must have dropped out of my pocket when I jumped the fence. Just wait a minute while I go look for it," and be returned to the fence, vaulted it and disappeared behind the bushes.
It was fully five minutes before he returned but when he did there was a look of satisfaction on his face.
"Find it?" asked his principal lieutenant.
"Yep," replied Burton. "I wouldn't have lost it for anything."