Bridge and his companions had made their way along the wooded path for perhaps a quarter of a mile when the man halted and drew back behind the foliage of a flowering bush. With raised finger he motioned the others to silence and then pointed through the branches ahead. The boy and the girl, tense with excitement, peered past the man into a clearing in which stood a log shack, mud plastered; but it was not the hovel which held their mute attention—it was rather the figure of a girl, bare headed and bare footed, who toiled stubbornly with an old spade at a long, narrow excavation.
All too suggestive in itself was the shape of the hole the girl was digging; there was no need of the silent proof of its purpose which lay beside her to tell the watchers that she worked alone in the midst of the forest solitude upon a human grave. The thing wrapped in an old quilt lay silently waiting for the making of its last bed.
And as the three watched her other eyes watched them and the digging girl—wide, awestruck eyes, filled with a great terror, yet now and again half closing in the shrewd expression of cunning that is a hall mark of crafty ignorance.
And as they watched, their over-wrought nerves suddenly shuddered to the grewsome clanking of a chain from the dark interior of the hovel.
The youth, holding tight to Bridge's sleeve, strove to pull him away.
"Let's go back," he whispered in a voice that trembled so that he could scarce control it.
"Yes, please," urged the girl. "Here is another path leading toward the north. We must be close to a road. Let's get away from here."
The digger paused and raised her head, listening, as though she had caught the faint, whispered note of human voices. She was a black haired girl of nineteen or twenty, dressed in a motley of flowered calico and silk, with strings of gold and silver coins looped around her olive neck. Her bare arms were encircled by bracelets-some cheap and gaudy, others well wrought from gold and silver. From her ears depended ornaments fashioned from gold coins. Her whole appearance was barbaric, her occupation cast a sinister haze about her; and yet her eyes seemed fashioned for laughter and her lips for kissing.
The watchers remained motionless as the girl peered first in one direction and then in another, seeking an explanation of the sounds which had disturbed her. Her brows were contracted into a scowl of apprehension which remained even after she returned to her labors, and that she was ill at ease was further evidenced by the frequent pauses she made to cast quick glances toward the dense tanglewood surrounding the clearing.
At last the grave was dug. The girl climbed out and stood looking down upon the quilt wrapped thing at her feet. For a moment she stood there as silent and motionless as the dead. Only the twittering of birds disturbed the quiet of the wood. Bridge felt a soft hand slipped into his and slender fingers grip his own, He turned his eyes to see the boy at his side gazing with wide eyes and trembling lips at the tableau within the clearing. Involuntarily the man's hand closed tightly upon the youth's.
And as they stood thus the silence was shattered by a loud and human sneeze from the thicket not fifty feet from where they stood. Instantly the girl in the clearing was electrified into action. Like a tigress charging those who stalked her she leaped swiftly across the clearing toward the point from which the disturbance had come. There was an answering commotion in the underbrush as the girl crashed through, a slender knife gleaming in her hand.
Bridge and his companions heard the sounds of a swift and short pursuit followed by voices, one masterful, the other frightened and whimpering; and a moment afterward the girl reappeared dragging a boy with her —a wide-eyed, terrified, country boy who begged and blubbered to no avail.
Beside the dead man the girl halted and then turned on her captive. In her right hand she still held the menacing blade.
"What you do there watching me for?" she demanded. "Tell me the truth, or I kill you," and she half raised the knife that he might profit in his decision by this most potent of arguments.
The boy cowered. "I didn't come fer to watch you," he whimpered. "I'm lookin' for somebody else. I'm goin' to be a dee-tectiff, an' I'm shadderin' a murderer; and he gasped and stammered: "But not you. I'm lookin' for another murderer."
For the first time the watchers saw a faint smile touch the girl's lips.
"What other murderer?" she asked. "Who has been murdered?"
"Two an' mebby three in Oakdale last night," said Willie Case more glibly now that a chance for disseminating gossip momentarily outweighed his own fears. "Reginald Paynter was murdered an' ol' man Baggs an' Abigail Prim's missin'. Like es not she's been murdered too, though they do say as she had a hand in it, bein' seen with Paynter an' The Oskaloosie Kid jest afore the murder."
As the boy's tale reached the ears of the three hidden in the underbrush Bridge glanced quickly at his companions. He saw the boy's horror-stricken expression follow the announcement of the name of the murdered Paynter, and he saw the girl flush crimson.
Without urging, Willie Case proceeded with his story. He told of the coming of The Oskaloosa Kid to his father's farm that morning and of seeing some of the loot and hearing the confession of robbery and killing in Oakdale the night before. Bridge looked down at the youth beside him; but the other's face was averted and his eyes upon the ground. Then Willie told of the arrival of the great detective, of the reward that had been offered and of his decision to win it and become rich and famous in a single stroke. As he reached the end of his narrative he leaned close to the girl, whispering in her ear the while his furtive gaze wandered toward the spot where the three lay concealed.
Bridge shrugged his shoulders as the palpable inference of that cunning glance was borne in upon him. The boy's voice had risen despite his efforts to hold it to a low whisper for what with the excitement of the adventure and his terror of the girl with the knife he had little or no control of himself, yet it was evident that he did not realize that practically every word he had spoken had reached the ears of the three in hiding and that his final precaution as he divulged the information to the girl was prompted by an excess of timidity and secretiveness.
The eyes of the girl widened in surprise and fear as she learned that three watchers lay concealed at the verge of the clearing. She bent a long, searching look in the direction indicated by the boy and then turned her eyes quickly toward the hut as though to summon aid. At the same moment Bridge stepped from hiding into the clearing. His pleasant 'Good morning!' brought the girl around, facing him.
"What you want?" she snapped.
"I want you and this young man," said Bridge, his voice now suddenly stern. "We have been watching you and followed you from the Squibbs house. We found the dead man there last night;" Bridge nodded toward the quilt enveloped thing upon the ground; "and we suspect that you had an accomplice." Here he frowned meaningly upon Willie Case. The youth trembled and stammered.
"I never seen her afore," he cried. "I don' know nothin' about it. Honest I don't." But the girl did not quail.
"You get out," she commanded. "You a bad man. Kill, steal. He know; he tell me. You get out or I call Beppo. He keel you. He eat you."
"Come, come, now, my dear," urged Bridge, "be calm. Let us get at the root of this thing. Your young friend accuses me of being a murderer, does he? And he tells about murders in Oakdale that I have not even heard of. It seems to me that he must have some guilty knowledge himself of these affairs. Look at him and look at me. Notice his ears, his chin, his forehead, or rather the places where his chin and forehead should be, and then look once more at me. Which of us might be a murderer and which a detective? I ask you.
"And as for yourself. I find you here in the depths of the wood digging a lonely grave for a human corpse. I ask myself: was this man murdered? but I do not say that he was murdered. I wait for an explanation from you, for you do not look a murderer, though I cannot say as much for your desperate companion."
The girl looked straight into Bridge's eyes for a full minute before she replied as though endeavoring to read his inmost soul.
"I do not know this boy," she said. "That is the truth. He was spying on me, and when I found him he told me that you and your companions were thieves and murderers and that you were hiding there watching me. You tell me the truth, all the truth, and I will tell you the truth. I have nothing to fear. If you do not tell me the truth I shall know it. Will you?"
"I will," replied Bridge, and then turning toward the brush he called: "Come here!" and presently a boy and a girl, dishevelled and fearful, crawled forth into sight. Willie Case's eyes went wide as they fell upon the Oskaloosa Kid.
Quickly and simply Bridge told the girl the story of the past night, for he saw that by enlisting her sympathy he might find an avenue of escape for his companions, or at least a haven of refuge where they might hide until escape was possible. "And then," he said in conclusion, "when the searchers arrived we followed the foot prints of yourself and the bear until we came upon you digging this grave."
Bridge's companions and Willie Case looked their surprise at his mention of a bear; but the gypsy girl only nodded her head as she had occasionally during his narrative.
"I believe you," said the girl. "It is not easy to deceive Giova. Now I tell you. This here," she pointed toward the dead man, "he my father. He bad man. Steal; kill; drink; fight; but always good to Giova. Good to no one else but Beppo. He afraid Beppo. Even our people drive us out he, my father, so bad man. We wander 'round country mak leetle money when Beppo dance; mak lot money when HE steal. Two days he no come home. I go las' night look for him. Sometimes he too drunk come home he sleep Squeebs. I go there. I find heem dead. He have fits, six, seven year. He die fit. Beppo stay guard heem. I carry heem home. Giova strong, he no very large man. Beppo come too. I bury heem. No one know we leeve here. Pretty soon I go way with Beppo. Why tell people he dead. Who care? Mak lot trouble for Giova whose heart already ache plenty. No one love heem, only Beppo and Giova. No one love Giova, only Beppo; but some day Beppo he keel Giova now HE is dead, for Beppo vera large, strong bear—fierce bear—ogly bear. Even Giova who love Beppo is afraid Beppo. Beppo devil bear! Beppo got evil eye.
"Well," said Bridge, "I guess, Giova, that you and we are in the same boat. We haven't any of us done anything so very bad but it would be embarrassing to have to explain to the police what we have done," here he glanced at The Oskaloosa Kid and the girl standing beside the youth. "Suppose we form a defensive alliance, eh? We'll help you and you help us. What do you say?"
"All right," acquiesced Giova; "but what we do with this?" and she jerked her thumb toward Willie Case.
"If he don't behave we'll feed him to Beppo," suggested Bridge.
Willie shook in his boots, figuratively speaking, for in reality he shook upon his bare feet. "Lemme go," he wailed, "an' I won't tell nobody nothin'."
"No," said Bridge, "you don't go until we're safely out of here. I wouldn't trust that vanishing chin of yours as far as I could throw Beppo by the tail."
"Wait!" exclaimed The Oskaloosa Kid. "I have it!"
"What have you?" asked Bridge.
"Listen!" cried the boy excitedly. "This boy has been offered a hundred dollars for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the men who robbed and murdered in Oakdale last night. I'll give him a hundred dollars if he'll go away and say nothing about us."
"Look here, son," said Bridge, "every time you open your mouth you put your foot in it. The less you advertise the fact that you have a hundred dollars the better off you'll be. I don't know how you come by so much wealth; but in view of several things which occurred last night I should not be crazy, were I you, to have to make a true income tax return. Somehow I have faith in you; but I doubt if any minion of the law would be similarly impressed."
The Oskaloosa Kid appeared hurt and crestfallen. Giova shot a suspicious glance at him. The other girl involuntarily drew away. Bridge noted the act and shook his head. "No," he said, "we mustn't judge one another hastily, Miss Prim, and I take it you are Miss Prim?" The girl made a half gesture of denial, started to speak, hesitated and then resumed. "I would rather not say who I am, please," she said.
"Well," said the man, "let's take one another at face value for a while, without digging too deep into the past; and now for our plans. This wood will be searched; but I don't see how we are to get out of it before dark as the roads are doubtless pretty well patrolled, or at least every farmer is on the lookout for suspicious strangers. So we might as well make the best of it here for the rest of the day. I think we're reasonably safe for the time being—if we keep Willie with us."
Willie had been an interested auditor of all that passed between his captors. He was obviously terrified; but his terror did not prevent him from absorbing all that he heard, nor from planning how he might utilize the information. He saw not only one reward but several and a glorious publicity which far transcended the most sanguine of his former dreams. He saw his picture not only in the Oakdale Tribune but in the newspapers of every city of the country. Assuming a stern and arrogant expression, or rather what he thought to be such, he posed, mentally, for the newspaper cameramen; and such is the power of association of ideas that he was presently strolling nonchalantly before a battery of motion picture machines. "Gee!" he murmured, "wont the other fellers be sore! I s'ppose Pinkerton'll send for me 'bout the first thing 'n' offer me twenty fi' dollars a week, er mebbie more 'n thet. Gol durn, ef I don't hold out fer thirty! Gee!" Words, thoughts even, failed him.
As the others planned they rather neglected Willie and when they came to assisting Giova in lowering her father into the grave and covering him over with earth they quite forgot Willie entirely. It was The Oskaloosa Kid who first thought of him. "Where's the boy?" he cried suddenly. The others looked quickly about the clearing, but no Willie was to be seen.
Bridge shook his head ruefully. "We'll have to get out of this in a hurry now," he said. "That little defective will have the whole neighborhood on us in an hour."
"Oh, what can we do?" cried the girl. "They mustn't find us! I should rather die than be found here with—" She stopped abruptly, flushed scarlet as the other three looked at her in silence, and then: "I am sorry," she said. "I didn't know what I was saying. I am so frightened. You have all been good to me."
"I tell you what we do." It was Giova speaking in the masterful voice of one who has perfect confidence in his own powers. "I know fine way out. This wood circle back south through swamp mile, mile an' a half. The road past Squeebs an' Case's go right through it. I know path there I fin' myself. We on'y have to cross road, that only danger. Then we reach leetle stream south of woods, stream wind down through Payson. We all go Gypsies. I got lot clothing in house. We all go Gypsies, an' when we reach Payson we no try hide—jus' come out on street with Beppo. Mak' Beppo dance. No one think we try hide. Then come night we go 'way. Find more wood an' leetle lake other side Payson. I know place. We hide there long time. No one ever fin' us there. We tell two, three, four people in Payson we go Oakdale. They look Oakdale for us if they wan' fin' us. They no think look where we go. See?"
"Oh, I can't go to Payson," exclaimed the other girl. "Someone would be sure to recognize me."
"You come in house with me," Giova assured her, "I feex you so your own mother no know you. You mens come too. I geeve you what to wear like Gypsy mens. We got lots things. My father, him he steal many things from our people after they drive us out. He go back by nights an' steal."
The three followed her toward the little hovel since there seemed no better plan than that which she had offered. Giova and the other girl were in the lead, followed by Bridge and the boy. The latter turned to the man and placed a hand upon his arm. "Why don't you leave us," he asked. "You have done nothing. No one is looking for you. Why don't you go your way and save yourself from suspicion."
Bridge did not reply.
"I believe," the youth went on, "that you are doing it for me; but why I can't guess."
"Maybe I am," Bridge half acknowledged. "You're a good little kid, but you need someone to look after you. It would be easier though if you'd tell me the truth about yourself, which you certainly haven't up to now."
"Please don't ask me," begged the boy. "I can't; honestly I can't."
"Is it as bad as that?" asked the man.
"Oh, its worse," cried The Oskaloosa Kid. "It's a thousand times worse. Don't make me tell you, for if I do tell I shall have to leave you, and—and, oh, Bridge, I don't want to leave you—ever!"
They had reached the door of the cabin now and were looking in past the girl who had halted there as Giova entered. Before them was a small room in which a large, vicious looking brown bear was chained.
"Behold our ghost of last night!" exclaimed Bridge. "By George! though, I'd as soon have hunted a real ghost in the dark as to have run into this fellow."
"Did you know last night that it was a bear?" asked the Kid. "You told Giova that you followed the footprints of herself and her bear; but you had not said anything about a bear to us."
"I had an idea last night," explained Bridge, "that the sounds were produced by some animal dragging a chain; but I couldn't prove it and so I said nothing, and then this morning while we were following the trail I made up my mind that it was a bear. There were two facts which argued that such was the case. The first is that I don't believe in ghosts and that even if I did I would not expect a ghost to leave footprints in the mud, and the other is that I knew that the footprints of a bear are strangely similar to those of the naked feet of man. Then when I saw the Gypsy girl I was sure that what we had heard last night was nothing more nor less than a trained bear. The dress and appearance of the dead man lent themselves to a furtherance of my belief and the wisp of brown hair clutched in his fingers added still further proof."
Within the room the bear was now straining at his collar and growling ferociously at the strangers. Giova crossed the room, scolding him and at the same time attempting to assure him that the newcomers were friends; but the wicked expression upon the beast's face gave no indication that he would ever accept them as aught but enemies.