In an old brick structure a hundred yards below the mill where the lighting machinery of Payson had been installed before the days of the great central powerplant a hundred miles away four men were smoking as they lay stretched upon the floor.
"I tell you I seen him," asserted one of the party. "I follered this Bridge guy from town to the mill. He was got up like a Gyp; but I knew him all right, all right. This scenery of his made me tink there was something phoney doin', or I wouldn't have trailed him, an' it's a good ting I done it, fer he hadn't ben there five minutes before along comes The Kid an' a skirt and pretty soon a nudder chicken wid a calf on a string, er mebbie it was a sheep—it was pretty husky lookin' fer a sheep though. An' I sticks aroun' a minute until I hears this here Bridge guy call the first skirt 'Miss Prim.'"
He ceased speaking to note the effect of his words on his hearers. They were electrical. The Sky Pilot sat up straight and slapped his thigh. Soup Face opened his mouth, letting his pipe fall out into his lap, setting fire to his ragged trousers. Dirty Eddie voiced a characteristic obscenity.
"So you sees," went on Columbus Blackie, "we got a chanct to get both the dame and The Kid. Two of us can take her to Oakdale an' claim the reward her old man's offerin' an' de odder two can frisk de Kid, an'-an'—."
"An' wot?" queried The Sky Pilot.
"Dere's de swamp handy," suggested Soup Face.
"I was tinkin' of de swamp," said Columbus Blackie.
"Eddie and I will return Miss Prim to her bereaved parents," interrupted The Sky Pilot. "You, Blackie, and Soup Face can arrange matters with The Oskaloosa Kid. I don't care for details. We will all meet in Toledo as soon as possible and split the swag. We ought to make a cleaning on this job, boes."
"You split a mout'ful then," said Columbus Blackie.
They fell to discussing way and means.
"We'd better wait until they're asleep," counseled The Sky Pilot. "Two of us can tackle this Bridge and hand him the k.o. quick. Eddie and Soup Face had better attend to that. Blackie can nab The Kid an' I'll annex Miss Abigail Prim. The lady with the calf we don't want. We'll tell her we're officers of the law an' that she'd better duck with her live stock an' keep her trap shut if she don't want to get mixed up with a murder trial."
o o o
Detective Burton was at the county jail in Oakdale administering the third degree to Dopey Charlie and The General when there came a long distance telephone call for him.
"Hello!" said the voice at the other end of the line; "I'm Willie Case, an' I've found Miss Abigail Prim."
"Again?" queried Burton.
"Really," asserted Willie. "I know where she's goin' to be all night. I heard 'em say so. The Oskaloosie Kid's with her an' annuder guy an' the girl I seen with the dead man in Squibbs' woods an' they got a BEAR!" It was almost a shriek. "You'd better come right away an' bring Mr. Prim. I'll meet you on the ol' Toledo road right south of Payson, an' say, do I get the whole reward?"
"You'll get whatever's coming to you, son," replied Burton. "You say there are two men and two women-are you sure that is all?"
"And the bear," corrected Willie.
"All right, keep quiet and wait for me," cautioned Burton. "You'll know me by the spot light on my car-I'll have it pointed straight up into the air. When you see it coming get into the middle of the road and wave your hands to stop us. Do you understand?"
"Yes," said Willie.
"And don't talk to anyone," Burton again cautioned him.
A few minutes later Burton left Oakdale with his two lieutenants and a couple of the local policemen, the car turning south toward Payson and moving at ever accelerating speed as it left the town streets behind it and swung smoothly onto the country road.
o o o
It was after midnight when four men cautiously approached the old mill. There was no light nor any sign of life within as they crept silently through the doorless doorway. Columbus Blackie was in the lead. He flashed a quick light around the interior revealing four forms stretched upon the floor, deep in slumber. Into the blacker shadows of the far end of the room the man failed to shine his light for the first flash had shown him those whom he sought. Picking out their quarry the intruders made a sudden rush upon the sleepers.
Bridge awoke to find two men attempting to rain murderous blows upon his head. Wiry, strong and full of the vigor of a clean life, he pitted against their greater numbers and cowardly attack a defense which was infinitely more strenuous than they had expected.
Columbus Blackie leaped for The Oskaloosa Kid, while The Sky Pilot seized upon Abigail Prim. No one paid any attention to Giova, nor, with the noise and confusion, did the intruders note the sudden clanking of a chain from out the black depths of the room's further end, or the splintering of a half decayed studding.
Soup Face entangling himself about Bridge's legs succeeded in throwing the latter to the floor while Dirty Eddie kicked viciously at the prostrate man's head. The Sky Pilot seized Abigail Prim about the waist and dragged her toward the doorway and though the girl fought valiantly to free herself her lesser muscles were unable to cope successfully with those of the man. Columbus Blackie found his hands full with The Oskaloosa Kid. Again and again the youth struck him in the face; but the man persisted, beating down the slim hands and striking viciously at body and head until, at last, the boy, half stunned though still struggling, was dragged from the room.
Simultaneously a series of frightful growls reverberated through the deserted mill. A huge body catapulted into the midst of the fighters. Abigail Prim screamed. "The bear!" she cried. "The bear is loose!"
Dirty Eddie was the first to feel the weight of Beppo's wrath. His foot drawn back to implant a vicious kick in Bridge's face he paused at the girl's scream and at the same moment a huge thing reared up before him. Just for an instant he sensed the terrifying presence of some frightful creature, caught the reflected gleam of two savage eyes and felt the hot breath from distended jaws upon his cheek, then Beppo swung a single terrific blow which caught the man upon the side of the head to spin him across the floor and drop him in a crumpled heap against the wall, with a fractured skull. Dirty Eddie was out. Soup Face, giving voice to a scream more bestial than human, rose to his feet and fled in the opposite direction.
Beppo paused and looked about. He discovered Bridge lying upon the floor and sniffed at him. The man lay perfectly quiet. He had heard that often times a bear will not molest a creature which it thinks dead. Be that as it may Beppo chanced at that moment to glance toward the doorway. There, silhouetted against the lesser darkness without, he saw the figures of Columbus Blackie and The Oskaloosa Kid and with a growl he charged them. The two were but a few paces outside the doorway when the full weight of the great bear struck Columbus Blackie between the shoulders. Down went the man and as he fell he released his hold upon the youth who immediately turned and ran for the road.
The momentum of the bear carried him past the body of his intended victim who, frightened but uninjured, scrambled to his feet and dashed toward the rear of the mill in the direction of the woods and distant swamp. Beppo, recovering from his charge, wheeled in time to catch a glimpse of his quarry after whom he made with all the awkwardness that was his birthright and with the speed of a race horse.
Columbus Blackie, casting a terrified glance rearward, saw his Nemesis flashing toward him, and dodged around a large tree. Again Beppo shot past the man while the latter, now shrieking for help, raced madly in a new direction.
Bridge had arisen and come out of the mill. He called aloud for The Oskaloosa Kid. Giova answered him from a small tree. "Climb!" she cried. "Climb a tree! Ever'one climb a small tree. Beppo he go mad. He keel ever'one. Run! Climb! He keel me. Beppo he got evil-eye."
Along the road from the north came a large touring car, swinging from side to side in its speed. Its brilliant headlights illuminated the road far ahead. They picked out The Sky Pilot and Abigail Prim, they found The Oskaloosa Kid climbing a barbed wire fence and then with complaining brakes the car came to a sudden stop. Six men leaped from the machine and rounded up the three they had seen. Another came running toward them. It was Soup Face, so thoroughly terrified that he would gladly have embraced a policeman in uniform, could the latter have offered him protection.
A boy accompanied the newcomers. "There he is!" he screamed, pointing at The Oskaloosa Kid. "There he is! And you've got Miss Prim, too, and when do I get the reward?"
"Shut up!" said one of the men.
"Watch this bunch," said Burton to one of his lieutenants, "while we go after the rest of them. There are some over by the mill. I can hear them."
From the woods came a fearfilled scream mingled with the savage growls of a beast.
"It's the bear," shrilled Willie Case, and ran toward the automobile.
Bridge ran forward to meet Burton. "Get that girl and the kid into your machine and beat it!" he cried. "There's a bear loose here, a regular devil of a bear. You can't do a thing unless you have rifles. Have you?"
"Who are you?" asked the detective.
"He's one of the gang," yelled Willie Case from the fancied security of the tonneau. "Seize him!" He wanted to add: "My men"; but somehow his nerve failed him at the last moment; however he had the satisfaction of thinking it.
Bridge was placed in the car with Abigail Prim, The Oskaloosa Kid, Soup Face and The Sky Pilot. Burton sent the driver back to assist in guarding them; then he with the remaining three, two of whom were armed with rifles, advanced toward the mill. Beyond it they heard the growling of the bear at a little distance in the wood; but the man no longer made any outcry. From a tree Giova warned them back.
"Come down!" commanded Burton, and sent her back to the car.
The driver turned his spot light upon the wood beyond the mill and presently there came slowly forward into its rays the lumbering bulk of a large bear. The light bewildered him and he paused, growling. His left shoulder was partially exposed.
"Aim for his chest, on the left side," whispered Burton. The two men raised their rifles. There were two reports in close succession. Beppo fell forward without a sound and then rolled over on his side. Giova covered her face with her hands and sobbed.
"He ver' bad, ugly bear," she said brokenly; "but he all I have to love."
Bridge extended a hand and patted her bowed head. In the eyes of The Oskaloosa Kid there glistened something perilously similar to tears.
In the woods back of the mill Burton and his men found the mangled remains of Columbus Blackie, and when they searched the interior of the structure they brought forth the unconscious Dirty Eddie. As the car already was taxed to the limit of its carrying capacity Burton left two of his men to march The Kid and Bridge to the Payson jail, taking the others with him to Oakdale. He was also partially influenced in this decision by the fear that mob violence would be done the principals by Oakdale's outraged citizens. At Payson he stopped long enough at the town jail to arrange for the reception of the two prisoners, to notify the coroner of the death of Columbus Blackie and the whereabouts of his body and to place Dirty Eddie in the hospital. He then telephoned Jonas Prim that his daughter was safe and would be returned to him in less than an hour.
By the time Bridge and The Oskaloosa Kid reached Payson the town was in an uproar. A threatening crowd met them a block from the jail; but Burton's men were armed with rifles which they succeeded in convincing the mob they would use if their prisoners were molested. The telephone, however, had carried the word to Oakdale; so that before Burton arrived there a dozen automobile loads of indignant citizens were racing south toward Payson.
Bridge and The Oskaloosa Kid were hustled into the single cell of the Payson jail. A bench ran along two sides of the room. A single barred window let out upon the yard behind the structure. The floor was littered with papers, and a single electric light bulb relieved the gloom of the unsavory place.
The Oskaloosa Kid sank, trembling, upon one of the hard benches. Bridge rolled a cigaret. At his feet lay a copy of that day's Oakdale Tribune. A face looked up from the printed page into his eyes. He stooped and took up the paper. The entire front page was devoted to the various crimes which had turned peaceful Oakdale inside out in the past twenty four hours. There were reproductions of photographs of John Baggs, Reginald Paynter, Abigail Prim, Jonas Prim, and his wife, with a large cut of the Prim mansion, a star marking the boudoir of the missing daughter of the house. As Bridge examined the various pictures an odd expression entered his eyes—it was a mixture of puzzlement, incredulity, and relief. Tossing the paper aside he turned toward The Oskaloosa Kid. They could hear the sullen murmur of the crowd in front of the jail.
"If they get any booze," he said, "they'll take us out of here and string us up. If you've got anything to say that would tend to convince them that you did not kill Paynter I advise you to call the guard and tell the truth, for if the mob gets us they might hang us first and listen afterward—a mob is not a nice thing. Beppo was an angel of mercy by comparison with one."
"Could you convince them that you had no part in any of these crimes?" asked the boy. "I know that you didn't; but could you prove it to a mob?"
"No," said Bridge. "A mob is not open to reason. If they get us I shall hang, unless someone happens to think of the stake."
The boy shuddered.
"Will you tell the truth?" asked the man.
"I will go with you," replied the boy, "and take whatever you get."
"Why?" asked Bridge.
The youth flushed; but did not reply, for there came from without a sudden augmentation of the murmurings of the mob. Automobile horns screamed out upon the night. The two heard the chugging of motors, the sound of brakes and the greetings of new arrivals. The reinforcements had arrived from Oakdale.
A guard came to the grating of the cell door. "The bunch from Oakdale has come," he said. "If I was you I'd say my prayers. Old man Baggs is dead. No one never had no use for him while he was alive, but the whole county's het up now over his death. They're bound to get you, an' while I didn't count 'em all I seen about a score o' ropes. They mean business."
Bridge turned toward the boy. "Tell the truth," he said. "Tell this man."
The youth shook his head. "I have killed no one," said he. "That is the truth. Neither have you; but if they are going to murder you they can murder me too, for you stuck to me when you didn't have to; and I am going to stick to you, and there is some excuse for me because I have a reason—the best reason in the world."
"What is it?" asked Bridge.
The Oskaloosa Kid shook his head, and once more he flushed.
"Well," said the guard, with a shrug of his shoulders, "it's up to you guys. If you want to hang, why hang and be damned. We'll do the best we can 'cause it's our duty to protect you; but I guess at that hangin's too good fer you, an' we ain't a-goin' to get shot keepin' you from gettin' it."
"Thanks," said Bridge.
The uproar in front of the jail had risen in volume until it was difficult for those within to make themselves heard without shouting. The Kid sat upon his bench and buried his face in his hands. Bridge rolled another smoke. The sound of a shot came from the front room of the jail, immediately followed by a roar of rage from the mob and a deafening hammering upon the jail door. A moment later this turned to the heavy booming of a battering ram and the splintering of wood. The frail structure quivered beneath the onslaught.
The prisoners could hear the voices of the guards and the jailer raised in an attempt to reason with the unreasoning mob, and then came a final crash and the stamping of many feet upon the floor of the outer room.
Burton's car drew up before the doorway of the Prim home in Oakdale. The great detective alighted and handed down the missing Abigail. Then be directed that the other prisoners be taken to the county jail.
Jonas Prim and his wife awaited Abigail's return in the spacious living room at the left of the reception hall. The banker was nervous. He paced to and fro the length of the room. Mrs. Prim fanned herself vigorously although the heat was far from excessive. They heard the motor draw up in front of the house; but they did not venture into the reception hall or out upon the porch, though for different reasons. Mrs. Prim because it would not have been PROPER; Jonas because he could not trust himself to meet his daughter, whom he had thought lost, in the presence of a possible crowd which might have accompanied her home.
They heard the closing of an automobile door and the sound of foot steps coming up the concrete walk. The Prim butler was already waiting at the doorway with the doors swung wide to receive the prodigal daughter of the house of Prim. A slender figure with bowed head ascended the steps, guided and assisted by the detective. She did not look up at the expectant butler waiting for the greeting he was sure Abigail would have for him; but passed on into the reception hall.
"Your father and Mrs. Prim are in the living room," announced the butler, stepping forward to draw aside the heavy hangings.
The girl, followed by Burton, entered the brightly lighted room.
"I am very glad, Mr. Prim," said the latter, "to be able to return Miss Prim to you so quickly and unharmed."
The girl looked up into the face of Jonas Prim. The man voiced an exclamation of surprise and annoyance. Mrs. Prim gasped and sank upon a sofa. The girl stood motionless, her eyes once again bent upon the floor.
"What's the matter?" asked Burton. "What's wrong?"
"Everything is wrong, Mr. Burton," Jonas Prim's voice was crisp and cold. "This is not my daughter."
Burton looked his surprise and discomfiture. He turned upon the girl.
"What do you mean—" he started; but she interrupted him.
"You are going to ask what I mean by posing as Miss Prim," she said. "I have never said that I was Miss Prim. You took the word of an ignorant little farmer's boy and I did not deny it when I found that you intended bringing me to Mr. Prim, for I wanted to see him. I wanted to ask him to help me. I have never met him, or his daughter either; but my father and Mr. Prim have been friends for many years.
"I am Hettie Penning," she continued, addressing Jonas Prim. "My father has always admired you and from what he has told me I knew that you would listen to me and do what you could for me. I could not bear to think of going to the jail in Payson, for Payson is my home. Everybody would have known me. It would have killed my father. Then I wanted to come myself and tell you, after reading the reports and insinuations in the paper, that your daughter was not with Reginald Paynter when he was killed. She had no knowledge of the crime and as far as I know may not have yet. I have not seen her and do not know where she is; but I was present when Mr. Paynter was killed. I have known him for years and have often driven with him. He stopped me yesterday afternoon on the street in Payson and talked with me. He was sitting in a car in front of the bank. After we had talked a few minutes two men came out of the bank. Mr. Paynter introduced them to me. He said they were driving out into the country to look at a piece of property—a farm somewhere north of Oakdale —and that on the way back they were going to stop at The Crossroads Inn for dinner. He asked me if I wouldn't like to come along—he kind of dared me to, because, as you know, The Crossroads has rather a bad reputation.
"Father had gone to Toledo on business, and very foolishly I took his dare. Everything went all right until after we left The Inn, although one of the men—his companion referred to him once or twice as The Oskaloosa Kid—attempted to be too familiar with me. Mr. Paynter prevented him on each occasion, and they had words over me; but after we left the inn, where they had all drunk a great deal, this man renewed his attentions and Mr. Paynter struck him. Both of them were drunk. After that it all happened so quickly that I could scarcely follow it. The man called Oskaloosa Kid drew a revolver but did not fire, instead he seized Mr. Paynter by the coat and whirled him around and then he struck him an awful blow behind the ear with the butt of the weapon.
"After that the other two men seemed quite sobered. They discussed what would be the best thing to do and at last decided to throw Mr. Paynter's body out of the machine, for it was quite evident that he was dead. First they rifled his pockets, and joked as they did it, one of them saying that they weren't getting as much as they had planned on; but that a little was better than nothing. They took his watch, jewelry, and a large roll of bills. We passed around the east side of Oakdale and came back into the Toledo road. A little way out of town they turned the machine around and ran back for about half a mile; then they turned about a second time. I don't know why they did this. They threw the body out while the machine was moving rapidly; but I was so frightened that I can't say whether it was before or after they turned about the second time.
"In front of the old Squibbs place they shot at me and threw me out; but the bullet missed me. I have not seen them since and do not know where they went. I am ready and willing to aid in their conviction; but, please Mr. Prim, won't you keep me from being sent back to Payson or to jail. I have done nothing criminal and I won't run away."
"How about the robbery of Miss Prim's room and the murder of Old Man Baggs?" asked Burton. "Did they pull both of those off before they killed Paynter or after?"
"They had nothing to do with either unless they did them after they threw me out of the car, which must have been long after midnight," replied the girl.
"And the rest of the gang, those that were arrested with you," continued the detective, "how about them? All angels, I suppose."
"There was only Bridge and the boy they called The Oskaloosa Kid, though he isn't the same one that murdered poor Mr. Paynter, and the Gypsy girl, Giova, that were with me. The others were tramps who came into the old mill and attacked us while we were asleep. I don't know who they were. The girl could have had nothing to do with any of the crimes. We came upon her this morning burying her father in the woods back of the Squibbs' place. The man died of epilepsy last night. Bridge and the boy were taking refuge from the storm at the Squibbs place when I was thrown from the car. They heard the shot and came to my rescue. I am sure they had nothing to do with—with—" she hesitated.
"Tell the truth," commanded Burton. "It will go hard with you if you don't. What made you hesitate? You know something about those two—now out with it."
"The boy robbed Mr. Prim's home—I saw some of the money and jewelry—but Bridge was not with him. They just happened to meet by accident during the storm and came to the Squibbs place together. They were kind to me, and I hate to tell anything that would get the boy in trouble. That is the reason I hesitated. He seemed such a nice boy! It is hard to believe that he is a criminal, and Bridge was always so considerate. He looks like a tramp; but he talks and acts like a gentleman."
The telephone bell rang briskly, and a moment later the butler stepped into the room to say that Mr. Burton was wanted on the wire. He returned to the living room in two or three minutes.
"That clears up some of it," he said as be entered. "The sheriff just had a message from the chief at Toledo saying that The Oskaloosa Kid is dying in a hospital there following an automobile accident. He knew he was done for and sent for the police. When they came he told them he had killed a man by the name of Paynter at Oakdale last night and the chief called up to ask what we knew about it. The Kid confessed to clear his pal who was only slightly injured in the smash-up. His story corroborates Miss Penning's in every detail, he also said that after killing Paynter he had shot a girl witness and thrown her from the car to prevent her squealing."
Once again the telephone bell rang, long and insistently. The butler almost ran into the room. "Payson wants you, sir," he cried to Burton, "in a hurry, sir, it's a matter of life and death, sir!"
Burton sprang to the phone. When he left it he only stopped at the doorway of the living room long enough to call in: "A mob has the two prisoners at Payson and are about to lynch them, and, my God, they're innocent. We all know now who killed Paynter and I have known since morning who murdered Baggs, and it wasn't either of those men; but they've found Miss Prim's jewelry on the fellow called Bridge and they've gone crazy—they say he murdered her and the young one did for Paynter. I'm going to Payson," and dashed from the house.
"Wait," cried Jonas Prim, "I'm going with you," and without waiting to find a hat he ran quickly after the detective. Once in the car he leaned forward urging the driver to greater speed.
"God in heaven!" he almost cried, "the fools are going to kill the only man who can tell me anything about Abigail."
o o o
With oaths and threats the mob, brainless and heartless, cowardly, bestial, filled with the lust for blood, pushed and jammed into the narrow corridor before the cell door where the two prisoners awaited their fate. The single guard was brushed away. A dozen men wielding three railroad ties battered upon the grating of the door, swinging the ties far back and then in unison bringing them heavily forward against the puny iron.
Bridge spoke to them once. "What are you going to do with us?" he asked.
"We're goin' to hang you higher 'n' Haman, you damned kidnappers an' murderers," yelled a man in the crowd.
"Why don't you give us a chance?" asked Bridge in an even tone, unaltered by fear or excitement. "You've nothing on us. As a matter of fact we are both innocent—"
"Oh, shut your damned mouth," interrupted another of the crowd.
Bridge shrugged his shoulders and turned toward the youth who stood very white but very straight in a far corner of the cell. The man noticed the bulging pockets of the ill fitting coat; and, for the first time that night, his heart stood still in the face of fear; but not for himself.
He crossed to the youth's side and put his arm around the slender figure. "There's no use arguing with them," he said. "They've made up their minds, or what they think are minds, that we're guilty; but principally they're out for a sensation. They want to see something die, and we're it. I doubt if anything could stop them now; they'd think we'd cheated them if we suddenly proved beyond doubt that we were innocent."
The boy pressed close to the man. "God help me to be brave," he said, "as brave as you are. We'll go together, Bridge, and on the other side you'll learn something that'll surprise you. I believe there is 'another side,' don't you, Bridge?"
"I've never thought much about it," said Bridge; "but at a time like this I rather hope so—I'd like to come back and haunt this bunch of rat brained rubes."
His arm slipped down the other's coat and his hand passed quickly behind the boy from one side to the other; then the door gave and the leaders of the mob were upon them. A gawky farmer seized the boy and struck him cruelly across the mouth. It was Jeb Case.
"You beast!" cried Bridge. "Can't you see that that-that's—only a child? If I don't live long enough to give you yours here, I'll come back and haunt you to your grave."
"Eh?" ejaculated Jeb Case; but his sallow face turned white, and after that he was less rough with his prisoner.
The two were dragged roughly from the jail. The great crowd which had now gathered fought to get a close view of them, to get hold of them, to strike them, to revile them; but the leaders kept the others back lest all be robbed of the treat which they had planned. Through town they haled them and out along the road toward Oakdale. There was some talk of taking them to the scene of Paynter's supposed murder; but wiser heads counselled against it lest the sheriff come with a posse of deputies and spoil their fun.
Beneath a great tree they halted them, and two ropes were thrown over a stout branch. One of the leaders started to search them; and when he drew his hands out of Bridge's side pockets his eyes went wide, and he gave a cry of elation which drew excited inquiries from all sides.
"By gum!" he cried, "I reckon we ain't made no mistake here, boys. Look ahere!" and he displayed two handsful of money and jewelry.
"Thet's Abbie Prim's stuff," cried one.
The boy beside Bridge turned wide eyes upon the man. "Where did you get it?" he cried. "Oh, Bridge, why did you do it? Now they will kill you," and he turned to the crowd. "Oh, please listen to me," he begged. "He didn't steal those things. Nobody stole them. They are mine. They have always belonged to me. He took them out of my pocket at the jail because he thought that I had stolen them and he wanted to take the guilt upon himself; but they were not stolen, I tell you—they are mine! they are mine! they are mine!"
Another new expression came into Bridge's eyes as he listened to the boy's words; but he only shook his head. It was too late, and Bridge knew it.
Men were adjusting ropes about their necks. "Before you hang us," said Bridge quietly, "would you mind explaining just what we're being hanged for—it's sort of comforting to know, you see."
"Thet's right," spoke up one of the crowd. "Thet's fair. We want to do things fair and square. Tell 'em the charges, an' then ask 'em ef they got anything to say afore they're hung."
This appealed to the crowd—the last statements of the doomed men might add another thrill to the evening's entertainment.
"Well," said the man who had searched them. "There might o' been some doubts about you before, but they aint none now. You're bein' hung fer abductin' of an' most likely murderin' Miss Abigail Prim."
The boy screamed and tried to interrupt; but Jeb Case placed a heavy and soiled hand over his mouth. The spokesman continued. "This slicker admitted he was The Oskaloosa Kid, 'n' thet he robbed a house an' shot a man las' night; 'n' they ain't no tellin' what more he's ben up to. He tole Jeb Case's Willie 'bout it; an' bragged on it, by gum. 'Nenny way we know Paynter and Abigail Prim was last seed with this here Oskaloosa Kid, durn him."
"Thanks," said Bridge politely, "and now may I make my final statement before going to meet my maker?"
"Go on," growled the man.
"You won't interrupt me?"
"Naw, go on."
"All right! You damn fools have made up your minds to hang us. I doubt if anything I can say to you will alter your determination for the reason that if all the brains in this crowd were collected in one individual he still wouldn't have enough with which to weigh the most obvious evidence intelligently, but I shall present the evidence, and you can tell some intelligent people about it tomorrow.
"In the first place it is impossible that I murdered Abigail Prim, and in the second place my companion is not The Oskaloosa Kid and was not with Mr. Paynter last night. The reason I could not have murdered Miss Prim is because Miss Prim is not dead. These jewels were not stolen from Miss Prim, she took them herself from her own home. This boy whom you are about to hang is not a boy at all—it is Miss Prim, herself. I guessed her secret a few minutes ago and was convinced when she cried that the jewels and money were her own. I don't know why she wishes to conceal her identity; but I can't stand by and see her lynched without trying to save her."
The crowd scoffed in incredulity. "There are some women here," said Bridge. "Turn her over to them. They'll tell you, at least that she is not a man."
Some voices were raised in protest, saying that it was a ruse to escape, while others urged that the women take the youth. Jeb Case stepped toward the subject of dispute. "I'll settle it durned quick," he announced and reached forth to seize the slim figure. With a sudden wrench Bridge tore himself loose from his captors and leaped toward the farmer, his right flew straight out from the shoulder and Jeb Case went down with a broken jaw. Almost simultaneously a car sped around a curve from the north and stopped suddenly in rear of the mob. Two men leaped out and shouldered their way through. One was the detective, Burton; the other was Jonas Prim.
"Where are they?" cried the latter. "God help you if you've killed either of them, for one of them must know what became of Abigail."
He pushed his way up until he faced the prisoners. The Oskaloosa Kid gave him a single look of surprise and then sprang toward him with outstretched arms.
"Oh, daddy, daddy!" she cried, "don't let them kill him."
The crowd melted away from the immediate vicinity of the prisoners. None seemed anxious to appear in the forefront as a possible leader of a mob that had so nearly lynched the only daughter of Jonas Prim. Burton slipped the noose from about the girl's neck and then turned toward her companion. In the light from the automobile lamps the man's face was distinctly visible to the detective for the first time that night, and as Burton looked upon it he stepped back with an exclamation of surprise.
"You?" he almost shouted. "Gad, man! where have you been? Your father's spent twenty thousand dollars trying to find you."
Bridge shook his head. "I'm sorry, Dick," he said, "but I'm afraid it's too late. The open road's gotten into my blood, and there's only one thing that—well—" he shook his head and smiled ruefully—"but there ain't a chance." His eyes travelled to the slim figure sitting so straight in the rear seat of Jonas Prim's car.
Suddenly the little head turned in his direction. "Hurry, Bridge," admonished The Oskaloosa Kid, "you're coming home with us."
The man stepped toward the car, shaking his head. "Oh, no, Miss Prim," he said, "I can't do that. Here's your 'swag.'" And he smiled as he passed over her jewels and money.
Mr. Prim's eyes widened; he looked suspiciously at Bridge. Abigail laughed merrily. "I stole them myself, Dad," she explained, "and then Mr. Bridge took them from me in the jail to make the mob think he had stolen them and not I— he didn't know then that I was a girl, did you?"
"It was in the jail that I first guessed; but I didn't quite realize who you were until you said that the jewels were yours—then I knew. The picture in the paper gave me the first inkling that you were a girl, for you looked so much like the one of Miss Prim. Then I commenced to recall little things, until I wondered that I hadn't known from the first that you were a girl; but you made a bully boy!" and they both laughed. "And now good-by, and may God bless you!" His voice trembled ever so little, and he extended his hand. The girl drew back.
"I want you to come with us," she said. "I want Father to know you and to know how you have cared for me. Wont you come—for me?"
"I couldn't refuse, if you put it that way," replied Bridge; and he climbed into the car. As the machine started off a boy leaped to the running-board.
"Hey!" he yelled, "where's my reward? I want my reward. I'm Willie Case."
"Oh!" exclaimed Bridge. "I gave your reward to your father—maybe he'll split it with you. Go ask him." And the car moved off.
"You see," said Burton, with a wry smile, "how simple is the detective's job. Willie is a natural-born detective. He got everything wrong from A to Izzard, yet if it hadn't been for Willie we might not have cleared up the mystery so soon."
"It isn't all cleared up yet," said Jonas Prim. "Who murdered Baggs?"
"Two yeggs known as Dopey Charlie and the General," replied Burton. "They are in the jail at Oakdale; but they don't know yet that I know they are guilty. They think they are being held merely as suspects in the case of your daughter's disappearance, whereas I have known since morning that they were implicated in the killing of Baggs; for after I got them in the car I went behind the bushes where we discovered them and dug up everything that was missing from Baggs' house, as nearly as is known—currency, gold and bonds."
"Good!" exclaimed Mr. Prim.
On the trip back to Oakdale, Abigail Prim cuddled in the back seat beside her father, told him all that she could think to tell of Bridge and his goodness to her.
"But the man didn't know you were a girl," suggested Mr. Prim.
"There were two other girls with us, both very pretty," replied Abigail, "and he was as courteous and kindly to them as a man could be to a woman. I don't care anything about his clothes, Daddy; Bridge is a gentleman born and raised—anyone could tell it after half an hour with him."
Bridge sat on the front seat with the driver and one of Burton's men, while Burton, sitting in the back seat next to the girl, could not but overhear her conversation.
"You are right," he said. "Bridge, as you call him, is a gentleman. He comes of one of the finest families of Virginia and one of the wealthiest. You need have no hesitancy, Mr. Prim, in inviting him into your home."
For a while the three sat in silence; and then Jonas Prim turned to his daughter. "Gail," he said, "before we get home I wish you'd tell me why you did this thing. I think you'd rather tell me before we see Mrs. P."
"It was Sam Benham, Daddy," whispered the girl. "I couldn't marry him. I'd rather die, and so I ran away. I was going to be a tramp; but I had no idea a tramp's existence was so adventurous. You won't make me marry him, Daddy, will you? I wouldn't be happy, Daddy."
"I should say not, Gail; you can be an old maid all your life if you want to."
"But I don't want to—I only want to choose my own husband," replied Abigail.
Mrs. Prim met them all in the living-room. At sight of Abigail in the ill-fitting man's clothing she raised her hands in holy horror; but she couldn't see Bridge at all, until Burton found an opportunity to draw her to one side and whisper something in her ear, after which she was graciousness personified to the dusky Bridge, insisting that he spend a fortnight with them to recuperate.
Between them, Burton and Jonas Prim fitted Bridge out as he had not been dressed in years, and with the feel of fresh linen and pressed clothing, even if ill fitting, a sensation of comfort and ease pervaded him which the man would not have thought possible from such a source an hour before.
He smiled ruefully as Burton looked him over. "I venture to say," he drawled, "that there are other things in the world besides the open road."
It was midnight when the Prims and their guests arose from the table. Hettie Penning was with them, and everyone present had been sworn to secrecy about her share in the tragedy of the previous night. On the morrow she would return to Payson and no one there the wiser; but first she had Burton send to the jail for Giova, who was being held as a witness, and Giova promised to come and work for the Pennings.
At last Bridge stole a few minutes alone with Abigail, or, to be more strictly a truthful historian, Abigail outgeneraled the others of the company and drew Bridge out upon the veranda.
"Tell me," demanded the girl, "why you were so kind to me when you thought me a worthless little scamp of a boy who had robbed some one's home."
"I couldn't have told you a few hours ago," said Bridge. "I used to wonder myself why I should feel toward a boy as I felt toward you,—it was inexplicable,—and then when I knew that you were a girl, I understood, for I knew that I loved you and had loved you from the moment that we met there in the dark and the rain beside the Road to Anywhere."
"Isn't it wonderful?" murmured the girl, and she had other things in her heart to murmur; but a man's lips smothered hers as Bridge gathered her into his arms and strained her to him.