"Well, now, that is funny," said Newt. "I latched her sure that time."
"Acts like ghosts," said Elmer K. Pratt, the photographer.
"If I was a drinking man," said Alf Reesling, the town drunkard, "I'd think I had 'em."
Marshal Crow stalked to the door, pulling his coat-collar up about his throat as he encountered the furious blast of the wind.
At the top of the steps leading up to the porch stood a small figure wrapped in a shawl. The light from within shone full upon the figure. It was that of a young girl, and she was looking intently up the street.
"Well, of all the—Say, don't you know it's after nine o'clock?" exclaimed the old Marshal. "What's a young girl like you doin' out this time o' night?"
"Is—is that you, Mr. Crow?" quaked the girl without turning her head.
"It is. What's that got to do with it?"
"I—You don't see him anywheres up the street, do you?"
"Come inside if you want to talk to me. I ain't goin' to stand here in this door an' freeze to death. Come in here, I say."
"I dassent. Maybe he follered me."
"Maybe who follered you?"
By this time several other customers had joined the Marshal.
"Why, it's Lucius Fry's girl Elfaretta," said Elmer K. Pratt. "What's the matter, Elfie?"
"You're sure he ain't follerin' me? Look hard," said the girl.
They all looked hard.
"I don't see anybody, Elfie," said Anderson Crow.
"It's a little early for Santa Claus," said Harry Squires, turning back to the stove, his eye on the only rocking-chair in the place. "Come inside and tell us all about it."
The girl entered the store, and some one closed the door. She was shivering, and not altogether from the cold. Her glance darted hither and thither, as if in quest of a more enduring protection than that exemplified by the man-power surrounding her.
"Roll that barrel of sugar over against the door," she ordered quickly. "I wouldn't have him catch me here for anything."
"You needn't be skeered," said the Marshal. "Ain't we here? Let's see: there's one, two—eight of us. I guess—"
"He'd clean this bunch up as easy as rolling off a log," said Elfaretta, edging toward the fire, but all the while casting uneasy apprehensive glances over her shoulder.
Newt Spratt and Situate M. Jones jointly took it upon themselves to roll the barrel of sugar up against the door.
"Are you referring to your estimable dad?" inquired Mr. Squires from the rocking-chair.
"Yes, I am," said Elfaretta somewhat defiantly.
"Is he a little more vicious than usual tonight?" asked the reporter.
"He never was worse," said the girl. "He's just simply awful. I had to come out to see if I couldn't get Mr. Crow to come up to the house an'—an' settle him. He seen me just as I was going out the door, and took after me. Out by the front gate he slipped on the ice and set down like a ton of bricks. Oh, I never heard such cussing. You got to come up to the house right away, Mr. Crow. He's just terrible. He—"
"Hold on a minute," interrupted the Marshal. "Go slow, now, an' answer my questions. Is he—"
"He's throwing things around something awful. Ma's in the pantry with the door locked, and Juliet's hiding up in the—"
"I know all that," broke in Mr. Crow sharply. "You needn't tell me about that. What I want to know is, is he or is he not in his own house, under his own roof?"
"He is, unless he's still setting out there in the front yard—or follerin' after me," she concluded with a terrified look at the barricaded door. "Do you think that barrel's heavy enough to stop him?"
"Well, if he's inside his own house, I can't touch him without a warrant. You'll have to go an' swear out a search-warrant for him, Elfarettie. It's against the law for me to arrest—"
"But ain't it against the law for him to be trying to murder Ma and Juliet and me?"
"There ain't no use arguing about it. I can't go an' get him without a warrant."
"You won't have to go in," said she confidently. "All you got to do is to let him know you're outside—anywheres—looking for him, and he'll come out; and he'll come without a warrant—you can bet your life on that, Mr. Crow. He says he's getting awful sick of having nothing to lick but women. He—"
"Did he say that?" demanded Marshal Crow, frowning and pulling at his whiskers.
"He put in some extra words, but I can't say 'em," said Elfaretta.
"I've a notion to—to—" began the Marshal in a somewhat bellicose manner, and then sadly shook his head. "No, it wouldn't be legal. I'm an officer of the law. But let me tell you one thing, Elfaretta Fry, if I wasn't an officer of the law, I'd take your dad by the back of the neck and shake him till his shoes flew off."
"We're getting away from the main issue," broke in Mr. Squires, the gadfly. "The point is, Anderson, are you going to let Vicious Lucius beat his family to death, or are you going up to the Gully and arrest him?"
The Marshal looked at Harry reproachfully. "You know I ain't empowered by law to enter a man's house without a warrant, Harry Squires."
"But the girl says you won't have to. She says her father will be only too glad to step outside."
"How do I know she's telling the truth about all this rumpus? She ain't under oath, is she? Well, there's got to be an affidavit, properly sworn to, before I do anything. It's the law, an' you know it. She may be lyin' like all get-out."
The girl flared up. "I'm going to tell Pa you called me a liar. He'll bust your jaw if—"
"I didn't call you a liar," snapped Anderson. "I only said maybe you're lyin'. I leave it to anybody here if I said you was a liar; an' besides, your pa ain't man enough to bust my jaw anyhow. You go home an' tell him I said—"
"Let's get the facts about this present embroglio, Anderson, before we make arrangements for another," put in Mr. Squires.
"I've no objection to that," said Anderson, a note of relief in his voice. "She can't swear out a warrant till tomorrow morning anyhow, so there's no particular hurry."
"But he's killin' Ma tonight!" burst in the girl.
"Keep cool now, my girl; don't get excited," cautioned the Marshal. "What was he plannin' to kill her with? A gun?"
"No, sir. He had a hammer in one hand and a flatiron in the other, the last I saw of him."
"Well, go on—tell us all about it."
"It was awful sudden. We were all setting around the kitchen stove, and Pa was cracking hickory-nuts, just as nice and peaceful as anything. He was joking with Ma and telling her he couldn't help it if the women up our way were going plumb crazy over him—specially that Mrs. Banks, whose husband works at the tanyard. Every time Pa goes out in the back yard, she comes and leans on her fence and talks to him, making eyes and grinning like a cat. She's worse than Mrs. Elam Crippen and Mrs. Ducker—and Ma's been noticing it too. She's worried about Pa.
"Up to three months ago there wasn't a woman in town that'd look at him, and now they can't seem to look at anybody else. Mrs. Banks came out in her back yard yesterday and gave Pa a good pair of overshoes and a fur cap that belonged to her husband. Pa didn't want to take 'em, but she said she didn't care if Mr. Banks did get mad; he wasn't much of a man anyhow and she wouldn't take any back talk off'n him. Juliet heard Mrs. Crippen say to Pa the other day that if he'd give her one of his photographs, she'd be the happiest mortal alive. And Mrs. Ducker calls to see Ma nearly every washday now, just when she's busiest, and so Pa has to sit and entertain her.
"Yesterday a couple of women that Ma don't even know stopped out in front of the house and giggled at everything Pa said, and one of 'em said: 'Oh, you naughty man!' When Pa came into the house, Ma asked him what he was saying to those strange women that made 'em call him a naughty man, and Pa looked awful worried and wouldn't tell her. He said it wasn't his fault if women acted like fools. He's all swelled-up, Pa is. Wears his best clothes every day and has taken to smoking cigarettes instead of a pipe when he's outside the house. Ma was counting up the other day just to see how much the cigarettes cost her, and—But that wasn't what I started to tell you. I—"
"I seen him walkin' down Cutler Street day before yesterday with a woman," said Alf Reesling. "Fat sort of a woman with a pink hat on."
"That's Mrs. Banks. She—"
"Never mind about Mrs. Banks," interrupted the Marshal. "Confine yourself to the evidence in this case, an' nothing else."
"Well, as I was saying, Pa was peaceful and quiet, cracking nuts on the flatiron. He got hold of a tough hickor'-nut, and it wouldn't crack very easy. So he had to hit it as hard as he could. Somehow he missed it, and smack went the hammer right on his thumb. My goodness! You'd ought to have heard him yell. He hopped up and began dancing around the kitchen, sucking his thumb and trying to swear with his mouth full. Ma says,—this is all she said,—Ma says: 'Did you hit your finger, Lucius?' Pa let fly the hammer. It didn't miss her head a foot. Then he fired the flatiron at her feet. Ma screamed and started to run to'ards the back stairs. Pa knocked over the kitchen table trying to head her off. She stumbled and fell down on her hands and knees. Then while he was looking for something to beat her brains out with, she got up and run into the pantry and locked the door.
"Juliet was squealing her head off. Pa picked up the hammer and started to'ard her. Juliet made a break for the stairs, and Pa let go with the hammer. He missed her, but he knocked a big hole in the ceiling. Then he grabbed the tea-kettle off the stove and threw it at the cat. He got some of the boiling water on his legs, I guess, because he grabbed 'em in his hands and yelled like an Indian. He swore he'd kill everybody in the house. So I beat it. He was hunting for the flatiron and the hammer, and I was outside before he noticed me. I grabbed this old red tablecloth as I went out and put it around me. When I saw a light in your store, Mr. Lamson, I knowed Mr. Crow would be here, so up I came. Now, what are you going to do about it, Mr. Crow?"
The Marshal pondered. "You say your Ma's safely locked in the pantry?"
"She was—unless he busted the door down."
"And Julie is up in the attic?"
"Yes, and she's probably dead by this time. There ain't any lock on the attic door."
"Well, seems to me they're perfectly safe till morning. Julie could jump out of the attic window if the worst come to the worst. The thing that's worryin' me is you. Where are you going to sleep tonight, Elfie?"
"Right here in Mr. Lamson's rocking-chair," said the girl promptly.
"I'll take her up to my house," said Alf Reesling. "She can crawl in with my daughter Queenie."
"That's out of the question," said Harry Squires, arising and looking around for his overcoat. "We will need you, Alf. The Marshal is going to organize a posse and go up to Power-house Gully and capture Vicious Lucius dead or alive, before he's half an hour older."
"What's that?" demanded the Marshal, startled.
"You heard what I said. Get into your overcoats and goloshes, gentlemen. The Marshal instructs me to say that we will be leaving here in five minutes."
"Well, I'll be dog-goned!" oozed from Marshal Crow's lips. He was staring quite hopelessly at Harry Squires.
"Isn't that a fact, Mr. Crow?" inquired Harry, fixing him with a most disconcerting look.
Anderson indulged in a short fit of coughing. "Yes," he said, after recovering himself, "it is a fact, but I'd like to know how you got onto it."
"I am a mental telegrapher, Mr. Crow," said the reporter, carefully placing a hat upon Mr. Reesling's head. "There's your hat, Alf. Now be sure and pick out a good coat."
* * * * *
The Marshal's posse eventually resolved itself into a party of two—Anderson Crow and Harry Squires. Elmer K. Pratt remembered that his youngest child had the croup, and he couldn't leave her; Situate M. Jones complained of a sudden and violent attack of lumbago; Newt Spratt loudly demanded the flaxseed his wife had asked him to bring home so that she could make a poultice for a terrible toothache she was enjoying that evening; Alf Reesling refused to desert poor little Elfie; and two other gentlemen succeeded in sneaking out the back way while the Marshal's view was obstructed by the aforesaid slackers. Storekeeper Lamson had a perfectly sound excuse. He was a pacifist. However, he was willing to lend his revolver to the Marshal and a pair of brass "knucks" to Harry Squires.
Approaching Power-house Gully, the two adventurers observed shadowy forms moving about in the darkness at the foot of the slope. They paused.
"Mostly women, I should say," remarked the Marshal.
"Probably hoping that Lucius is a widower by this time," said the reporter.
"So's they c'n send flowers an' victuals to him all the time he's in jail," said Anderson. "S'pose you go down an' talk to 'em, Harry, while I sneak around the back way and reconnoitre."
"That's a good idea," said Harry. "I'll just rush in through the front door, and he'll make a break to escape by the rear, so you'll be right there to head him off."
"Come to think of it," said Anderson hastily, "maybe we'd better see if he's out in the front yard first. Come on."
Eight or ten people were congregated in front of the Fry house, conversing in a hushed, excited manner. The Marshal and his companion bore down upon them. As the former had remarked, they were "mostly" women. There was but one man in the group. He turned out to be no other than Vicious Lucius himself.
"What's this I hear about you, Lucius Fry?" demanded Anderson Crow.
"Don't you dare arrest Mr. Fry, Anderson Crow," cried one of the ladies. "He ain't done anything but give her what she deserves, and——"
"Can I speak to you private, Mr. Crow?" interrupted Vicious Lucius in a hurried manner. He was wearing an overcoat that came down to his heels, and a derby hat that rested rather firmly upon his ears.
Anderson stared at him in horror.
"Good gosh, Lucius, have you—have you had your hands cut off?" he gasped, looking hard at the flapping coat-sleeves.
"Course I ain't," said Mr. Fry, lifting his arms on high, allowing the sleeves to slip down a half a foot or more and revealing his hands. "This ain't my coat. It's Jim Banks'. A little too big fer me—and the hat too, I reckon."
"I just couldn't let him catch his death o' cold," explained the buxom Mrs. Banks.
"He just simply won't go back into the house," said Mrs. Ducker. "And I don't blame him, either. He's afraid he might throw her out of a window and—and break her neck, didn't you say, Lucius?"
"No, I didn't. I said I was afraid I'd break the winder," said Lucius, glaring at Mrs. Ducker from beneath the rim of Mr. Banks' hat.
"Where is your wife?" demanded Anderson.
"In there," said Lucius, pointing a drooping coat-sleeve in the general direction of his domicile. "Come on over here by the lamp-post, Mr. Crow. I got something important I want to say to you."
"You ain't going to give yourself up without a fight, are you, Lucius?" cried Mrs. Banks in considerable agitation.
"You leave me alone," snarled Lucius in a manner so malevolent that Mrs. Banks cried out delightedly:
"Oh, ain't he just grand? Did you hear the way he spoke to me, Emma Ducker? Goodness, what would I give if I had a man that could talk to me like—"
"You ought to heard what he said to me when I asked him to come over to our house and—" began Mrs. Ducker somewhat acrimoniously.
"Oh, cut it out—cut it out!" rasped Lucius. "Beat it! Go home, all of you! Gosh a'mighty, can't a feller lick his own wife without—Here! Leggo my arm! What in thunder are you tryin' to do, Lou Banks?"
"I'm going to take you over to my house and put your feet in a hot mustard bath, and—"
"No, you ain't! Leggo, I say! Fer the Lord's sake, Officer, chase 'em away!"
"Move on, now—move on, all of you," commanded the Marshal, waving the revolver in lieu of his well-known night-stick. "What you got to say to me, Lucius?" he asked as the women fell back.
"Do you think they c'n hear?"
"Not unless you whisper loudern' that."
"Well, say, I want you to do me a favour. I want you to take me up to the jail an' lock me in."
"You—you want to be locked in?"
"I don't care whether you put it that way er to lock all these fool women out. It's all the same to me. I ain't had a minute's peace for nearly two months. I—"
"Why don't you go in your own house an' stay there?" demanded Anderson.
"That don't seem to help any. They come to call on me so often you'd think I was a preacher or a doctor. An' what's more, my wife's beginnin' to get her dander up. I c'n see what's comin'. If she ever—gee, it will be awful!"
"Then you hain't murdered her yet? I understood you had."
* * * * *
Vicious Lucius looked over his shoulder and drew closer to the Marshal.
"This here strain is gittin' to be too much fer me, Mr. Crow. I can't keep it up much longer. I'm breakin' down. I been thinkin' it over, an' I can't see any way out of it except to go to jail fer a month er two."
"What's the charge?" inquired Marshal Crow.
"There won't be any. I'll do it fer nothing. It won't cost you a cent to arrest me."
"That ain't what I mean. What I mean is what offence have you committed? What law have you broke?"
"Well, it's purty hard to say."
"What charge will your wife make ag'inst you? Somebody has to make one, you know."
"That's just it. She won't make any charge against me—positively not. So I've got to do it myself. You've had a lot of experience. What fer sort of a charge would you say I ought to bring?"
"Against yourself? It ain't regular, Lucius."
"How about insanity? Wouldn't that be a safe sort of complaint? I been actin' mighty queer lately."
"I should say you had. Ain't you goin' to resist arrest?"
"No, I'm askin' fer it. If you don't want to be seen walkin' through the streets with me, I'll go on ahead an' wait fer you at the jail."
"Well, this certainly beats all! I thought sure you'd put up an awful fight, Lucius."
"I want to be locked up so's I won't commit murder," Lucius explained eagerly.
"Good gracious! You come along with me, Lucius Fry. You got to be put under lock an' key 'fore this night is over. I can't take no chances on your murderin' that pore defenceless wife of your'n. You come—"
"I ain't thinkin' of murderin' my wife," protested Lucius, holding back. "What I'm scared of is I'll murder one or two of these pesky women—that Banks woman, fer instance. It's gittin' so I can't stick my nose outside the door 'thout her droppin' everything an' runnin' out to gab with me. I don't get a minute's privacy. If it ain't one, it's another. You'd think I was Napoleon Boneparte, the way them women act. I don't know what's come over 'em."
"Why, it's just 'cause they think you can lick any man in town. That's the way with some women. The more brutal a man is to his own wife, the more the other women seem to appreciate him. I must say, it takes a purty good man to lick that wife of your'n—she's twice as big as you are, and—"
"Why, gosh dern it, Mr. Crow, I couldn't lick Stella in a million years," whispered Lucius fiercely.
"What's that? You—you say you can't lick your wife?"
"I should say not!" exclaimed Mr. Fry, raising his voice in earnestness. Instantly he lowered it, standing on his tip-toes the better to impart the following information to the amazed Marshal: "She can lick me with both hands tied behind her back. Nobody knows it better'n I do. I just got to keep throwin' things at her an' cussin' an' smashin' furniture, an' all that, 'cause if she ever got an idea how scared I am of her, she'd pick me up by the seat of my pants an'—Oh, I tell you it's gettin' to be more'n I c'n stand, Mr. Crow. It's mighty hard to keep on thinkin' you got to keep on bein' brave when you're scared plumb to death all the time. Why, if Stella ever got onto the fact that I—"
"But you keep on beatin' her just the same, don't you?"
"I never beat her unless her back's turned. First I throw somethin' at her. That's the best way. But you never ought to throw anything unless you got somethin' ready in the other hand. An' hang onto that until you're sure she's not goin' to run to'ards you 'stead of the other way. If you're goin' to be a successful wife-beater, you got to use an awful lot of common-sense." He looked over his shoulder. "Come on up the street a little ways, Mr. Crow," he said nervously. "Them fool women are edgin' nearer all the time. Next thing you know, they'll be tryin' to sick me onto you, an'—an' I'd have to make good. They got all their husbands scared of me, an' they keep tellin' me that I'm the grandest little man in the world. You know Jim Banks? Well, he's twice as big as I am. A week or two ago he came out on his back porch an' called me a name. I started over to apologize to him, but he thought I was comin' after him, so he jumped back in the kitchen an' slammed the door. She told me he wanted to send fer you, Mr. Crow. I—I wish he had."
"I understand you been makin' threats about what you'd do to me if I ever tried to arrest you," said Anderson sternly. "Is that true?"
"No, it ain't. My wife's been makin' all the threats. She don't make any bones about what she'll do to you if you ever try to arrest me. She says she'll bust your head fer you."
Marshal Crow straightened up and glared at the Fry habitation. There was a light in the kitchen window.
"You wait here, Lucius Fry, an' don't move till I come back. I'm going in there an' talk to that wife o' yourn."
"You better take a gang o' men with you. Remember, I'm givin' you fair warnin'. She'll eat you alive."
"I'll take my friend Mr. Squires with me fer a witness—that's all. Is she out in the kitchen?"
"I don't know. I ain't been in the house since the row. She locked the door on me."
The Marshal strode away, leaving Vicious Lucius to the mercy of the women. Harry Squires was nowhere in sight. Mr. Crow looked about in some alarm. His speed noticeably decreased. Fumbling in his coat pocket, he found his police whistle and proceeded to blow a shrill blast upon it. A few moments passed, and then Harry came hurrying around the corner of the house.
"Where have you been, dern you?"
"I've been in the house chatting with Mrs. Fry," said the reporter.
"Is she conscious? Is she able to talk?"
"She certainly is. Come on. She wants to see you."
Harry Squires grasped his arm and led him toward the kitchen door. Mrs. Fry herself admitted them. She looked most formidable.
"Did my daughter Elfaretta ask you to come here and interfere with my private affairs, Anderson Crow?" she demanded.
"I am not supposed to answer questions like that, Mrs. Fry," said Anderson with dignity. "I am pleased to inform you, however, that I have succeeded in arrestin' your husband, an' I intend to see to it that he is locked up fer—"
"Oh, my goodness!" groaned the gigantic lady, dropping suddenly into a chair and lowering her face into her apron.
The Marshal looked at her in astonishment.
"You have got to release Vicious Lucius at once," said Harry Squires sternly. "We can't afford to wreck this poor little woman's life."
"Little—what's that you said?" stammered the Marshal, still gazing at the ponderous bulk in the chair.
"You heard what I said—wreck this poor but proud lady's life. Speak up, Mrs. Fry. Tell the good Marshal all about it."
Whereupon the woebegone Mrs. Fry lifted her head and her voice in lamentation.
"I knew it couldn't last. I might 'a' knowed something would turn up to spoil it. It was too much to expect. Oh, if you only wouldn't lock him up, Mr. Crow! What will people say when they find out you was able to arrest him single-handed, without a gang o' men to help you? Oh, oh, oh!"
Mr. Squires interposed a suggestion just as she was on the verge of sobs.
"I dare say we could stage a perfectly realistic struggle between Mr. Fry and Mr. Crow. Mr. Fry could trip Mr. Crow up—all in play, you know; and then I could rush in and grab Mr. Fry from behind while he was letting on as though he was kicking Mr. Crow in the face. The spectators would—"
"I won't be a party to any such monkey business!" exclaimed the Marshal in some heat. "What do you take me for? If I arrest Lucius Fry, I'll jest simply pick him up by the coat-collar and—"
"That's just it," cried Mrs. Fry. "He wouldn't fight back, and how would I feel if you carried him off to jail as if he was a lunch-basket? And I was beginning to feel so proud and happy. I was getting so I could look those cats in the face, all because my husband was the best little daredevil in the Gully. They used to pity me. Now they are so jealous of me they don't know what to do. They'd give anything if they had a husband like Lucius—little as he is. My, how they envy me, and how I have been looking down on all of 'em the last six months! And here you arrest him as easy as if he was a little girl, when I been telling everybody there wasn't anybody living that could take my man to jail. Oh, I—I wish I'd never been born!"
* * * * *
Anderson Crow was puzzled. He pulled at his whiskers in the most helpless way, and stared wide-eyed.
"But—but ain't you afraid to live with him?" he mumbled. "Ain't you afraid he'll lick you to death sometime when he's in one of—"
"He couldn't lick me if I was chloroformed," blurted out Mrs. Fry, arising suddenly. She bared a huge right arm. "See that? Well, that's as big as his leg. Don't you ever get it in your head that I can't lick Lucius Fry. That ain't the point. I can do it, but I wouldn't do it for anything on earth. I want to be proud of him, and I want these other women to feel sorry for me because I've got a man for a husband, and not a rabbit. Where is he, Mr. Crow?"
"He's out there waitin' fer me to take him to jail—that is, he said he'd wait. Course, if you won't make any affidavit ag'inst him, I—I guess there's no sense in me lockin' him up. I was doin' it as a—er—as a sort of favour to him, anyhow. He seemed to be afraid he'd kill some of them women that hang around him."
"I just thought he'd act that way. I won't make any charge against him. I want him to stay just the way he is—a fine, upstanding brutal sort of feller. You go out there an' tell him to come in here. I want to go down on my knees again and forgive him."
The Marshal hesitated. He was between two fires. He couldn't very well oblige both of them. Lucius unquestionably was eager to go to jail for reasons of his own, and Mrs. Fry was just as eager that he should remain at large. The Marshal scratched his head.
"I feel kinder sorry fer him," he mused. "Like as not, one of them women will git so foolish over him that her husband will take it into his head to get a divorce, an'—" He paused in confusion.
"Go on—go on!" pleaded Mrs. Fry, her eyes sparkling.
"Well, from all Lucius says, he despises the whole lot of 'em. Still, that ain't goin' to help him any if Jim Banks er one of them other idiots gits all het up an' jealous an' goes and sues fer a divorce, namin' Lucius Fry as—"
Mrs. Fry slapped him violently on the back.
"That's just what I want!" she cried eagerly. "I'd be the proudest woman in Tinkletown."
The Marshal stared. Harry Squires covered his mouth with his hand.
"Well, of all the gosh—"
* * * * *
His ejaculation was cut short by the opening of the kitchen door. Lucius stood outlined in the aperture. He was clapping his arms about his body, and his teeth were chattering. The voluminous sleeves flapped like great limp wings.
"Say," he whined, "I can't wait out there all night in this kinder weather. If I got to go to jail, I want to do it right away. It's cruelty to animals to leave me standin' out there with nothing on my feet but carpet-slippers. Come on an'—"
"Come in to the fire an' get warm, Lucius dear," called out his wife, as shrinking and as timid as a whipped child. "I forgive you. Julie! Jul-ie! Come down here an' help me get some hot coffee an' something to eat fer your Pa."
"I—I guess we'd better be goin', Harry," said Marshall Crow uncomfortably. "I got to disperse that crowd o' women out there in the street. Good night, Lucius. Night, Mrs. Fry. If you ever need me, all yer got to do is just send word."
Lucius followed him to the door, and would have gone out into the night with him if the Marshal had not deliberately pushed him back.
"You—you ain't goin' to desert me, are you?" whispered Lucius fiercely.
The Marshal leaned over and whispered to Lucius.
"If all the other men in this here town had as soft a snap as you've got, Lucius Fry, they'd hate to die worse'n ever, because they'd know they'd never git back into heaven ag'in."
THE VEILED LADY AND THE SHADOW
A veiled lady is not, in ordinary circumstances, an object of concern to anybody. Circumstances, however, are sometimes so extraordinary that a veiled lady becomes an object of concern to everybody. If the old-time novelists are to be credited, an abundantly veiled lady is more than a source of interest; she is the vital, central figure in a mystery that continues from week to week, or month to month, as the case may be, until the last chapter is reached and she turns out to be the person you thought she was all the time.
Now, the village of Tinkletown is a slow-going, somnolent sort of place in which veils are worn by old ladies who wish to enjoy a pleasant snooze during the sermon without being caught in the act. That any one should wear a veil with the same regularity and the same purpose that she wears the dress which renders the remainder of her person invisible is a circumstance calculated to excite the curiosity of even the most indifferent observers in the village of Tinkletown.
So when the news travelled up and down Main Street, and off into the side-streets, and far out beyond Three Oaks Cemetery to the new division known as Oak Park, wherein reside four lonely pioneer families, that the lady who rented Mrs. Nixon's house for the month of September was in a "perpetual state of obscurity" (to quote Mr. Harry Squires, the Banner reporter), the residents of Tinkletown admitted that they didn't know what to make of it.
The Nixon cottage was a quaint, old-fashioned place on the side of Battle Hill, looking down upon the maples of Sickle Street. The grounds were rather spacious, and the house stood well back from the street, establishing an aloofness that had never been noticed before. A low stone wall guarded the lawn and rose-garden, and there was an iron gate at the bottom of the slope. The front porch was partly screened by "Dutchman's Pipe" vines. With the advent of the tenant, smart Japanese sun-curtains made their appearance, and from that day on no prying eye, no matter how well-trained it may have been, could accomplish anything like a satisfactory visit to the regions beyond.
Mrs. Nixon usually rented her house for the summer months. The summer of 1918 had proved an unprofitable season for her. It was war-time, and the people who lived in the cities proved unduly reluctant to venture far from their bases of supplies. Consequently Mrs. Nixon and her daughter Angie remained in occupancy, more heartsick than ever over the horrors of war. Just as they were about to give up hope, the unexpected happened. Joseph P. Singer, the real-estate agent, offices in the Lamson Block, appeared bright and early one morning to inquire if the cottage could be had for the month of September and part of October.
"You may ask any price you like, Abbie," he said. "The letter I received this morning was written on the paper of the Plaza Hotel in New York. Anybody who can afford to put up at the Plaza, which is right on Central Park,—and also on Fifth Avenue,—ain't going to haggle about prices. The party wants a bathroom with hot and cold water and electric lights. Well, you've got all these improvements, and—"
"I've got to have references," said Mrs. Nixon firmly.
"I guess if the Plaza is willing to rent a room to a party, there oughtn't to be any question as to the respectability of the said party," said Mr. Singer. "They're mighty particular in them New York hotels."
"Well, you write and tell the party—"
"I am requested to telegraph, Abbie," said he. "The party wants to know right away."
As the result of this conversation and a subsequent exchange of telegrams, the "party" arrived in Tinkletown on the first day of September. Mr. Singer's contentions were justified by the manner in which the new tenant descended upon the village. She came in a maroon-and-black limousine with a smart-looking chauffeur, a French maid, a French poodle and what all of the up-to-date ladies in Tinkletown unhesitatingly described as a French gown a la mode.
Miss Angie Nixon, who had never been nearer to Paris than Brattleboro, Vermont, said to her customers that from what she had seen of the new tenant's outfit, she was undoubtedly from the Tooleries. Miss Angie was the leading dressmaker of Tinkletown. If she had said the lady was from Somaliland, the statement would have gone unchallenged.
The same day, a man cook and a "hired girl" arrived from Boggs City, having come up by rail from New York.
The tenant was a tall, slender lady. There could be no division of opinion as to that. As to whether she was young, middle-aged or only well-preserved, no one was in a position to asseverate. As a matter of fact, observers would have been justified in wondering whether she was black or white. She was never abroad without the thick, voluminous veil, and her hands were never ungloved. Mrs. Nixon and Angie described her voice as refined and elegant, and she spoke English as well as anybody, not excepting Professor Rank of the high school.
By the end of her first week in the Nixon cottage, there wasn't a person in Tinkletown, exclusive of small babies, who had not advanced a theory concerning Mrs. Smith, the new tenant. On one point all agreed; she was the most "stuck-up" person ever seen in Tinkletown.
She resolutely avoided all contact with her neighbours. On several occasions, polite and cordial citizens had bowed and mumbled "Howdy-do" to her as she passed in the automobile, but there is no record of a single instance in which she paid the slightest heed to these civilities. All of her marketing was done by the man cook, and while he was able to speak English quite fluently when objecting to the quality, the quantity and the price of everything, he was singularly unable to carry on a conversation in that language when invited to do so by friendly clerks or proprietors.
As for the French chauffeur, his knowledge of English appeared to be limited to an explosive sort of profanity. Lum Gillespie declared on the third day after Mrs. Smith's car first came to his garage for live storage, that "that feller Francose" knew more English cuss-words than all the Irishmen in the world.
The veiled lady did a good many surprising things. In the first place, she had been in the Nixon cottage not more than an hour when she ordered the telephone taken out—not merely discontinued, but taken out. She gave no reason, and satisfied the telephone-company by making the local manager a present of ten dollars. She kept all of the green window-shutters open during the day, letting the sunshine into the rooms to give the carpets the first surprise they had had in years, and at night she sat out on the screened-in porch, with a reading-lamp, until an hour when many of the residents of Tinkletown were looking out of their windows to see what sort of a day it was going to be. She paid cash for everything, and always with bright, crisp banknotes, "fresh from the mint." She slept till noon. She went out every afternoon about four, rain or shine, for long motor-rides in the country. The queerest thing about her was that she never went near the "movies."
Nearly every afternoon, directly after luncheon—they called it dinner in Tinkletown—she appeared in the back yard and put her extraordinarily barbered dog through a raft of tricks. Passers-by always paused to watch the performance. She had him walking first on his hind legs, then on his front legs; then he was catching a tennis-ball which she tossed every which way (just as a woman would, said Alf Reesling); and when he wasn't catching the ball, he was turning somersaults, or waltzing to the tune she whistled, or playing dead. The poodle's name was Snooks.
* * * * *
The venerable town marshal, Anderson Crow, sat in front of Lamson's store one hot evening about a week after the advent of the mystery. He was the center of a thoughtful, speculative group of gentlemen representing the first families of Tinkletown. Among those present were: Alf Reesling, the town drunkard; Harry Squires, the reporter; Ed Higgins, the feed-store man; Justice of the Peace Robb; Elmer K. Pratt, the photographer; Situate M. Jones; and two or three others of less note. The shades of night had just descended; some of the gentlemen had already yawned three or four times.
"There ain't no law against wearin' a veil," said the Marshal, reaching out just in time to pluck a nice red apple before Lamson's clerk could make up his mind to do what he had come out of the store expressly to do—that is, to carry inside for the night the bushel basket containing, among other things, a plainly printed placard informing the public that "No. 1 Winesaps" were "2 for 5c."
Crow inspected the apple critically for a moment, looking for a suitable place to begin; then, with his mouth full, he went on: "The only thing I got ag'inst her is that she's settin' a new style in Tinkletown. In the last two-three days I've seen more'n one of our fair sex lookin' at veils in the Five an' Ten Cent Store, and this afternoon I saw somebody I was sure was Sue Becker walkin' up Maple Street with her head wrapped up in something as green as grass. Couldn't see her face to save my soul, but I recognized her feet. My daughter Caroline was fixin' herself up before the lookin'-glass last night, seein' how she'd look in a veil, she said. It won't be long before we won't any of us be able to recognize our own wives an' daughters when we meet 'em on the street."
"My girl Queenie's got a new pink one," said Alf Reesling. "She made it out of some sort of stuff she wore over her graduatin' dress three years ago."
"Maybe she's got a bad complexion," ventured Mr. Jones.
"Who? My girl Queenie? Not on your—" began Alf, bristling.
"I mean the woman up at Mrs. Nixon's," explained Mr. Jones hastily.
Harry Squires had taken no part in the conversation up to this juncture. He had been ruminating. His inevitable—you might almost say, his indefatigable—pipe had gone out four or five times.
"Say, Anderson," he broke in abruptly, "has it ever occurred to you that there might be something back of it that ought to be investigated?" The flare of the match he was holding over the bowl of his pipe revealed an eager twinkle in his eyes.
"There you go, talkin' foolishness again," said Anderson. "I guess there ain't anything back of it 'cept a face, an' she's got a right to have a face, ain't she?"
"I mean the reason for wearing a veil that completely obscures her face—all the time. They say she never takes it off, even in the house."
"Who told you that?"
"Angie Nixon. She says she believes she sleeps in it."
"How does she deduce that?" demanded Anderson, idly fingering the badge of the New York Detective Association, which for obvious reasons,—it being a very hot night,—was attached to his suspenders.
"She deduced it through a keyhole," replied Mr. Squires. "Angie was up at the cottage last night to get something she had left in an upstairs hall closet. She just happened to stoop over to pick up something on the floor right in front of Mrs. Smith's door. The strangest thing occurred. She said it couldn't occur again in a thousand years, not even if she tried to do it. Her left ear happened to stop not more than half an inch from the keyhole. She just couldn't help hearing what Mrs. Smith said to her maid. Angie says she said, plain as anything: 'You couldn't blame me for sitting up all night, if you had to sleep in a thing like this.' She didn't hear anything more, because she hates eavesdropping. Besides, she thought she heard the maid walking toward the door. Now, what do you make of that, Mr. Hawkshaw?"
"If you don't stop callin' me Hawkshaw, I'll—"
"I apologize. An acute case of lapsus lingua, Mr. Crow. But wasn't that remark significant?"
"I am a friend of Mrs. Nixon's, an' I must decline to criticize her beds," said Mr. Crow rather loftily. "I ain't ever slept in one of 'em, but I'd do it any time before I'd set up all night."
"Granting that the bed was all right, then isn't it pretty clear that she was referring to something else? The veil, for instance?"
"Sounds reasonable," said Newt Spratt, and then, after due reflection,—"mighty reasonable."
"I'd hate to sleep in a veil," said Alf Reesling. "It's bad enough to try to sleep with a mustard poultice on your jaw, like I did last winter when I had that bad toothache. Doc Ellis says he never pulled a bigger er a stubborner tooth in all his experience than—"
"I think you ought to investigate the Veiled Lady of Nixon Cottage," said Harry Squires, lowering his voice and glancing over his shoulder. "You can't tell what she's up to, Anderson. It wouldn't surprise me if she's a woman with a past. She may be using that veil as a disguise. What's more, there may be a price on her head. The country is full of these female spies, working tooth and nail for Germany. Suppose she should turn out to be that society woman the New York papers say the Secret Service men are chasing all over the country and can't find—the Baroness von Slipernitz."
"What fer kind of a dog is that you got, Ed?" inquired Mr. Crow, calmly ignoring the suggestion.
Mr. Higgins' new dog was enjoying a short nap in the middle of the sidewalk, after an apparently fatiguing effort to dislodge something in the neighbourhood of his left ear.
"Well," began Ed, eyeing the dog doubtfully, "all I know about him is that he's a black dog. My wife has been sizin' him up for a day or two, figgerin' on having him clipped here and there to see if he can't be made to look as respectable as that dog of Mrs. Smith. Hetty Adams has clipped that Newfoundland dog of hers. Changed him something terrible. When I come across them on the street today, I declare I only recognized half of him—an' I wouldn't have recognized that much if he hadn't wagged it at me. It beats all what women will do to keep up with the styles."
"I seen him today," said Mr. Spratt, "an' I never in all my life see a dog that looked so mortified. I says to Hetty, says I: 'In the name o' Heaven, Hetty,' says I, 'what you been doin' to Shep?' An' she says: 'I'd thank you, Newt Spratt, not to call my dog Shep. His name is Edgar.' So I says to Shep: 'Come here, Edgar—that's a good dog.' An' he never moved. Then I says: 'Hyah, Shep!' an' he almost jumped out of his hide, he was so happy to find somebody that knowed who he was. 'Edgar, your granny!' says I to Hetty. 'What's the use of ruinin' a good dog by calling him Edgar?' An' Hetty says: 'Come here, Edgar! Come here, I say!' But Edgar, he never paid any attention to her. He just kep' on tryin' to lick my hand, an' so she hit him a clip with her parysol an' says: 'Edgar, must I speak to you again? Come here, I say! Behave like a gentleman!' 'There ain't no dog livin' that's goin' to behave like a gentleman if you call him names like that,' says I. 'It ain't human nature,' says I. An' just to prove it to her, I turned an' says to Shep: 'Ain't that so, Shep, old sport?' An' what do you think that poor old dog done? He got right up on his hind legs and tried to kiss me."
"No wonder she wants to call him Edgar," said Harry Squires. "That's just the kind of thing an Edgar sort of dog would do."
"I was just going to say," said Mr. Crow, twisting his whiskers reflectively, "that maybe she does it because she's had smallpox, or been terribly scalded, or is cross-eyed, or something like that."
Mr. Squires inwardly rejoiced. He knew that the seed had been planted in the Marshal's fertile brain, that it would thrive in the night and sprout on the morrow. He saw delectable operations ahead; he was fond of the old man, but nothing afforded him greater entertainment than the futile but vainglorious efforts of Anderson Crow to achieve renown as a detective.
The reporter was a constant thorn in the side of Crow, who both loved and feared him. The Banner seldom appeared without some sarcastic advice to the Marshal of Tinkletown, but an adjoining column invariably contained something of a complimentary character, the one so adroitly offsetting the other that Mr. Crow never knew whether he was "afoot or horseback," to quote him in his perplexity.
Harry Squires had worked on a New York morning paper in his early days. His health failing him, he was compelled to abandon what might have become a really brilliant career as a journalist. Lean, sick and disheartened, he came to Bramble County to spend the winter with an old aunt, who lived among the pine-covered hills above the village of Tinkletown. That was twenty years ago. For nineteen years he had filled the high-sounding post of city editor on the Banner. He always maintained that the most excruciating thing he had ever written was the line at the top of the first column of the so-called editorial page, which said: "City Editor—Harry Sylvester Squires." Nothing, he claimed, could be more provocative of hilarity than that.
In his capacity as city editor, he wrote advertisements, personals, editorials, news-items, death-notices, locals and practically everything else in the paper except the poetry sent in by Miss Sue Becker. He even wrote the cable and telegraph matter, always ascribing it to a "Special Correspondent of the Banner." In addition to all this, he "made-up" the forms, corrected proof, wrote "heads," stood over the boy who ran the press and stood over him when he wasn't running the press, took all the blame and none of the credit for things that appeared in the paper, and once a week accepted currency to the amount of fifteen dollars as an honorarium.
Regarding himself as permanently buried in this out-of-the-way spot on the earth's surface, he had the grim humour to write his own "obituary" and publish it in the columns of the Banner. He began it by saying that he was going to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the "deceased." He had written hundreds of obituaries during his career as city editor, he said, and not once before had he been at liberty to tell the truth. In view of the fact that he had no relations to stop their subscriptions to the paper, he felt that for once in his life he could take advantage of an opportunity to write exactly as he felt about the deceased.
He left out such phrases as "highly esteemed citizen," "nobility of character," "loss to the community," "soul of integrity" and other stock expressions. At the end he begged to inform his friends that flowers might be deposited at the Banner office or at his room in Mrs. Camp's boarding-house, as he was buried in both places. Buttonhole bouquets could be pinned upon him any day by simply stopping his customary funeral procession about town. Such attentions should always be accompanied by gentle words or exclamations of satisfaction, as for example: "How natural you look!" or "You owed me ten dollars, but I forgive you," or "It's a pity your friends allowed you to to be laid away in a suit of clothes like that," or "I don't believe half the things people said about you," or "It's a perfect shame you don't feel like resting in peace," or "Did you leave anything worth mentioning?" He also suggested that he would rest much easier in his grave if a slight increase in salary attended the obsequies.
From this it may be gathered that Harry Squires was a man who made the most out of a very ordinary situation.
* * * * *
Marshal Crow's suggestion met with instant response. "On the other hand, Anderson, the lady may be as beautiful as the fabulous houri and as devilish as Delilah. I don't want to take any steps in the matter without giving you your chance." He spoke darkly.
Mr. Crow pricked up his ears. "What do you mean by that?"
"As a newspaper man, I am determined to clear up the mystery of the Veiled Lady. If you persist in sitting around twiddling your thumbs and looking like a primeval goat, I shall send to New York and engage a detective to work on the case exclusively for the Banner. The Banner is enterprising. We intend to give our subscribers the news, no matter what it costs. If you—"
The Marshal swallowed the bait, hook and all. He arose from his chair and faced Mr. Squires. "I'll thank you, Harry Squires, to keep out of this. I didn't mean to say a word about it to you or anybody else until I had gone a little further with my investigations, but now I've got to let the cat out of the bag. I've been working day and night on her case ever since she came to town. Never mind, Newt—don't ask me. I'll announce the result of my investigations at the proper time an' not a minute sooner. Now I guess I'll be moseyin' along. It's gettin' purty late, an' I've got a lot of work to do before midnight."
He started down the steps. Harry Squires leaned back in his chair and scratched a match on the leg of his trousers. By the time he raised the lighted match to the bowl of his pipe, the smile had left his lips.
* * * * *
An uneventful week passed. The Veiled Lady made her daily excursions in the big high-powered car, pursued her now well-known domestic habits, retained her offensive aloofness, played games with the astounding Snooks, suffered no ill effects whatsoever from the inimical glares of the natives; and above all, she continued to set the fashions in Tinkletown.
Mr. Crow stalked the streets early and late. He lurked behind the corners of buildings; he peered sharply from the off-side of telephone poles as the big limousine swept haughtily by. He patrolled the Nixon neighbourhood by day and haunted it by night. On occasion he might have been observed in the act of scrutinizing the tracks of the automobile over recently sprinkled streets.
One evening, just after dusk,—after a sharp encounter with Harry Squires, who bluntly accused him of loafing on the job,—he sauntered past the Nixon cottage. His soul was full of bitterness. He was baffled. Harry Squires was right; he had accomplished nothing—and what was worse, he wasn't likely to accomplish anything. He sauntered back, casting furtive glances into the spacious front-yard, and concluded to ease his restless legs by leaning against a tree and crossing them in an attitude of profound nonchalance. The tree happened to be almost directly in front of the Nixon gate. Not to seem actually employed in shadowing the house, he decided to pose with his back to the premises, facing down the street, twisting his whiskers in a most pensive manner.
Suddenly a low, musical voice said:
Mr. Crow looked up into the thick foliage of the elm, then to the right and left, and finally in the direction of the cottage, out of the corner of his eye, after a sudden twist of the neck that caused him to wonder whether he had sprained it.
The Veiled Lady was standing at the gate. In the gathering darkness her figure seemed abnormally tall.
The Marshal hastily faced about and stared hard at the mystery.
"Evening," he said, somewhat uncertainly. Then he lifted his hat a couple of inches from his head and replaced it at an entirely new angle, pulling the rim down so far over the left eye that the right eye alone was visible. This shift of the hat instantly transformed him into a figure of speech; he became as "cunning as a fox." People in Tinkletown had come to recognize this as an unfailing symptom of shrewdness on his part. He always wore his hat like that when he was deep in the process of "ferreting something out."
"Have I the honour of addressing Mr. Anderson Crow?" inquired the lady.
"You have," said he succinctly.
"Field Marshal Crow?"
"Or is it Town Marshal? I am quite ignorant about titles."
"That's the name I go by, ma'am."
"Your name is very familiar to me. Are you in any way related to the great detective?"
This was unexpected tribute. The only thing he could think up to say was, "I'm him," and then, apologetically: "—unless some one's been usin' my name without authority."
"Are you actually the great Anderson Crow? Do you know, I have always thought of you as a fictitious character—like Sherlock Holmes. Are you really real? Do I look upon you in the flesh?"
Mr. Crow was momentarily overwhelmed.
"Oh, I—I guess I'm not much different from other men, ma'am. I'm not half as important as folks make me out to be."
"How nice and modest you are! That is the true sign of greatness, Mr. Crow. I might have known that you would be simple."
"Simple?" murmured Anderson, to whom the word had but one meaning. He thought of Willie Jones, the village idiot.
"'Simplicity, thou art a jewel,'" observed the Veiled Lady. "Will you pardon a somewhat leading question, Mr. Crow?"
"Lead on," said he, still a trifle uncertain of himself.
"Who is that man standing against the tree beside you? Is he a friend of yours?"
"Who is—is my what?"
"Your companion. Now he has moved over behind the tree."
Anderson shot a startled look over his shoulder.
"There ain't any man behind the tree. I'm all alone."
"Are you trying to make sport of me, Mr. Crow?"
"I should say not. I been standin' here fer some time, an' I guess I'd know if anybody was—"
"Do you think I am blind?" demanded the lady quite sharply.
"Not if you c'n see a man behind this tree," said he, with conviction. "You got the best eyesight of anybody I ever come across—that's all I got to say."
"I see him very distinctly."
Anderson obligingly circled the tree.
"Do you see him now?" he inquired in an amused tone.
"Certainly. He walked around the tree just ahead of you."
"What the—" began Anderson angrily, but checked the words in time. "You are mistaken. There ain't no one here, 'cept me."
"Is he one of your subordinates?" queried the woman, leaning forward in the attitude of one peering intently.
"Must be a shadow you're seein', ma'am," he suggested, and suddenly was conscious of the queer sensation that some one was on the opposite side of the tree.
"That's it!" she exclaimed eagerly. "A shadow! Aren't you detectives always shadowing some one?"
"Yes, but we don't turn into shadows to do it, ma'am. We just—"
"There he is! Standing directly behind you. What object can you possibly have, Mr. Crow, in lying to me about—"
"Lying?" gasped Anderson, after a swift, apprehensive glance over his shoulder. "I'm tellin' you the gospel truth. Maybe that confounded veil's botherin' your eyesight. Take it off, an' you'll see there ain't no one—"
"Ah! What a remarkable leap! He must be possessed of wings."
Mr. Crow himself moved with such celerity that one might have described the movement as a leap. He was within a yard of her when he next spoke; his back was toward her, his eyes searching the darkness from which he had sprung.
"Good Lord! You—you'd think there was some one there by the way you talk."
"He leaped from behind that tree to this one over here. It must be thirty feet. How perfectly amazing!"
By this time the good Marshal was noticeably impressed. There was no denying the fact that his voice shook.
"Now who's lying?" he cried out.
She took no offence. Instead she pointed down the dark sidewalk. It seemed to him that her arm was six feet long. He was fascinated by it.
"Now he is climbing up the tree—just like a squirrel. Look!"
Anderson felt the cold perspiration starting out all over his body.
"I—I swear I can't see anybody at all," the Marshal croaked weakly.
"Run over to that tree and look up, Mr. Crow," she whispered in great agitation. "He is sitting on that big limb, looking at us—his eyes are like little balls of fire. Send him away, please."
Haltingly the Marshal edged his way toward the tree. Coming to its base, he peered upward. He saw nothing that resembled a human figure.
"Be careful!" called out the Veiled Lady. "He is about to swing down upon your head. Hurry! There! Didn't you feel that?"
Anderson Crow made a flying leap for safety. He had the uncanny feeling that his hair was slowly lifting the hat from his head.
"Feel—feel what?" he gasped.
"He swung down by his hands and kicked at you. I was sure his foot struck your head. Ah! There he goes again. See him? He is climbing over my wall—no, he is running along the top of it. Like the wind! And he—"
"Good heavens! Am I—am I goin' blind?" groaned Mr. Crow, his eyes bulging.
"Now he has disappeared behind the rosebushes down in the corner of the lot. He must be the same man I have seen—always about this time in the evening. If he isn't one of your men, Mr. Crow, who in Heaven's name is he?"
"You—you have seen him before?" murmured the Marshal, reaching up to make sure that his hat was still in place.
"Four or five times. Last night he climbed up and stood beside that big chimney up there—silhouetted against the sky. He looked very tall—much taller than any ordinary man. The night before, he was out here on the lawn, jumping from bush to bush, for all the world like a harlequin. Once he actually leaped from the ground up to the roof of the porch, as easily as you would spring—Where are you going, Mr. Crow?"
"I—I thought I saw him runnin' down the street just now," said Anderson Crow, quickening his pace after a parting glance over his shoulder at the tall lady in the gateway. "Maybe I can overtake him if I—if I—But I guess I'd better hurry. He seems to be runnin' mighty fast."
He was twenty feet away when she called after him, a note of warning in her voice:
"You are mistaken! He is following you—he is right at your heels, Mr. Crow."
* * * * *
This was quite enough for Anderson Crow. He broke into a run. As he clattered past the lower end of the garden wall, a low, horrifying chuckle fell upon his ears. It was not the laugh of a human being. He afterwards described it as the chortle of a hyena—hoarse and wild and full of ghoulish glee.
Alf Reesling's house was two blocks down the street. Mr. Reesling was getting a bit of fresh air in his front yard. The picket gate was open, probably to let in the air, and he was leaning upon one of the posts. His attention was attracted by the sound of approaching footsteps. Almost before he knew what had happened, they were receding. Anderson swept past; his chin up, his legs working like piston-rods.
The astonished Alf recognized his friend and adviser.
"Hey!" he shouted.
It was a physical impossibility for Anderson to slacken his speed. At the same time, it was equally impossible for him to increase it. Alf, scenting excitement, set out at top speed behind him, shouting all the time.
Pursued and pursuer held their relative positions until they rounded into Main Street. Reaching the zone of light—and safety—produced by show-windows and open doors, the Marshal put on the brakes and ventured a glance over his shoulder. Alf, lacking the incentive that spurred Anderson, lagged some distance behind. A second glance reassured the Marshal. Alf was lumbering heavily past Brubaker's drugstore, fully revealed.
Observing an empty chair on the sidewalk in front of Jackson's cigar-store, Mr. Crow directed his slowing footsteps toward it. He flopped down with an abruptness that almost dismembered it. He was fanning himself with his hat when Alf came up.
Alf leaned against the wooden Indian that guarded the portals. Presently he wheezed:
Instead of replying, Mr. Crow pressed his hand to his heart and shook his head.
"Take your time," advised Alf sympathetically; whereupon Anderson nodded his head.
Sim Jackson ambled to the front door, and Mort Fryback hobbled across the street from his hardware store. Lum Gillespie dropped the hose with which he was sousing an automobile in front of his garage and approached the group.
In less than three minutes all of the nighthawks of Main Street were gathered about Anderson Crow, convinced that something unusual was in the air despite his protests.
Suddenly the Marshal's manner changed. He swept the considerable group with an appraising eye, and then in a tone of authority said:
"Now that I've got you all together, I hereby order you in my capacity as an official of the State and county, to close up your stores an' consider yourselves organized into a posse. You will close up immejately an' report to me here, ready for active work."
* * * * *
Shortly after ten o'clock a group of fifteen or eighteen men moved silently away from Jackson's cigar-store, led by their commander-in-chief. He was flanked on one side by Bill Kepsal, the brawny blacksmith, and on the other by Sim Jackson, who happened to possess a revolver.
After the posse had turned into the unrelieved shades of Maple Street, Mr. Crow halted every few yards and said: "Sh!"
He had related a portion but not all of his experiences, winding up with the statement that poor Mrs. Smith had been terribly frightened by the mysterious prowler, and that it was their duty as citizens to put an end to his activities if possible.
"Her description of him don't fit anybody livin' in this town," he had said during the course of his narrative. "We ain't got anybody who c'n jump thirty foot, or who c'n shin up a chimbly like a squirrel. You never saw anybody as quick as he is, either. Supposin' you think you see him standin' right beside you. Zip! Before you could blink an eye, he's over there in front of Mort's store—just like that. Or up a tree! Spryest cuss I ever laid eyes on. Made me think of a ghost."
"Ghost?" said Newt Spratt, pausing in the act of rolling up his sleeves.
"You say you saw him, Anderson?" inquired Alf Reesling.
"Course I did. Tall feller with—"
"And the lady saw him too?"
"She saw him first, I been tellin' you. She seemed to be able to see quicker'n I could, 'cause she saw nearly every move he made. My eyesight ain't as good as it used to be, an' besides, she could see plainer from where she stood. Come on now—no time to waste. We got to post ourselves all around the place an'—an' nab him if he shows himself again. All you fellers have got to do is to obey orders."
* * * * *
At the corner of Maple and Sickle streets, a few hundred feet from the Nixon cottage, the cavalcade received a whispered order to halt. The Marshal, enjoining the utmost stealth, instructed his men where to place themselves about the grounds they were soon to invest from various approaches. After stealing over the stone wall, they were to crawl forward on hands and knees until each man found a hiding-place behind a bush or flower-bed. There he was to wait and watch. The first glimpse of the mysterious intruder was to be the signal for a shout of alarm; whereupon the whole posse was to close in upon him without an instant's delay.
In course of time, the posse successfully debouched upon the lawn and occupied crouching positions behind various objects of nature. The minutes slowly consolidated themselves into half an hour; they were pretty well started on the way toward the three-quarter mark, and still no sign of the sprightly stranger. Lights were gleaming behind the yellow shades of the downstairs window in the cottage; through the Japanese curtains enveloping the veranda a dull, restricted glow forced its way out upon the bordering flower-beds.
Suddenly out of what had become an almost sepulchral silence, came the sound of a woman's voice. The words she uttered were so startling that the listeners felt the flesh on their bones creep.
"But wouldn't poisoning be the surer and quicker way? Slip a few drops of prussic acid into his food, and death would be instantaneous."
Marshal Crow clutched Bill Kepsal's arm. "Did you hear that?" he whispered. She had spoken in hushed, quavering tones.
Then came a man's voice from the porch above, low and suppressed.
"Why not wait till he is asleep and let me sneak up to him and put the revolver to his head—"
"But—but suppose he should awake and—"
"He'll never open his eyes again, believe me. Poison isn't always sure to work quickly or thoroughly. We don't want a struggle."
"You may be right. I—I leave it to you."
"Good! The sooner the better, then. If we do it at once, Francois and Henry can bury him before morning. I think—"
"I cannot bear to talk about it. Creep in and see if he is asleep. Don't make the slightest noise. He—he must never know!"
Stealthy footsteps, as of one tiptoeing, were heard by the listeners below the porch. Then, a moment later, the sound of a woman sobbing.
The foregoing conversation was distinctly heard by at least half of Marshal Crow's posse. Three of the watchers, crouching not far from Anderson Crow and his two supporters, abruptly left their hiding-places and started swiftly toward the front gate. The Marshal intercepted them.
"Where are you going?" he whispered, grabbing the foremost, who happened to be Elmer K. Pratt, the photographer.
"I was sure I saw that feller you were telling about skipping down toward the street," whispered Mr. Pratt, his voice shaking. "I'm going after him. I—"
"Keep still! Stay where you are. Alf, you round up the boys—collect 'em up here, quiet as possible. We got to prevent this terrible murder. You heard what they were plottin' to do. Surround the house. Close every avenue of escape. Three or four of us will bust in through the porch an'—You stay with me, Sim, an' you too, Bill. Get your pistol ready, Sim. When I give the word—foller me! Where's Alf? Is he surrounding the house? Sh! Don't speak!"
* * * * *
Shadowy figures began scuttling about the lawn, darting from bush to bush, advancing upon the house.
"Now—get ready, Sim," whispered Anderson.
The words were hardly out of his mouth when a dull, smothered report, as of one striking the side of a barrel, reached the ears of the assembling forces. Then a sharp, agonized cry from the lady in the veranda.
"Too late!" cried the Marshal, and dashed clumsily up the front steps, followed by four or five of his henchmen.
Yanking open the screen-door, he plunged headlong into the softly lighted veranda. Behind him came Sim Jackson, brandishing a revolver, and Bill Kepsal, clutching the hammer he had brought from his forge.
They stopped short. A woman in a filmy white gown, cut extremely low in the neck, confronted them, an expression of alarm in her wide dark eyes. She was very beautiful. They had never seen any one so beautiful, so striking, or so startlingly dressed. She had just arisen from the comfortable wicker chair beside the table, the surface of which was littered with magazines, papers and documents in all sorts of disorder.
"What is the meaning of this intrusion?" she demanded, recovering her composure after the first instant of alarm.
Mr. Crow found his voice. "Surrender peaceable," he said. "I've got you completely surrounded. Won't do any good to resist. My men are everywhere. Your partner will be shot down if he—"
"Why, you—you old goose!" cried out the lady, and forthwith burst into a merry peal of laughter.
The Marshal stiffened.
"That kind of talk won't—" he began, and then broke off to roar: "Quit your laughin'! You won't be gigglin' like that when you're settin' in the 'lectric chair. Hustle inside there, men! Take her paramour, dead or alive!"
"Oh, what a stupendous situation!" cried the beautiful lady, her eyes dancing. "You really are a darling, Mr. Crow—a perfect, old dear. You—"
"None o' that now—none o' that!" Mr. Crow warned, taking a step backward. "Won't do you any good to talk sweet to me. I've got the goods on you. A dozen witnesses have heard you plottin' to murder. Throw up your hands! Up with 'em! Now, keep 'em up! An' stop laughin'! You'll soon find out you can't murder a man in cold blood, even if he is a trespasser on your property. You can't go around killin'—Say, where is Mrs. Smith? Where's the lady of the house?"
"I am the lady of the house, Mr. Crow," said the lady, performing a graceful Delsartian movement with her long bare arms. Mr. Crow and his companions stared upward at her arms as if fascinated. "I am Mrs. Smith—Mrs. John Smith."
"I guess not," said Anderson sharply. "She wears a veil, asleep an' awake. Hold on! Put your hands down! She's signalin' somebody, sure as you're alive," he burst out, turning to the group of mouth-sagging, eye-roving gentlemen who followed every graceful curve and twist of those ivory arms. "What's the matter with you, Sim? Didn't I order you to go in there an' grab that bloody assassin? What—"
"Not on your life! He's got a gun," exclaimed Sim Jackson. "S'pose I'm goin' in there, an'—Oh, fer gosh sake!"
A man appeared in the door leading to the interior of the house.
"For the love o' Mike!" issued from the lips of the newcomer. "What in thunder—what's all this?"
It was Harry Squires.
He gazed open-mouthed, first at the beautiful, convulsed lady, and then at the huddled group of men.
"We are caught red-handed, Mr. Squires," said the beautiful lady. "Shall we go to the electric chair hand in hand?"
A slow grin began to reach out from the corners of Harry's mouth as if its intention was to connect with his ears.
"My God, Harry—you ain't mixed up in this murder?" bleated Anderson.
The old man's dismay was so genuine, his distress so pitiful, that the heart of Harry Squires was touched. His face sobered at once. Stepping forward, he held out his hand to the Marshal.
"Good old Anderson! It's all right. Buck up, old top! I'm sorry to say that blood has been shed here tonight. Come with me; I'll show you the corpse."
Mr. Crow was not to be caught napping. "Some of you fellers stay here an' guard this woman. Don't let her get away."
* * * * *
A few minutes later he stood beside Harry Squires in the cellar below the kitchen. There was a smell of gunpowder on the close, still air. They looked down upon the black, inanimate form of the French poodle.
"There, Mr. Hawkshaw," said Harry, "there lies all that is mortal of the finest little gentleman that ever wore a collar. Take off your hat, Sim—and you too, Bill—all of you. You are standing in the presence of death. Behold in me the assassin. I am the slayer of yon grisly corpse. Shackle me, Mr. Marshal. Lead me to the gallows. I am the guilty party."
Marshal Crow took off his hat with the rest—but he did it the better to mop his forehead.
"Do you mean to tell me there ain't been any man slew in this house?" he inquired slowly.
"Up to the hour of going to press," said the city editor of the Banner, "no human remains have been unearthed."
"Then, where in thunder is the feller who's been foolin' around Mrs. Smith's front yard, the—"
"Last I saw of him he was beating it down the street about two hours ago, and you were giving him the run of his life. I don't believe the rascal will ever dare come around here again. The chances are he's still running."
The Marshal muttered something under his breath, and shot a pleading look at Harry.
"Yes, sir," continued Harry solemnly, "I'll bet my head he'll never be seen in these parts again."
"If he hadn't got such a start of me," said Anderson, regaining much of his aplomb, "I'd 'a nabbed him, sure as you're alive. He could run like a whitehead. I never seen such—"
"Shall we go upstairs, gentlemen, and relieve the pressure on Miss Hildebrand? She is, I may say, the principal mourner, poor lady."
"Gentlemen, the lady up there is no other than the celebrated actress, Juliet Hildebrand. The Veiled Lady and she are one and the same. Before we retire from this spot, let me explain that Mr. Snooks, the deceased, was run over by her automobile an hour or so ago. His back was broken. I merely put an end to his suffering. Now come—"
"Mister Snooks?" inquired Anderson quickly. "Well, that solves one of the mysteries that's been botherin' me. An'—an' you say she's the big actress whose picture we see in the papers every now an' again?"
"The same, Mr. Crow. She has done me the honour to accept a play that I have been guilty of writing. She came up here to go over it with me before putting it into rehearsal, and incidentally to enjoy a month's vacation after a long and prosperous season in New York."
"Do you mean to say you've knowed all along who she was?" demanded Anderson. "Been comin' up here to see her every night or so, I suppose."
"More or less."
"That settles it!" said the Marshal sternly. "You are under arrest, sir. Have you got anybody to bail you out, er are you goin' to spend the night in the lock-up?"
"What's the charge, Mr. Hawkshaw?" inquired Harry, amiably.
"Practisin' without a dicense."
"Practising what?" asked Harry.
"Jokes!" roared Anderson gleefully, and slapped him on the back.
* * * * *
Again the Marshal slapped the culprit's back. "Yes, sir, the joke's on me. I admit it. I'll set up the seegars for everybody here. Sim, send a box of them 'Uncle Tom' specials round to my office first thing in the mornin'. Yes, sir, Harry, my boy, you certainly caught me nappin' good and plenty. Tain't often I git—"
"If you don't mind, Anderson," interrupted Elmer K. Pratt, "I'll take a nickel's worth of chewin'-tobacco. My wife don't like me to smoke around the house."
"Gentlemen," said Harry Squires, "there are a few bottles of beer in the icebox, and the cook will make all the cheese and ham sandwiches we can eat. I am sure Miss Hildebrand will be happy to have you partake of her—"
"Hold on a minute, Harry," broke in the Marshal hastily. His face was a study. The painfully created joviality came to a swift and uncomfortable end, and in its place flashed a look of embarrassment. He simply couldn't face the smiling Miss Hildebrand.
"If it's all the same to you," he went on, lowering his voice and glancing furtively over his shoulder at the departing members of his posse, "I guess I'll go out the back way." Seeing the surprised look-on Harry's face, he floundered badly for a moment or two, and then concluded with the perfectly good excuse that it was his duty to lead Alf Reesling, the one-time town drunkard, away from temptation. In support of this resolve, he called out to Alf: "Come here, Alf. None o' that, now! You come along with me."
"I ain't goin' to touch anything but a ham sandwich," protested Alf with considerable asperity.
"Never mind! You do what I tell you, or I'll run you in. Remember, you got a wife an' daughter, an'—"
"Inasmuch as Alf has been on the water-wagon for twenty-seven years, Mr. Marshal, I think you can trust him—" began Harry, but Anderson checked him with a resolute gesture.
"Can't take any chances with him. He's got to come with me."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Harry.
"An' besides," said Anderson, "a man in my position can't afford to be seen associatin' with actresses—an' you know it, Harry Squires. Come on, Alf!"
THE ASTONISHING ACTS OF ANNA
The case of Loop vs. Loop was docketed for the September term in the Bramble County Circuit Court at Boggs City. When it became officially known in Tinkletown, through the columns of the Banner, that Eliphalet Loop had brought suit for divorce against his wife Anna, the town experienced a convulsion that bore symptoms of continuing without abatement until snow fell, and perhaps—depending on the evidence introduced—throughout the entire winter. For Eliphalet, in accusing his wife, was obliged to state in his bill that the identity and whereabouts of "said co-respondent" were at present unknown to complainant. As Mrs. Loop emphatically—some said spitefully—declined to satisfy the curiosity of Mr. Loop, and the whole of Tinkletown as well, speculation took such an impatient attitude toward her that Eliphalet, had he been minded to do so, could have made use of any one of three hundred names in a village boasting an adult male population of three hundred and seventeen. Husbands who had been in the habit of loafing around the village stores for a couple of hours after supper, winter and summer, now felt constrained to remain later than usual for fear that evil-minded persons outstaying them might question the statement that they were going home; and many a wife who was seldom awake after nine stayed up until the man of the house was safely inside, where she could look at him with an intentness so strange that he began to develop a ferocious hatred for Mrs. Loop.
The town marshal, Anderson Crow, encountering the lugubrious Eliphalet in front of Dr. Brown's office early one morning several weeks after the filing of the complaint, put this question to him:
"See here, Liff, why in thunder don't you make that wife o' yourn tell who 'tis she's been carryin' on with?"
Mr. Loop was not offended. He was not even embarrassed.
"'Cause I ain't speakin' to her nowadays, that's why."
"But you got a right to speak to her, ain't you? She's livin' in the same house with you, ain't she? An' it's your house, ain't it? Stand up to her. Show her you got a little spunk."
"I been livin' out in the barn, Anderson, on the advice of my lawyer. He says as long as she won't git out, I've got to. Been sleepin' out there for the last three weeks."
"I'd like to see any woman drive me out of a comfortable bed!"
"I don't a bit mind sleepin' in the barn," said Eliphalet in apology. "It's kind of a relief to get away from them women. Hosses can't talk. I don't know as I've ever slept as well as I have—"
"The point is," broke in Anderson firmly, "this wife of yourn is causin' a great deal of misery in town, Liff. Somethin's got to be done about it."
"I ain't askin' anybody to share my misery with me," said Mr. Loop with some asperity.
"I bet I've heard fifty men's names mentioned in the last twenty-four hours," said Anderson, compressing his lips. "'Tain't fair, Liff, an' you know it."
"'Tain't my fault," said Mr. Loop stubbornly. "I won't ask her ag'in. You wouldn't either, if you'd got a wallop over the head with a stove-lid like I did when I asked her the first time." He removed his weather-worn straw hat. "See that? Doc Brown had to take seven stitches in it, an' he says if old Hawkins the undertaker had seen it first, I wouldn't have had to send for a doctor at all. You ask her yourself, if you're so blamed anxious to know. I seen her out in the back yard just 'fore I left. She was lookin' kinder sad and down in the mouth; so I sez to her as gentle as I knowed how—an' as legally as possible, on the advice of my lawyer: 'Good mornin', Mrs. Loop.' An' then when I seen her lookin' around for somethin' to throw at me, I knowed it wasn't any use tryin' to be polite, so I sez: 'Git out o' my sight, you old cow!' And 'fore you could say scat, she was out o' my sight. I didn't know it was possible for me to be so spry at my age. Just as she was gettin' out o' my sight by me gettin' around the corner of the barn, I heard somethin' go ker-slam ag'inst the side of the barn, but I don't know what it was. Sounded like a milk-crock."
Anderson looked at him sorrowfully. "Well, you can't say I didn't warn you, Liff."
"Warn me about what?"
"'Bout advertisin' fer a wife. I told you no good could come of it. An' now I guess you'll agree that I was right."
"Oh, shucks! Anna was as good a woman as I ever had, Andy Crow, an' I don't know as I ever had a better worker around the place. Fer two years she—"
He choked up and began to sniffle.
"There ain't no denyin' the fact she lasted longer'n any of 'em," agreed Anderson. "I don't just exactly remember how many funerals you've had, Liff, but—say, just out o' curiosity, how many have you had? Me an' Mrs. Crow had a dispute about it last evenin'."
"It's cost me a lot o' money, Anderson, a turrible lot o' money," groaned Eliphalet, "what with doctors' bills an' coffins; an' nothin'—absolutely nothin'—to show fer it! No children, no—nothin' but mother-in-laws an' tombstones. By gosh, why is it mother-in-laws last so long? I've got five mother-in-laws livin' this minute, an' the good Lord knows I never done anything to encourage 'em. I've lost four wives an' not a single mother-in-law. It don't seem right—now, does it, Anderson?"
"Well, if you'd married somebody nearer your own age, Liff, you might stand some chance of out-livin' their mothers. But you been marryin' women anywheres from fifty to sixty years younger'n you are. You must be derned near eighty."
"If you git 'em too old, they're allus complainin' about doin' the work around the house and garden, an' then you got to git a hired girl. Specially the washin'!"
"Seems to me it'd be cheaper in the long run to work a hired girl to death rather than a wife," said Anderson tartly.
"Most generally it is," agreed Mr. Loop. "But I sorter got into the habit of marryin' hired girls, figgerin' they make the best kind of wives. I give 'em a good home, plenty to eat an'—" His eyes roamed aloft, as if searching for some other beneficence, and finally lighting on Dr. Brown's door-plate, found something to clinch his argument. "An' as fine a funeral as any woman could ask fer!" he concluded.
"Let's git back to the main question," said Anderson unfeelingly. He didn't have much use for Eliphalet. "What fer sort of lookin' feller is this man your wife's been carryin' on with?"
"Well," began Mr. Loop, squinting his bleary eyes reflectively, "I ain't never seen him 'cept when he was runnin', an' it was after dark besides. Twice I seen him jump out of one of our back winders when I got home earlier'n usual from lodge-meetin'. First time I made out he was a burglar an' hustled in to see if he had took anything. You see, I allus keep my pocketbook in a burey drawer in our bedroom; an' natcherly, as it was our bedroom winder he jumped out of, I—well, natcherly I'd be a little uneasy, wouldn't I?"
"Specially if you thought your wife might 'a' been rendered insensible by the robber," said Anderson.
"Natcherly," said Mr. Loop quickly. "Course, I thought of her first of all. Well, after I went to the burey an' found the pocketbook all safe, I asked Anna if she'd heard anybody tryin' to get in through the winder. She looked kinder funny-like fer a second er two an' then said no, she hadn't. I told her what I'd seen, and she said I must be drunk er somethin', 'cause she'd been in the room all the time havin' a bite of somethin' to eat 'fore goin' to bed. I never saw anybody that could eat more'n that woman, Anderson. She's allus eatin'. Course I believed her that time, 'cause there was a plate o' cold ham an' some salt-risin' biscuits an', oh, a lot of other victuals on the washstand, with only one knife an' fork. Her mother was sound asleep in her room upstairs; an' her sister Gertie,—who come to visit us six months ago an' is still visitin' us an' eatin' more'n any two hired men you ever saw,—Gertie, she was out in the kitchen readin' that Swede paper my wife takes. An' she said she didn't hear anybody either, an' up and told Anna she'd be afraid to live with a man that come home drunk every night in the week like I did. She's the meanest woman I ever see, Anderson. She—"
"I don't want to hear about that side of your wife's relations, Eliphalet Loop," interposed Anderson.
"Well," said Eliphalet patiently, "I kinder figered I might 'a' been mistaken about seein' him that first time, but when the same thing happened ag'in on the night I went over to set up with Jim Hooper's corpse, why, I jest natcherly begin to think it was kinder funny. What set me thinkin' harder'n ever was finding' a man's hat in my room, hangin' on the back of a chair. Thinks I, that's mighty funny—specially as the hat wasn't mine."
"What kind of a hat was it?" questioned Anderson, taking out his notebook and pencil. "Describe it carefully, Liff."
"It was a grey fewdory," said Mr. Loop.
"The one you been wearin' to church lately?"
"Yes. I thought I might as well be wearin' it, long as nobody claimed it," explained the ingenuous husband of Anna. "It was a couple of sizes too big fer me, so I stuffed some paper inside the sweat-band. I allus hate to have a hat comin' down on my ears, don't you? Kinder spreads 'em out."
"Well, the first thing we've got to do, Liff, is to find some one with a head two sizes bigger'n yours," said Anderson, giving his whiskers a slow, speculative twist.
"That oughtn't to be hard to do," said Eliphalet without hesitation. "I wear a five an' three-quarters. Most everybody I know wears a bigger hat than I do."
"That makes it more difficult," admitted Anderson. "Was it bought in Tinkletown or Boggs City?"
"It had a New York label stamped on the sweat-band."
"Bring it down to my office, Liff, so's I c'n examine it carefully. Now, when did you next see this man?"
"'Bout two weeks after the second time—up in our cow-pasture. He was settin' beside Anna on some rails back of the corn-crib, an' he had his arm around her—or part way round, anyhow; she's a turrible thick woman. Been fattenin' up somethin' awful in the last two years. I snook up an' looked at 'em through the blackberry bushes, layin' flat so's they couldn't see me."
"Was that all you did?"
"What else could I do?" demanded Mr. Loop in some surprise.
"Why, you could have tackled him right then an' there, couldn't you?"
"Didn't I tell you there was two of 'em?"
"No. Him an' Anna. You don't suppose I could lick both of 'em, do you? I bet there ain't a man in town—'cept that blacksmith, Bill Kepsal—that c'n lick Anna single-handed. Besides, I ain't half the man I used to be. I'm purty nigh eighty, Anderson. If I'd been four or five years younger, I'd ha' showed him, you bet."
"Umph!" was Mr. Crow's comment. "How long did they set there?"
"I can't just perzactly say. They was gone when I woke up!"
"When you what?"
"Woke up. It was gittin' purty late, long past my bedtime, an' I'd had a hard day's work. I guess I muster fell asleep."
"Was Mrs. Loop up when you got back home?"
"Yes, she was up."
"What did you say to her?"
"I—I didn't git a chance to say anything," said Eliphalet mournfully. "All three of 'em was eatin' breakfast, an' I got the most awful tongue-lashin' you ever heard. 'Cused me of everything under the sun. I couldn't eat a mouthful."
"Served you right," said Anderson sternly. "Well, did you ever see him ag'in?"
"I ain't sayin' as it was the same feller," qualified Mr. Loop, "but last night I seen a man streakin' through the potato-patch lickety-split some'eres round nine o'clock. He was carryin' a bundle an' was all stooped over. I yelled at him to stop er I'd fire. That seemed to make him run a little faster, so I took after him, an' run smack into Anna comin' round the corner of the hen-roost. Soon as I got my breath, I asked her what in tarnation she was doin' out at that time o' night."
"Well, go on. What did she say?" demanded Anderson as Mr. Loop paused to wipe his forehead.
"She—she insulted me," said Mr. Loop.
"How?" inquired Marshal Crow sceptically.
"She called me a skunk."
Mr. Crow was silent for some time, tugging at his whiskers. He stared intently at the upper corner of Dr. Brown's cottage. His lip twitched slightly. Presently, feeling that he could trust his voice, he asked:
"Why don't you offer a reward, Liff?"
"I thought of doin' that," said Mr. Loop, but a trifle half-heartedly.
"If you offer a big enough reward, I'll find out who the feller is," said Anderson. "Course, you understand it ain't my duty as marshal to ferret out matrimonial mysteries. I'd have to tackle it in my capacity as a private detective. An' you couldn't hardly expect me to do all this extry work without bein' paid fer it."
Mr. Loop scratched his head. Then he scratched a small furrow in the gravel roadway with the toe of one of his boots.
"Well, you see, I got to pay a lawyer right smart of a fee; an' besides—"
Anderson interrupted him sternly. "You owe it to your feller-citizens to clear up this mystery. You surely don't think it is fair to your friends, do you, 'Liphalet Loop? Purty nigh every man in town is bein' suspicioned, an'—"
"That ain't any business o' mine," snapped Eliphalet, showing some ire. "If they feel as though the thing ought to be cleared up jest fer their sakes, why don't they git together an' offer a reward? I don't see why I ought to pay out money to 'stablish the innocence of all the men in Tinkletown. Let them do it if they feel that way about it. I got no objection to the taxpayers of Tinkletown oppropriatin' a sum out of the town treasury to prove they're innocent. Why don't you take it up with the selectmen, Anderson. I'm satisfied to leave my complaint as it is. I've been thinkin' it over, an' I believe I'd ruther git my divorce without knowin' who's the cause of it. The way it is now, I'm on friendly terms with every man in town, an' I'd like to stay that way. It would be mighty onpleasant to meet one of your friends on the street an' not be able to speak to him. Long as I don't know, why—"
"Wait a minute, Liff Loop," broke in Anderson sternly. "Don't say anything more. All I got to say is that it wasn't you your wife insulted when she called you a skunk. Good mornin', sir."
He turned and strode away, leaving the amazed Mr. Loop standing with his mouth open. Some time later that same afternoon Eliphalet succeeded in solving the problem that had been tantalizing him all day. "By gum," he bleated, addressing the high heavens, "what a blamed old fool he is! Anybody with any sense at all knows that you can't insult a skunk."
* * * * *
Briefly, Mr. Loop's fifth matrimonial experience had been, in the strictest sense, a venture. After four discouraging failures in the effort to obtain a durable wife from among the young women of Tinkletown and vicinity, he had resolved to go farther afield for his fifth. So he advertised through a New York matrimonial bureau for the sort of wife he might reasonably depend upon to survive the rigours of climate, industry and thrift. He made it quite plain that the lucky applicant would have to be a robust creature, white, sound of lung and limb, not more than thirty, and experienced in domestic economy. Nationality no object. Mr. Loop's idea of the meaning of domestic economy was intensely literal. Also she would have to pay her own railroad fare to Boggs City, no matter whence she came, the same to be refunded in case she proved acceptable. He described himself as a widower of means, young in spirit though somewhat past middle age, of attractive personality and an experienced husband.
The present Mrs. Loop was the result of this spirit of enterprise on his part. She came from Hoboken, New Jersey, and her name was Anna Petersen before it was altered to Loop. She more than fulfilled the requirements. As Mr. Loop himself proclaimed, there wasn't "a robuster woman in Bramble County;" she was exceedingly sound of lung, and equally sound of limb. What pleased him more than anything else, she was a Swede. He had always heard that the Swedish women were the most frugal, the most industrious, and a shade more amenable to male authority than any others.
Anna was a towering, rather overdeveloped female. She revealed such astonishing propensities for work that she had been a bride but little more than a week when Eliphalet decided that he could dispense with the services of a hired man. A little later he discovered, much to his surprise, that there really wasn't quite enough work about the house to keep her occupied all the time, and so he allowed her to take over some of the chores he had been in the habit of performing, such as feeding the horses and pigs, and ultimately to chop and carry in the firewood, wash the buckboard, milk the cows, and—in spare moments—to weed the garden. He began to regard himself as the most fortunate man alive. Anna appeared to thrive where her predecessors had withered and wasted away. True, she ate considerably more than any of them, but he was willing to put up with that, provided she didn't go so far to eat as much as all of them. There were times, however, when he experienced a great deal of uneasiness on that score.