The fly avoided his ointment for something like three months. Then it came and settled and bade fair to remain and thrive upon the fat of his land. Anna's mother came to live with them. He now realized that he had been extremely shortsighted. He should have stipulated in his advertisement that none except motherless young women need apply.
Mrs. Petersen was his fifth mother-in-law, and he dolefully found himself contending with the paraphrase: like mother, like daughter. His latest mother-in-law proved to be a voracious as well as a vociferous eater. She fell little short of Anna in physical proportions, but his wife assured him that it would be no time at all before she'd have her as plump as a partridge! Mr. Loop undertook the experiment of a joke. He asked her if partridge was the Swede word for hippopotamus. After that he kept his jokes to himself.
A year and a half went by. Then Miss Gertie Petersen came up from Hoboken for a flying visit. She was a very tall and lean young woman. Mr. Loop shuddered. The process of developing her into a partridge was something horrible to contemplate. But Anna was not dismayed. She insisted that the country air would do her sister a world of good. Mr. Loop was a pained witness to the filling out of Gertrude, but something told him that it wasn't the country air that was doing it. She weighed in the neighbourhood of one hundred and fifty pounds when she flew in for the visit. At the end of six months she strained the scales at two hundred and twenty. There was a good deal of horse-sense in his contention that if all this additional weight was country air, she'd have to be pretty securely anchored or she'd float away like a balloon.
But he did not openly complain. He had acquired the wisdom of the vanquished. He was surrounded by conquerors. Moreover, at butchering-time, he had seen his wife pick up a squealing shoat with one hand and slit its throat with the other in such a skilful and efficient manner that gooseflesh crept out all over his body when he thought of it.
And during those long, solitary nights in the barn he thought of it so constantly that everything else, including the encroachment of the home-wrecker, slipped his mind completely. He never ceased wondering how he screwed up the courage to institute proceedings against Anna, notwithstanding the fact that the matter had been vicariously attended to by his lawyer and a deputy from the county sheriff's office.
* * * * *
Marshal Crow fell into a state of profound cogitation after leaving Mr. Loop. The old man had put a new idea into his head. Late in the afternoon he decided to call a meeting of citizens at the town hall for that night. He drafted the assistance of such able idlers as Alf Reesling, Newt Spratt, Rush Applegate, Henry Plumb and Situate M. Jones, and ordered them to impress upon all male citizens of Tinkletown between the ages of twenty-one and seventy-five the importance of attending this meeting. Ebenezer January, the barber, and George Washington Smith, the garbage-wagon driver, were the only two men in town whose presence was not considered necessary. They, with their somewhat extensive families, represented the total coloured population of Tinkletown.
When the impromptu gathering was called to order that night by Ezra Pounder, the town clerk (acting in an unofficial capacity), there were nearly two hundred and fifty men present, including Messrs. January and Smith. Uncle Dad Simms, aged eighty-four, was present, occupying a front seat. He confessed for the first time in his life that he was a little "hard o' hearin'." This was a most gratifying triumph for his fellow-citizens, who for a matter of twenty years had almost yelled their lungs out advising him to get an ear-trumpet, only to have him say: "What in thunder are you whisperin' about?"
The three clergymen of the town put in an appearance, and Elmer K. Pratt, the photographer, brought his seven-months-old baby, explaining that it was his night to take care of her. He assured the gentlemen present that they were at liberty to speak as freely and as loudly as they pleased, so far as his daughter was concerned; if she got awake and started to "yap," he'd spank the daylights out of her, and if that didn't shut her up he'd take her home.
Anderson Crow, wearing all his decorations, occupied a chair between Mr. Pounder and Harry Squires, the Banner reporter. By actual count there were seven badges ranging across his chest. Prominent among them were the familiar emblems of the two detective associations to which he paid annual dues. Besides these, one could have made out the star of the town marshal, the shield of the fire chief, badges of the Grand Army of the Republic, Sons of Veterans, Sons of the Revolution, and the Tinkletown Battlefield Association.
Harry Squires, at the request of Mr. Crow, arose and stated the object of the meeting.
"Gentlemen," he began, "the time has come for action. We have been patient long enough. A small committee of citizens got together today, and acting upon the suggestion of our distinguished Marshal, decided to make a determined effort to restore peace and confidence into the home of practically every gentleman in this community. It is a moral certainty that all of us can't be the individual in Mr. Loop's woodpile, but it is also more or less an immoral certainty that Mrs. Loop obstinately refuses to vindicate an overwhelming majority of the citizens of this town.
"The situation is intolerable. We are in a painful state of perplexity. One of us, gentlemen, appears to be a Lothario. The question naturally arises: which one of us is it? Nobody answers. As a matter of fact, up to date, nobody has actually denied the charge. Can it be a matter of false pride with us? Ahem! However, not only does Mrs. Loop decline to lift the shadow of doubt, but Mr. Loop has assumed a most determined and uncharitable attitude toward his friends and neighbours. He positively refuses to come to our rescue. We have put up with Mr. Loop for a great many years, gentlemen, and what do we get for our pains? Nothing, gentlemen, nothing except Mr. Loop's cheerful wink when he passes us on the street. Our esteemed Marshal today proposed to Mr. Loop that he offer a suitable reward for the apprehension of the man in the case. He gave him the opportunity to do something for his friends and acquaintances. What does Mr. Loop say to the proposition? He was more than magnanimous. He as much as said that he couldn't bear the idea that any one of his numerous friends was innocent.
"Now, while Mr. Loop may feel that he is being extremely generous, we must feel otherwise. Gentlemen, we have arrived at the point where we must take our reputations out of Eliphalet Loop's hands. We cannot afford to let him trifle with them any longer. Mr. Loop refuses to employ a detective. Therefore it is up to us to secure the services of a competent, experienced sleuth who can and will establish our innocence. It will cost us a little money, possibly fifty cents apiece; but what is that compared to a fair name? I am confident that there isn't a man here who wouldn't give as much as ten dollars, even if he had to steal it, in order to protect his honour. Now, gentlemen, you know what we are here for. The meeting is open for suggestions and discussion."
He sat down, but almost instantly arose, his gaze fixed on an object in the rear of the hall.
"I see that Mr. Loop has just come in. Perhaps he has some news for us. Have you anything to say, Mr. Loop?"
Mr. Loop got up and cleared his throat.
"Nothin'," said he "except that I'm as willin' as anybody to subscribe fifty cents."
Harry Squires suddenly put his hand over his mouth and turned to Marshal Crow. The Marshal arose.
"This ain't no affair of yours, Liff Loop. Nobody invited you to be present. You go on home, now. Go on! You've contributed all that's necessary to this here meetin'. Next thing we know, you'll be contributin' your mother-in-law too. Get out, I say. Open the door, Jake, an' head him that way. Easy, now! I didn't say to stand him on his head. He might accidently squash that new fewdory hat he's wearin'."
After Mr. Loop's unceremonious departure, the Marshal resumed his seat and fell to twisting his sparse whiskers.
"What is your opinion, Mr. Crow," inquired Harry Squires, "as to the amount we would have to pay a good detective to tackle the job?"
Mr. Crow ran a calculating eye over the crowd. He did not at once reply. Finally he spoke.
"Between a hundred and five an' a hundred an' seven dollars," he said. "It might run as high as hundred and ten," he added, as two or three belated citizens entered the hall.
"Can we get a goot man for dot amoundt?" inquired Henry Wimpelmeyer, the tanyard man.
"Well, we can get one that c'n tell whether it's daylight or dark without lightin' a lantern to find out," said Mr. Crow in a slightly bellicose tone.
"I ain't so sure aboudt dot," said Henry, eying the Marshal skeptically. He had had it in for Marshal Crow ever since that official compelled him to hang an American flag in front of his tanyard.
Luckily Uncle Dad Simms, who had not heard a word of the foregoing remarks, piped up.
"This ain't no time to be thinkin' of unnecessary improvements, what with peace not signed yet, an' labor an' material so high. I don't see that there's any call for a new roof, anyway. S'posin' it does leak a little once in a while. We've all got umbrellas, I guess, an'—"
"Wake up, wake up!" bawled Alf Reesling, close to the old man's ear. "We ain't talkin' about a roof. Loop! That's what we're talkin' about!"
"What say?" squealed Uncle Dad, putting his hand to his ear. "My hearin' is a little bad lately."
"I said you was the derndest old nuisance in town; that's what I said—an' I don't care whether you hear me or not," roared Alf in exasperation.
"That's better," said Uncle Dad, nodding his head approvingly. "But I wish you wouldn't chaw tobacker, Alf," he added rather plaintively.
"Order!" commanded Marshal Crow, pounding on the table with his cane. "Now, feller-citizens, let us git down to business. Most of us have got to be home before nine o'clock, or the dickens will be to pay. All those in favour of employin' a detective to unearth this dark mystery raise their right hands."
"Just a moment, please," called out the Reverend Mr. Maltby, of the Congregationalist church. "I presume I am safe in saying that Father Maloney, the Reverend Mr. Downs and myself are hardly to be regarded as interested parties—"
He was interrupted by Father Maloney, who sprang to his feet and shouted in his most jovial voice:
"Nonsense, my dear Maltby! I consider it a great honour to be considered in the list of suspects. Nothing could give me more pleasure than the feeling that my parishioners trusted me sufficiently to take me to their hearts and say: 'He is one of us.' I should consider myself very badly treated if they were to leave me out of the case. Come—join me. Let us get all we can out of a most delicate situation. What do you say, friend Downs?"
The Methodist minister, an elderly person, looked a trifle dashed for a moment or two, and then heartily declared himself as with Father Maloney. Whereupon Mr. Maltby said he guessed it would be all right, provided Mr. Squires promised not to publish the names.
Harry Squires promptly announced that he intended to save labour and space by stating briefly and concisely that if any of his feminine readers cared to have a list of "those present," she could get it very easily and alphabetically by consulting the telephone-book.
The outcome of the meeting may be recorded in a very few words, although a great many were required in its achievement. Virtually everybody, including the coloured gentry, had something to say on the subject, and most of them said it without reservations. After Mr. Squires had announced that any man who voted in the negative would automatically convict himself, there wasn't a man present who failed to subscribe fifty cents toward the civic honour fund. It was found, on computation, that the total amount was one hundred nine dollars and fifty cents. Marshal Crow at once increased his contribution to one dollar, declaring it would be mortifying to offer a reward of less than one hundred and ten dollars to any decent, self-respecting detective.
Messrs. January and Smith insisted on their rights as citizens to join in the movement. Mr. January took the floor and vociferously harangued the assemblage at some length on certain provisions of the Proclamation of Emancipation, and Mr. Smith said that "this wasn't no time to draw the colour-line."
Mr. Crow consented to undertake the baffling case, and it was "so ordered."
"Have you got a clue?" whispered Alf Reesling as he started homeward in the wake of the preoccupied sleuth.
"No, but I will have 'fore mornin'," replied Anderson.
And he never uttered truer words in all his life.
* * * * *
Being a man of action, Mr. Crow began operations at once. He went home and for nearly an hour worked over the list of subscribers to the fund, aided by his wife and daughters. Among them they separated the wheat from the chaff. At least twenty per cent. of the contributors were set aside in a separate group and labelled "no good." Ten per cent. were designated as "fairly good," and the remainder as "good." It must not be assumed that the division had anything to do with the Loop mystery. Mr. Crow was merely figuring out who would pay and who would not.
It was shortly after ten o'clock when he started, in a roundabout way, for the home of Eliphalet Loop. The more direct route would have been down the street from his own house to the Boggs City pike, first turn to the left, fifty paces straight ahead, and he would have found himself at Eliphalet's front gate—in all, a matter of half a mile. But he preferred to descend upon the premises from an unexpected angle. So he approached by a far, circuitous way and arrived at the gate after traversing something like three miles of wood and pasture-land, stealthily following the stake-and-rider fences in order to screen his movements. He was well aware that Mr. Loop did not own a dog, on account of the expense.
The house was dark. Mr. Crow leaned against the hitching-post and mopped his brow. Then he blew his nose. It was his custom when he blew his nose, to blow it with tremendous force. Having performed these highly interesting feats he restored his handkerchief to his hip pocket. He remembered quite clearly doing all these things. Afterwards he claimed that he blew his nose as a signal. In any case, it proved to be a signal. A thinly pleated light appeared in one of the front windows of the house, narrow little streaks one above the other, shining through the window-slats.
The Marshal of Tinkletown stared. He craned his neck. A chill of excitement swept over him. Was he about to witness the surreptitious departure of the unwelcome guest? Had he arrived in the nick of time? And what in the world was he to do if the fellow had a revolver? Fascinated, he watched one of the blinds slowly swing outward. He held his breath.
Suddenly it dawned on him that the visitor was still expected, and not on the point of departing. In that case it behooved him to retire to a less exposed spot, where he could observe the fellow without being observed.
Stooping low, he stole across the road and wound his way through the scraggly hedgerow and into the brambles beyond. Just as he was settling himself down for his vigil, a most astonishing thing occurred.
A hand fell heavily upon his shoulder, and something cold punched him in the back of the neck—and remained fixed in that spot.
"Don't move or I'll blow your brains out," whispered a voice in his ear. The grip on his shoulder tightened.
"Who—who—" he started to gasp.
"Shut up!" hissed the voice of the invisible one. "I've got you dead to rights. Get up! Put your hands up!"
"I—I got 'em up," gulped Mr. Crow, in a strangled voice. "Don't shoot, Mister! I—I promise to let you go, I swear I will. It's—"
"By thunder!" fell from the lips of the captor. It was an exclamation of surprise, even dismay.
"Take it away, if it's a revolver," pleaded Anderson. "I withdraw from the case. You c'n go as fer as you like. Eliphalet—"
"Stand still. I can't take a chance with you. You may be trying to fool me with this rube talk. Keep 'em up!"
Swiftly the stranger ran a hand over Mr. Crow's person.
"You ought to have a gun," he said in a puzzled voice.
"I loaned it last winter to Milt Cupples, an' he—"
"Who the devil are you?"
"I'm the marshal of Tinkletown, an' my name is Crow—A. Crow. I made a mistake, takin' up this case. Go on in and see Mrs. Loop if you feel like it. I won't say a word to anybody—"
"Get down on your knees, Mr. Crow, here beside me, an'—"
"Oh, Lordy, Lordy! You shorely ain't going to shoot, Mister!"
"I don't want you to pray. I want you to keep still. Don't make a sound—do you hear?"
"I've got a wife an' children—"
"Shut up! Look! She's put out the light. Keep your eyes skinned, old man! He must be near. Don't make a sound. My partner's in that rain-barrel at the corner of the house. If we can get him between us, he won't have any more chance than a snowball in—Look! There he is, sneaking across the yard! By golly, we've got him at last."
What happened in the next fifteen seconds was a revelation to the most recent addition to the forces of the International Society of Sleuths. He witnessed the quick, businesslike methods of two of the craftiest men in the craftiest organization in the world—the United States Secret Service.
Two words were spoken. They came, loud and imperative, from a point near the house.
The skulking figure in the yard stopped short, but only for a fraction of a second. Then he made a wild spring toward the front gate.
A shot rang out.
The man at Anderson's side leaped forward through the hedge. Mr. Crow was dimly conscious of a mishap to his erstwhile captor. He heard him curse as he went sprawling over a treacherous vine.
Mr. Crow did not waste a second's time. He leaped to his feet and started pellmell for home. With rare sagacity he avoided the highway and laid his course well inside the hedgerow. He knew where he could strike an open stretch of meadowland, and he headed for it through the brambles.
He heard shouts behind him, and the rush of feet. If he could only get clear of the cussed bushes! That was his thought as he plunged along.
Down he went with a crash!
* * * * *
As the marshal tried to rise, a huge object ploughed through the hedge beside him, and the next instant he was knocked flat and breathless by the impact of this hurtling body.
The next instant two swift, ruthless figures came plunging through the hedge, and he found himself embroiled in a seething mix-up of panting, struggling men.
Presently Crow sat up. The steady glare of a "dark-lantern" revealed a picture he was never to forget.
A single figure in a kneeling position, hands on high, was crying:
"Don't shoot! Don't shoot!"
Over him stood two men with pistols levelled at the white, terrified face.
Anderson, to his dying day, was to remember those bulging eyes, the flabby and unshaven face, the mouth that appeared to be grinning—but never had he seen such an unnatural grin!
"Stand up!" commanded one of the men, and the victim struggled to his feet. In less time than it takes to tell it, the fellow was searched and hand-cuffed. "Run back there, Pyke, and see that the woman don't take a crack at us with a shotgun. She'd do it in a minute." As his companion darted back into the roadway, the speaker turned to his captive. "Where's your gun?"
By this time Anderson Crow was on his feet. He was clutching something in his hand. He looked at it in stark astonishment. It was an automatic pistol. In raising himself from the ground his hand had fallen upon it.
"I don't know," said the captive sullenly. Then his gaze fell upon the gaunt figure of Anderson Crow. A frightful scowl transfigured his face. Mr. Crow involuntarily drew back a step and reversed the pistol in his hand, so that its muzzle was pointing at the enemy instead of at himself. Between imprecations the prisoner managed to convey the fact that he realized for the first time that it was a human being and not a log that had brought him to earth.
* * * * *
Mr. Crow found his voice and some of his wits at the same time.
"I'll learn you not to go rampagin' around these parts carryin' concealed weapons, you good-fer-nothin' scamp! I've got your gun, blast ye!" He turned triumphantly to the surprised secret-service man. "I took it away from him soon as I had him down, an'—"
"Holy mackerel!" gasped the operative. "Did—did you head him off and—and down him? You? Well, I'll be hanged!"
"I sorter knowed he'd strike about here, tryin' to make the woods up yonder, so I hustled down here to head him off while you fellers—"
"Never mind now," broke in the other. "Tell it to me later. Come on, both of you. We're not through yet." He urged the burly captive through the hedge. Marshal Crow followed very close behind.
They found a terrified, excited group on the front porch—three sturdy females in nightgowns, all with their hands up! Below, revealed by the light streaming through the open door, stood a man covering them with a revolver. Fifteen or twenty minutes later Mr. Crow dug the shivering Eliphalet Loop out of the hay-mow and ordered him forthwith to join his family in the kitchen, where he would hear something to his advantage.
The happiest man in Bramble County was Eliphalet Loop when he finally grasped the truth. The prisoner turned out to be his wife's first husband—he grasped that fact some little time before he realized that he wasn't even her second husband, owing to certain fundamental principles in law—and a fugitive from justice. The man was an escaped convict, the leader of a gang of counterfeiters, and he was serving a term in one of the federal prisons when he succeeded in his break for liberty. For many months the United States Secret Service operatives had been combing the country for him, hot and cold on his trail, but always, until now, finding themselves baffled by the crafty rogue, who, according to the records, was one of the most dangerous, desperate criminals alive. Finally they got track of his wife, who had lived for a time in Hoboken, but it was only within the week that they succeeded in locating her as the wife of Eliphalet Loop. The remainder of the story is too simple to bother about.
"Of course, Mr. Loop," said one of the secret-service men, "you can prosecute this woman for bigamy."
Mr. Loop shook his head. "Not much! I won't take no chance. She might prove that she wasn't ever married to this feller, an' then where would I be? No, sirree! You take her along an' lock her up. She's a dangerous character. An' say, don't make any mistake an' fergit to take her mother an' sister, too."
* * * * *
The next evening Mr. Crow sat on the porch in front of Lamson's store. His fellow-townsmen were paying up more promptly than he had expected. Practically three-fourths of the reward was in his coat pockets—all silver, but as heavy as lead.
"Yes, sir," he was saying in a rather far-reaching voice, for the outer rim of the crowd was some distance away, "as I said before several times, I figgered he would do just what he did. I figgered that I'd have to outfigger him. He is one of the slickest individuals I have ever had anything to do with—an' one of the most desperit. I—er—where was I at, Alf?... Oh, yes, I recollect. He was a powerful feller. Fer a second or two I thought maybe he'd get the best of me, being so much younger an' havin' a revolver besides. But I hung on like grim death, an' finally—Thanks, Jim; I wasn't expectin' you to pay 'fore the end of the month. Finally I got my favourite holt on him, an' down he went. All this time I was tryin' to git his revolver away from him. Just as I got it, the secret-service men came dashin' up an'—What say, Deacon? Well, if the rest of the crowd ain't tired o' hearin' the story, I don't mind tellin' it all over."
Harry Squires, perched on the railing, assured him that the crowd wouldn't mind in the least.
"The real beauty of the story Anderson," he added dryly, "is that it has so much of the spice of life in it."
"I mean variety."
NO QUESTIONS ANSWERED
$25.00 For the Apprehension or Capture of Person or Persons Who Successfully Stole the Fashionable Bulldog Belonging to Mrs. M. Fryback on or About Friday of Last Week!
N. B.—Said dog occasionally answers to the name of Marmaduke, but mostly to Mike.
An Additional Reward of Three Dollars Cash will be paid for the return of said dog, with or without said Criminals. No Questions asked.
A. CROW, Marshal of Tinkletown.
The foregoing poster, fresh from the press of the Banner printing office, made itself conspicuous at no less than a dozen points in the village of Tinkletown on a blustery February morning. Early visitors to the post office in Lamson's store were the first to discover it, tacked neatly on the bulletin board. Others saw it in front of the Town Hall, while others, who rarely took the trouble to look at a telephone pole before leaning against it, found themselves gazing with interest at the notice that covered the customary admonition:
"Post No Bills."
Of course every one in Tinkletown knew, and had known for the matter of a week or more, that Mort Fryback's bulldog was "lost, strayed or stolen," but this was the first glaring intimation that Mort had also lost his mind. In the first place, Mike—as he was familiarly known to every inhabitant—wasn't worth more than a dollar and a half when he was in his prime, and that, according to recollection, must have been at least twelve or fifteen years prior to his unexplained disappearance. In the second place, it was pretty generally understood that Mike—recently Marmaduke—had surreptitiously taken a dose of prussic acid in a shed back of Kepsal's blacksmith shop and was now enjoying a state of perfect rejuvenation in the happy hunting ground.
Mr. Alf Reesling, the town drunkard, after having scanned four of the notices on his way to the post office, informed a group of citizens in front of Brubaker's drugstore that Anderson Crow would do almost anything to get his name into print. Alf and the town marshal had had one of their periodical "fallings out," and, for the moment at least, the former was inclined to bitterness.
"To begin with," explained Alf, "there ain't a dog in this town that's worth stealin', to say nothin' of three dollars. You can't tell me that Mort Fryback would give three dollars to get that dog back, not even if he was alive—which he ain't, if you c'n believe Bill Kepsal. No, sir; it's just because Anderson wants to see his name in print, that's what it is. I bet if you was to ask Mort if he has agreed to pay—how much is it all told?—twenty-eight dollars—if he has agreed to pay all that money for nothin', he'd order you out of his store."
"Mrs. Fryback told my wife a couple of weeks ago that Marmaduke was a prize bull, and she wouldn't take a hundred dollars for him," said Newt Spratt. "Seems that she had somebody look up his pedigree, and he turns out to be a stepson or something like that of a dog that won first prize at a bench show—whatever that is—in New York City."
"Ever since that actress woman was here last fall,—that friend of Harry Squires, I mean,—every derned dog in town has turned out to be related some way or other to a thoroughbred animal in some other city," said Alf. "Why, even that mangy shepherd dog of Deacon Rank's—accordin' to Mrs. Rank—is a direct descendant of two of the finest Boston terriers that ever came out of Boston. She told me so herself, but, of course, I couldn't ask how he happened to look so much like a shepherd dog and so little like his parents, 'cause there's no use makin' poor Mrs. Rank any more miserable than she already is—she certainly don't get any fun out of life, livin' with the deacon from one year's end to the other. Yes, sir; just because that actress woman paraded around here for a month or so last fall with a French poodle, is no reason, far as I can see, why all the women in town should begin puttin' leashes on their dogs and washin' 'em and trimmin' 'em and tying red ribbons around their necks—yes, and around some of their tails, too. I'll never forget that stub-tail dog of Angie Nixon's going around with a blue bow stickin' straight up behind him, and lookin' as though he'd lost something and got dizzy looking for it. And Mort's dog, Mike—poor old Mike,—why, he got so he'd go down to Hawkins' undertakin' shop every time he could get a minute off and bark till Lem would let him in, and then he'd lay down in a corner and go to sleep, and Lem always swore the poor dog was as mad as a hornet when he woke up and found he was still alive."
"What puzzles me is why Mort Fryback's offerin' this reward, and all that, if he knows the dog is dead. It costs money to have bills like this printed at the Banner office." So spoke Elmer Pratt, the photographer. "Wasn't he present at the obsequies?"
"No, he wasn't," said Alf. "He claims now that he don't know anything about it, and, besides, Bill Kepsal says he'll beat the head off of anybody that says Mike passed away on his premises—including Mort. So naturally Mort denies it. He told me yesterday he would deny it even if he had both of his legs; but what chance, says he, has a one-legged man got with big Bill Kepsal?"
"Here comes Anderson now," said Mr. Spratt, his gaze fixed on an approaching figure.
It was zero weather in northern New York State, and the ancient Marshal of Tinkletown was garbed accordingly. The expansive collar of his brass-buttoned ulster was turned up, completely obscuring the ear-flaps and part of the coonskin cap he was wearing. An enormous pair of arctics covered his feet; his grey and red mittens were of the homemade variety; a muffler of the same material enveloped his gaunt neck, knotted loosely under his chin in such a way as to leave his whiskers free not only to the wind but to the vicissitudes of conversation as well. The emblem of authority, a bright silver star, gleamed on the breast of his ulster.
He stopped when he reached the group huddled in front of the drugstore, and glared accusingly at Alf Reesling.
"I thought I told you to keep off the streets," he said ominously. "Didn't I tell you yesterday I'd run you in if I caught you drunk in the streets again?"
"Yes, you did," replied Alf, in a justifiably bellicose manner; "but I still stick to what I said to you at first when you said that to me."
"What was that?"
"I said you couldn't ketch me even if I was dead drunk and unconscious in the gutter, that's what I said."
"For two cents, I'd show you," said Anderson.
"Well, go ahead. Just add two cents to what you claim I already owe you, and go ahead with your runnin' me in. But before you do it, lemme warn you I'll sue you for false arrest, and then where'll you be? I got five witnesses right here that'll swear I ain't drunk now and haven't been in twenty-three years."
"That shows just how drunk you are," said Anderson triumphantly. "Far as I can see, there are only four men here."
"Don't you call yourself a man?"
"I mean I got five witnesses includin' you, that's what I mean. I'm gettin' sick of you all the time tellin' me I been drinkin' again, when you know I ain't touched a drop since 1896. Why, dog-gone you, Andy Crow, if it wasn't for me an' the way you keep on talkin' about juggin' me, you wouldn't have any excuse at all fer bein' town marshal. You—"
"That'll do now," interrupted Anderson severely. "You have said them very words to me a thousand times, Alf Reesling, and—Who's that coming out of the post office?"
The group gradually turned to look up the street. Tinkletown is a slow place. Its inhabitants do everything with a deliberation that suggests the profoundest ennui. For example, a gentleman of Tinkletown rarely raised his hat on meeting a lady. He invariably started to do so, but as the ladies of the place were in the habit of moving with more celerity than the gentlemen, he failed on most occasions to complete the undertaking. What's the sense of takin' your hat off to a woman, he would argue, if she's already got past you? So far as anybody knew, there wasn't a woman in town with an eye in the back of her head.
"Looks like a stranger," said Newt Spratt.
"It certainly does," agreed Anderson. "Yes, I'm right," he added an instant later.
The object of interest was crossing the street in the direction of the Grand View Hotel. The group watched him with mild interest. In front of the two-story frame building that seemed to stagger, or at least to shrink, under the weight of its own importance, the stranger—a man—paused to glance at one of the placards heralding the misfortune and at the same time the far from parsimonious regard of the lady who had been despoiled of a fashionable bulldog. Having perused the singularly comprehensive notice, he deliberately tore it down, folded it with some care, and stuck it into his overcoat pocket. Then he entered the Grand View Hotel.
"Well, I'll be ding-blasted!" exclaimed Marshal Crow.
Mr. Reesling's animosity gave way to civic pride. "By jingo, Anderson," he cried, "if you want any help arrestin' that scoundrel, call on me! Comin' around here defacin' things like that—he ought to go to jail."
Elmer K. Pratt, the photographer, voiced a time-tried but fruitless criticism. "If you'd paste 'em up instead of tackin' 'em up, people couldn't take 'em down like that. I've told you—"
"If you got any complaints to make about me, Elmer, you'd better make 'em to the town board and not to Alf Reesling and Newt Spratt," interrupted Marshal Crow testily. "Besides I do paste 'em up when I run out of tacks."
He started off toward the Grand View, his head erect, his whiskers bristling with indignation.
"Shall we go with you, Anderson?" inquired Alf.
"'Tain't necessary," replied the Marshal, "but you might go over and wait for me in front of the hotel."
"If you need any help, just holler," said Alf.
Entering the office of the Grand View Hotel, Marshal Crow looked around for the despoiler. Save for the presence of the proprietress, Mrs. Bloomer, relict of the founder of the hostelry, the room was quite empty. Mrs. Bloomer, however, filled it rather snugly. She was a large person, and she had a cold in the head which made her feel even larger. She was now engaged in sweeping the floor.
"Mornin', Jennie," was Anderson's greeting. "Where's the feller that's stoppin' here?"
Mrs. Bloomer had the sniffles. "He's gone up to his room," she said. Then after another sniffle: "Why?"
"I want to see him."
"Well his room's at the head of the stairs, to your right."
Anderson twisted his whiskers in momentary perplexity.
"Might be better if you asked him to come down."
"Ask him yourself," she said. "I don't want to see him."
Marshal Crow made a mental reservation to yank Mrs. Bloomer up before Justice Robb the next time she left the garbage can standing on the sidewalk overnight.
He hesitated about going up to the guest's bedroom. It wasn't quite the legal thing to do. The more he thought of it, the longer he hesitated. In fact, while he was about it, he thought he would draw a chair up to the big sheet-iron stove and sit down.
"Won't you take off your overcoat and goloshes?" inquired the landlady, but in a far from hospitable manner.
"How long has this feller been here?" demanded Anderson, moving his left foot a little, but not quite far enough to avoid the broom.
"Um-m! What's his name and where's he from?"
"Go and look at the register, and then you'll know as much as I do. It's a public register. Nothing secret about it."
Anderson got up suddenly. "I guess I'll go look while you're sweepin' around here."
The register on the little counter in the corner revealed the name of a single arrival below the flowing Spencerian hand of Willie Spence, the clerk, head waiter, porter and bell-boy of the Grand View Hotel. Willie, because of his proficiency as a chirographer, always wrote the date line in the register. He was strong on flourishes, but somewhat feeble in spelling. Any one with half an eye could see that there was something wrong with a date line that read: "Febury 25nd 1919." The lone guest's name, written in a tight "running" hand with total disregard for the elementary formation of letters, might have been almost anything that occupied less than two inches of space. Even his place of residence was a matter of doubt.
The Marshal put on his spectacles and studied the signature. As far as he could make out, the man's name was something like "Winnumnn Millmmmln." It was a name that baffled him. The longer he studied it, the worse it became.
"Seems to me, Jennie, if I was runnin' this hotel, I'd have Willie Spence register for the guests, and save 'em the trouble."
"Can't you make it out?"
"Course I can," he replied promptly. "It's as plain as day to me, but I'll bet you a good cigar you can't make it out."
She fell into the trap. "All right, I take you up. It's Mr. & Mrs. George F. Fox."
Mr. Crow stared at her for a second or two. Then he recovered himself. "You're right," he said. "What kind of a cigar do you smoke, Jennie?"
As he had feared, she promptly named the highest-priced cigar she had in stock, a three-for-a-quarter brand, and then coolly announced that if he'd leave a dime on the show case, she'd get it.
"Got his wife with him, I see," remarked Anderson.
"Yep," said Mrs. Bloomer.
"What's his business?"
"I asked him last night," said she, pausing in her work to fix Anderson with a rather penetrating look. "He said he was a trained elephant."
"A trained elephant."
"You don't say so!"
"And his wife is a snake-charmer," she added uneasily.
Anderson blinked rapidly. "Well, of all the—But what on earth's he doing here in Tinkletown?"
"I didn't ask any more questions after that," said she, with a furtive glance up the stairway. "I'd give a good deal to know what they've got in them big black valises they brought with 'em. Three times as big as regular valises, with brass trimmin's. I hope she aint got any reptiles in 'em."
Marshal Crow took that instant to consult the office clock. "By ginger!" he exclaimed, with some sprightliness. "I got to be movin' along. I'm follerin' up a clue in that dog case."
Mrs. Bloomer's anxious gaze was bent on a dark corner back of the stairway.
"I do hope, if she has got any snakes in them valises, she won't let 'em get loose and go crawlin' all over the place. I——"
Mr. Crow sent a quick, searching look about the office as he strode toward the door.
"Ain't you going up to his room?" inquired Mrs. Bloomer.
"Not just now," replied Anderson, and closed the door quickly behind him.
Alf Reesling and his companions were waiting impatiently on the sidewalk. They were actively disappointed when the Marshal emerged empty-handed.
"Was he too much fer you?" was Alf's scathing inquiry.
"How many times have I got to tell you, Alf, that I'm able to deduce these cases without your assistance? Now, this is a big case, and you leave it to me to handle. When I get ready to act, you'll hear something that will make your hair stand on end. Hold on, Newt! Don't ask any questions. Don't——"
"I wasn't going to ask any questions," snapped Newt. "I was going to tell you something."
"You was, eh? Well, what was you going to tell me?"
"Mort Fryback went by here a couple of minutes ago an' he says for you to come into his store right away."
Anderson frowned. "I bet he's confessed."
"Who? Him? What's he got to confess?" demanded Alf.
"Never mind, never mind," said the Marshal quickly. "I'll step in and see him now."
Leaving his "reserves" standing in front of the Grand View, Mr. Crow hurried into Fryback's hardware store.
Mort was pacing—or, strictly speaking, stumping—back and forth behind the cutlery counter. His brow was corrugated with anxiety. The instant he saw the Marshal he uttered an exclamation that might have been construed as either relief, dismay or wrath. It was, as a matter of fact, inarticulate and therefore extremely difficult to classify. Anderson, however, deduced it as dismay. Mr. Fryback came out from behind the counter, stumped over to the stove, in which there was a crackling fire and, after opening the isinglass door, squirted a mouthful of tobacco juice upon the coals. Whereupon it became possible for him to articulate.
"I been lookin' everywhere fer you," said he, somewhat breathlessly. "Where you been?"
"'Tendin' to business," retorted Anderson. "What's the matter?"
Mr. Fryback took the precaution to ascertain that there were no listeners in the store. "Somebody—some woman, you c'n bet on that—told my wife last night that I poisoned old Mike."
"Well, you did, didn't you?"
"Of course I did. That is, I hired Charlie Brubaker to do it. But she says I did it with my own hands, and—my gosh, Anderson, I never went through such a night in my life as last night." He mopped his brow. "You'd think I was a murderer. Course, I denied it. I swore he wasn't dead, and that I'd increase the reward to a hundred dollars just to show her. What I want you to do, right away, is to have a new set of bills printed, offerin' a hundred dollars reward for that dog, instead of three. It's the only chance I've got of ever being able to live in my own house again."
The Marshal eyed him reflectively. "If you could get her to agree to let you offer the reward for Mike, dead or alive—"
"She wants him alive, and no other way."
"Can't you buy her off?"
Mr. Fryback groaned. "I could—" he began dismally, and then fell to chewing with great vigour.
"What would it cost?" inquired Anderson, feelingly.
"An automobile," replied Mr. Fryback, after opening and closing the stove-door once more. "It would be cheaper, you see, to offer a hundred dollars for Mike," he explained, ingenuously.
"It certainly would," agreed the Marshal, "seein' as you wouldn't have to pay fer anything except the printin' of the notices. If you wanted to show how much you think of your wife, and how anxious you are to please her, you could go as high as a thousand dollars, Mort."
"Would you, reely, Anderson?"
"Sure. She could lord it over all these women—includin' my wife—who've been sayin' Mike wasn't worth fifty cents and didn't have a pedigree any longer than his tail. Why, if she wanted to go on lyin' about the value of that old dog, she could tell people she had been offered a thousand dollars for Marmyduke by a well-known dog collector in New York."
"That might please her," reflected Mort. "Course, this thing has already cost me quite a lot of money, outside the printin'. I've had to give Bill Kepsal a receipt in full fer what he owes me, and that young Brubaker's been in twice to price base-burner stoves. He says if he c'n get a good one fer ten dollars he'll take it, and his heart seems to be set on that seventy-dollar Regal over yonder. I'm in an awful fix, Anderson."
"Well, you can't say I didn't advise you to let Mike die a natural death."
"I wish to goodness I had," lamented Mort.
The door opened at that juncture, and in walked a man and a woman. The former was carrying a square black "valise," inadequately described by Mrs. Bloomer as twice the natural size. As a matter of fact, it was more like a half-grown trunk, to quote no less an authority than the town marshal.
The proprietor of the hardware store was, at a glance, qualified to pass an opinion on the personal appearance of the two strangers. His companion's attention, however, was devoted so earnestly to the big black "valise," that he couldn't have told, for the life of him, whether the customers were young or old, black or white. His fascinated gaze was riveted upon the object the man deposited carefully on the floor near the door.
"You are a locksmith, I perceive," remarked the strange man, addressing Mort. "I'd like to have you see if you can open this box for me. We've lost or mislaid the key."
"What fer sort of a lock is it?" asked Mort, approaching.
"Hold on, Mort!" called out Mr. Crow. "Don't monkey with that trunk."
The two strangers turned on him.
"Well, who the deuce have we here?" said the man, with some acerbity.
"Oh, what a nice old policeman!" cried the lady, fixing the Marshal with a pair of intensely blue eyes. Mr. Crow looked at her in amazement. Could any one as pretty, as dainty and as refined-looking as she be engaged in the awful business of charming snakes?
"Before we go any further, mister, I've got to know what's inside that box," said Anderson firmly.
"What's the matter with you?" demanded the other. "There's nothing in it that need excite the law, my good man."
"This is our town marshal, Anderson Crow," explained Mort Fryback.
"I might have known it," said the stranger. "I've heard a good deal about Mr. Crow. Well, what's the answer?"
"That's what I want to know," snapped Anderson. "What is the answer? What kind are they? And how many have you got?"
The stranger was on the point of exploding with indignation when his fair companion intervened.
"Leave it to me, George dear. You always fly into such a temper. If you'd only let me attend to the small things, while you look out for the big ones, we'd get along so much better. Wouldn't we, Mr. Crow?"
She appealed to Mr. Crow so abruptly and so sweetly that he said he guessed so before he could check himself.
"If you will stay here until we find a key that will fit, Mr. Crow, you will see with your own eyes what will make them pop out of your head."
"Mort, you keep away from that box, I say!" commanded Anderson, now sure of his ground. "Do you want to get bit?"
"Oh, dear me, they won't bite you!" cried the young lady. "I promise you they are most amiable. I have been handling them for several weeks and—"
Her husband interrupted her. He revealed symptoms of increasing annoyance.
"See here, let's get busy and open this thing. They've got to be fed, you know,—and it's all damned poppycock discussing the matter any longer."
Marshal Crow held up his hand as if stopping traffic in Main Street.
"You are in the presence of the law, Mr. Wolf," he began. The young woman giggled. He glared at her.
"My name is Fox," said the young man, curtly.
"That don't make any difference," retorted the Marshal. "Mine's Crow, and I represent the law. You—"
"How delicious!" said Mrs. Fox. "So like that cunning poem of Guy Wetmore Carryl's. You know it, of course, Mr. Crow?"
"'I blush to add that when the bird Took in the situation He said one brief, emphatic word, Unfit for publication. The fox was greatly startled, but He only sighed and answered "tut"'"
"Don't be silly, Bess," said her husband. "This is no time to recite poetry."
"I don't see any sense in it, anyhow," said Marshal Crow.
Mr. Fryback emerged from behind the cutlery counter, whither he had repaired in some haste when it became evident that Mrs. Fox was likely to remain for some time. He was wiping his lips with the back of his hand, and what very recently might have been mistaken for a prodigious swelling in his cheek had strangely subsided.
"Why shouldn't I fit a key to that lock, Andy?" he demanded, rather hotly. "What right have you got to interfere with my business?"
The Marshal's lips parted to utter a sharp retort, but the words failed to issue. Young Mrs. Fox suddenly stooped over and peered intently at several heretofore unnoticed holes at one end of the black box. These holes, about an inch in diameter, formed a horizontal row. Much to Mr. Crow's alarm, the young lady pulled off her glove and stuck a finger into one of the little apertures and apparently wriggled it without fear or trepidation. Almost instantly there was an ominous rustling inside the box. Withdrawing her finger, she called out:
The invitation was unnecessary. Mr. Crow was looking for all he was worth.
"Good gracious, ma'am!" he gasped. "Don't stir 'em up like that. Next thing they'll crawl out of them holes and—"
"Why, you poor old goose!" she said, but not disrespectfully. "They're much too large to crawl through these holes. I wish I could catch hold of one of their tails and—Look!" She held her finger close to the hole and a long, thin black tongue darted through and began to writhe about in a most malevolent manner.
"For gosh sake!" exclaimed the Marshal, retreating a couple of steps. This sudden action on his part brought a venomous oath from Mr. Fryback, and an instant apology as well.
"You'd cuss, too," explained the blasphemer to the lady, "if a clumsy elephant, stepped on the only good foot you've got."
"If you think I'm the one that claims to be an elephant—" began Anderson.
"Cootchy, cootchy, cootchy," cooed the lady, addressing the row of holes. Whereupon the rustling in the interior of the devilish box increased to a turmoil. The two citizens of Tinkletown stared wide-eyed at the three little circles, and their eyes grew wider as they saw that one of them was now completely stopped up by a dark, ugly object that bore resemblance to nothing they had ever seen before—a wet, shiny thing that was alive and quivering.
The unnatural Mrs. Fox promptly poked her finger through the hole and rubbed the snout of what must have been a full-sized boa-constrictor. Instantly to their horror, the black obstruction, went through a process of splitting, and several deadly fangs were revealed. Once more the wriggling black tongue darted out to caress the lady's unprotected finger.
"Oh, you darling!" cried the lady. "Please, Mr. Locksmith, see if you can't find a key that will fit the lock."
Marshal Crow dragged his friend toward the door.
"Did you see it?" he whispered hoarsely.
Before Mort could answer, the door flew open and in rushed Mrs. Bloomer, bareheaded and in a great state of agitation.
"For heaven's sake, Anderson, hurry up and come with me," she cried. "Bring a pistol—and, Mort, you get a couple of axes and a pitchfork or two. My God, something awful is loose in one of them rooms upstairs! The most terrible racket is going on in there. I—Oh, there you are!" She caught sight of her lodgers. "Arrest them, Anderson! Lock them up at once. They're dangerous people. They oughtn't to be running at large. Oh, that awful thing! It sounds like it was twenty feet long, and it's thrashing all over the room. Oh, my God! What a scare I've had! Oh, you needn't look at me innocent like that, you two. You're in for it, or my name ain't Jennie Bloomer. Call a posse, Anderson, and surround the hotel. Thank Heaven, the door of that room is locked, but goodness knows how soon it will be crawlin' through the transom."
At that instant she discovered that her skirt was almost touching the big black box on the floor. Emitting a sharp squeal, she gave an elephantine leap to the shelter of Anderson's arms, almost bowling him over.
"God knows what she's got in that valise," she whimpered.
Mr. Fox put on an exceedingly bold front. Realizing that he was cornered, he adopted a lightly boastful air.
"What we've got in this valise, as you call it, madam, is worth more than your whole blamed hotel."
"Keep away from that valise," warned Anderson Crow, addressing Mr. Fox. "Give me time to think. Somethin's got to be done, and right away. I can't take any chances of these terrible things gettin' loose an' drivin' our citizens out of town."
"The first thing you got to do, Anderson Crow," shouted Mrs. Bloomer, "is to capture the reptile that's loose in my hotel. That's what you got to do." She turned upon the pretty Mrs. Fox. "Snake charmer! That's a nice business for a woman to be in. Don't come near me."
"I am not thinking of coming near you, you old rip!" said Mrs. Fox, losing her temper in a very womanly fashion.
"None o' that, now—none o' that," warned the town marshal. "Keep a civil tongue in your head, young woman."
"Why, you long-whiskered old—" began the lady, but her husband spared the Marshal a whirlwind of revelations by taking her arm and leading her to the rear of the store, where for some minutes they were in close and earnest conference.
"The thing to do," said Mort Fryback, "is to take this box down to the crick an' drop it in, all locked and everything. That will put an end to the cussed things, better'n any other way I know."
A furious commotion took place inside the box, preventing further discussion on the part of the retreating observers. It was as if a dozen huge and powerful serpents were exerting every effort to escape.
The voice of Mrs. Fox, clear as a bell, assailed them from behind.
"They're hungry, poor things," she cried. "Perfectly ravenous."
"That settles it," said Marshal Crow. "We've got to git rid of 'em if we have to set fire to your store, Mort. They're terrible when they haven't been fed fer a long time. Swaller pigs an' sheep—and children whole, they say."
Mr. Fox approached. He was now very polite and ingratiating.
"Permit me," he observed, "to offer a solution. If you will give me a bunch of keys, my friend, I will remove the case to my room and open it—if possible. No harm will come to anybody, and in one hour or so, my wife and I will be on our way. My automobile is in your local garage, Mr. Hawk, and we can be ready to start as soon as we have fed and aired the—er—shall we say contents?"
"You arrest him, Anderson," cried Mrs. Bloomer. "Hold him till I estimate the damage that's been done to my property. He's got to pay fer that before he can get out of this town."
"I guess you'd better step over to the calaboose with me, mister," said Anderson firmly. "And you too, ma'am. This here lady prefers charges against you, an' it's my duty to—"
"What is the charge, madam?" demanded Mr. Fox, lighting a cigarette.
"Never mind," said the Marshal; "we'll attend to that later."
Mr. Fryback put in a word at this point. "Yes, but who's going to take charge of this here box? It can't stay here in my place. First thing you know the derned things will gnaw a hole in the side and git out."
"If it is not too far, Mr. Officer, I should be happy to carry the box over to the lock-up—unless, of course, some one else will volunteer. I see quite a number of citizens looking in through the window. Doubtless some of them might—"
"How long after a man's been on a bad spree is he likely to think he sees snakes?" demanded Anderson, struck with an idea.
"The time varies," replied Mr. Fox, rather startled.
"Alf ain't been tight in a good many years," mused the Marshal. "I guess it would be safe to let him carry 'em. Don't you think so, Mort?"
"Him and Newt Spratt," said Mort. "Newt's always braggin' about not being afraid of anything."
"Well, perhaps it would be just as well not to tell 'em what's in this here box," said Anderson. He turned to the pair of strangers. "Only they ain't going to carry it to the calaboose. They're going to carry it to the crick, an' throw it in."
The young woman uttered a cry of dismay, and her husband uttered something distinctly out of place, for Mrs. Bloomer again told him he ought to be ashamed of himself.
After a few whispered words in the ear of the distracted young woman, Mr. Fox turned to the others.
"I'll tell you what we'll do, gentlemen," said he, and then added, with a polite bow to the corpulent Mrs. Bloomer, "and ladies. Mrs. Fox and I had planned giving a little exhibition at the hotel, but that now seems to be out of the question. Kindly bear in mind that we are not visiting your little city on pleasure bent. We are here strictly for business. As a rule we do not make one-night stands. But we have been attracted to your charming city almost against our will—although, I may add, it was at the earnest invitation of one of your most important denizens—I should say citizens. You will agree, I am sure, that it would hardly pay us to visit a place like this unless we were reasonably assured of something in the way of pecuniary benefits. You may not know it, gentlemen, but we have had a bona-fide offer of one hundred dollars—and that isn't to be sneezed at, is it? We—Please bear with me, Mr. Hawk. I shall not detain you—"
"My name is Mr. Crow," snapped Anderson.
"Sorry," apologized Fox. "I fear I confused you with the celebrated Hawkshaw, the detective."
Mr. Crow turned purple.
"That's what Harry Squires, the reporter on the Banner, calls him most of the time," volunteered Mort Fryback. "That, an' Shellback Holmes."
"Such is fame," said Mr. Fox agreeably. "Well, to get right down to cases, Mrs. Fox and I propose that you allow us to give our little exhibition in the Town Hall,—if you have one—and—"
"Not much!" roared Anderson. "I've had enough of this talk. I'm going to take action at once." He flung open the front door and addressed the group in front of the store, now increased to nearly a score, including several scattered women and children—and Ed Higgins' dog. "I call on all you men to assist me in surrounding the Grand View Hotel. There is dangerous work ahead, and I want only the bravest,—wait a second, Newt, don't go away,—and most determined men in town to volunteer. Here, Mort, you hand out some axes, an' pitchforks, an' crowbars, an'—"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, George," cried Mrs. Fox frantically, "don't let them do it. Stop them!"
But the stranger motioned for her to be silent.
* * * * *
Some time was spent in explaining the situation to the posse, and in stationing a group of the hardiest men beneath certain windows of the second floor back. During this arrangement of forces, three of the bravest men in Tinkletown had to go to the post office for some very important letters, and two more rushed over to see that they came back.
Anderson Crow marshalled a dozen or more able-bodied conscripts in Main Street, preparatory to a frontal attack on the suite at the head of the stairway. He had commandeered a double-barreled shotgun belonging to Bill Kepsal, and with this he proposed to "shoot the daylights" out of the serpent through the transom if it hadn't crawled under the bed where he couldn't "get a bead on it."
In the meantime, Mr. Fox had carried the big black box out of Fryback's store, and his wife was now standing guard over it on the porch of the Grand View Hotel.
Marshal Crow was issuing commands right and left, and the squad, augmented by a step-ladder from the hardware shop, was about to enter the hotel, when Mrs. Fox uttered an excited little shriek, and then these desolating words:
"Oh, George, I've found it! I've got the key. It was away down in my muff."
Before any action could be taken to restrain the impetuous young woman, she was inserting the key in the lock!
Those nearest her collided violently with those farther away, and in less time than it takes to mention it, there was no one within a radius of fifty feet—except a new arrival on the scene.
To the intense horror of Mort Fryback, his wife emerged from the Grand View Hotel and entered the danger zone.
"Hey, Maude!" he bellowed. "Keep away from that! For the love of—" He clapped his hand over his eyes. Mrs. Fryback had reached the side of the eager Mrs. Fox just as that lady lifted the lid of the box.
Now, Mrs. Fryback was Mort's third wife; according to longevity statistics, she was much too young to die. As a matter of fact, she was little more than a bride. That probably accounts for the brand-new mink coat and muff she was sporting. Moreover, it accounts for Mort's surprising mendacity and even more amazing humility in relation to the taking-off of Mike. No doubt in similar circumstances, he would have told his second wife, who died when she was pretty well along in years, that he'd show her who was boss in his home, and if she didn't like what he did to Mike, she could lump it. But, alas, between a vacillating young wife who has you under her thumb and a constant old one who has been thoroughly squashed under yours for a great many years, there is a world of difference.
Others who stared in horror at the picture on the porch, groaned audibly as young Mrs. Fox looked up into the face of the unsuspecting victim and smiled. Thus encouraged, young Mrs. Fryback, disdaining death, smiled in return and stooped over to look into the depths of that unspeakable box. Instead of starting back in alarm, she uttered a shrill little cry of delight, and dropping to her knees plunged both hands into the nest of wriggling horrors!
Lucius Fry, who had hastily set up the step-ladder, and was now balancing himself somewhat precariously at the top of it, let out a lugubrious howl.
"She's a goner!" he announced.
The two young women had their heads close together and were conversing. Marshal Crow, armed with the double barreled shotgun, began a cautious circuitous advance, his finger on the trigger.
He stopped short when about twenty feet from the women, and spasmodically pulled the trigger. There is no telling what might have happened if the gun had been loaded.
Mr. Fox had deliberately overturned the box and—out scampered three sprightly Boston terrier puppies!
Ten minutes later all but one of Mort Fryback's farming utensils were back in stock. The missing implement, a hatchet, was furtively on its way to the barber-shop of one Ebenezer January, coloured.
Mr. and Mrs. Fryback, Marshal Crow and the amiable Foxes discussed the "points" of the frolicsome puppies in the rear of the hardware store.
"I just adore this one, Mrs. Fox," said Mrs. Fryback, pointing to a rugged little rascal who was patiently gnawing at Mr. Fryback's peg-leg. "Do you really recommend him as the best of the lot, Mr. Fox?" she inquired, turning her shining eyes upon the gentleman.
"Absolutely," said Mr. Fox. "Wouldn't you say so, Mr. Crow?"
"Ab-so-lutely," said Anderson.
"Then I'll take him," said Mort's wife, and Mort not only sighed but wiped a fine coat of moisture from his brow. "One hundred dollars is the very least you will take?"
"The very least, Mrs. Fryback. He is a thoroughbred, you know. My kennels are famous, as you doubtless noted in my advertisement in Town and Country—and I can personally guarantee every pup that comes out of them. In your letter to me, Mrs. Fryback, you stated that only the best I had on hand would be considered. The mother of these puppies has a pedigree a yard long, and the father, as I mentioned before, is Stubbs the Twelfth. Nothing more need be said. The mother, Bonnie Bridget, you have just seen. Stubbs the Twelfth belongs to a millionaire in Albany. Allow me to congratulate you, madam,"—extending his hand,—"on having secured one of the finest dogs in America. And you also, Mr. Fryback, on having a wife who is such a discriminating judge of thoroughbreds."
Mr. Fryback looked a trifle startled, but said nothing.
"If you ever come to our town, Mr. Crow, I hope you will look us up," broke in Mr. Fox. "Our place is about two miles out in the country. By the way, has Mrs. Crow a good dog—I mean one that she can be proud of?"
"She has a thoroughbred setter," said Marshal Crow, compressing his lips.
"A hundred dollars is a lot of money fer a dog," murmured Mr. Fryback. He met his wife's eye for a second and then added: "But, of course, my wife has just lost one that was worth a thousand dollars, so—I guess it ain't so much, after all."
"Marmaduke was a really wonderful dog, Mrs. Fox," vouchsafed Mort's wife, assuming a sad and pensive expression.
"I am sure he must have been," said Mrs. Fox.
"One hundred dollars is very cheap, sir, for a thoroughbred Boston terrier in these days," said Mr. Fox. "Isn't that so, Mr. Crow?"
"Cheap as dirt," said Anderson.
"Mortimer, will you please give Mr. Fox the money?" said Mrs. Fryback. "And, by the way, Mr. Crow, I hope you take down all those reward notices at once. I wouldn't know what to do with Marmaduke now, even if some one did bring him back to me."
"I know what I'd order you to do with him," said Anderson, meeting Mort's melancholy gaze at last.
"What, may I inquire?"
"I'd order you to bury him," said the town marshal, speaking in his capacity as chairman of the Board of Health.
Mrs. Fryback looked at him steadily for a second or two, and then slowly closed an eye.
SHADES OF THE GARDEN OF EDEN!
It wasn't often that Marshal Crow acknowledged that he was in a quandary. When he did find himself in that rare state of mind, he invariably went to Harry Squires, the editor of the Banner, for counsel—but never for advice. He had in the course of a protracted career as preserver of the peace and dignity of Tinkletown, found himself confronted by seemingly unsolvable mysteries, but he always had succeeded in unravelling them, one way or another, to his own complete satisfaction. Only the grossest impudence on the part of the present chronicler would permit the tiniest implication to creep into this or any other chapter of his remarkable history that might lead the reader to suspect that he did not solve them to the complete satisfaction of any one else. So, quite obviously, the point is not one to be debated.
Now, as nearly every one knows, Tinkletown is a temperance place. There is no saloon there,—unless, of course, one chooses to be rather nasty about Brubaker's Drugstore. Away back in the Seventies,—soon after the Civil War, in fact,—an enterprising but misguided individual attempted to establish a bar-room at the corner of Main and Sickle Streets. He opened the Sunlight Bar and for one whole day and night revelled in the conviction that he had found a silver mine. The male population of Tinkletown, augmented by a swarm of would-be inebriates from all the farms within a radius of ten miles, flocked to the Sunlight Bar and proceeded to get gloriously and collectively drunk on the contents of the two kegs of lager beer that constituted an experimental stock in trade.
The next morning the women of Tinkletown started in to put the Sunlight Bar out of business. They did not, as you may suspect, hurl stones at the place, neither did they feloniously enter and wreak destruction with axes, hatchets and hoe-handles. Not a bit of it. They were peaceful, law-abiding women, not sanguinary amazons. What they did was perfectly simple.
It is possible, even probable, that they were the pioneer "pickets" of our benighted land. At any rate, bright and early on the second day of the Sunlight Bar, the ladies of Tinkletown brought their knitting and their sewing down to the corner of Main and Sickle streets and sat themselves down in front of the shrinking "silver mine." They came with rocking-chairs, and camp-chairs, and milk-stools, and benches, too, and instead of chanting a doleful lay, they chattered in a blithe and merry fashion. There was no going behind the fact, however, that these smiling, complacent women formed the Death Watch that was to witness the swift, inevitable finish of the Sunlight Bar.
They came in relays, and they stayed until the lights went out in the desolate house of cheer. The next day they were on hand again, and the next, and still the next. Fortunately for them, but most unluckily for the proprietor of the Sunlight Bar, the month was August: they could freeze him out, but he couldn't freeze them out.
Sheepish husbands and sons passed them by, usually on the opposite sidewalk, but not one of them had the hardihood to extend a helping hand to the expiring saloon. At the end of a week, the Sunlight Bar drew its last breath. It died of starvation. The only mourner at its bier was the bewildered saloon-keeper, who engaged a dray to haul the remains to Boggs City, the County seat, and it was he who said, as far back as 1870, that he was in favour of taking the vote away from the men and giving it exclusively to the women.
Tinkletown, according to the sage observations of Uncle Dad Simms, was rarely affected by the unsettling problems of the present day. This talk about "labour unrest" was ridiculous, he said. If the remainder of the world was anything like Tinkletown, labour didn't do much except rest. It was getting so that if a workin'-man had very far to walk to "git" to his job, he had to step along purty lively if he wanted to arrive there in plenty of time to eat his lunch and start back home again. And as for "this here prohibition question," he didn't take any stock in it at all. Tinkletown had got along without liquor for more than a hundred years and he guessed it could get along for another century or two without much trouble, especially as it was only ten miles to Boggs City where you could get all you wanted to drink any day in the week. Besides, he argued, loudly and most violently, being so deaf that he had to strain his own throat in order to hear himself, there wasn't anybody in Tinkletown except Alf Reesling that ever wanted a drink, and even Alf wouldn't take it when you offered it to him.
But in spite of Uncle Dad's sage conclusions, it was this very prohibition question that was disturbing Anderson Crow. He sauntered into the Banner office late one afternoon in May and planked himself down in a chair beside the editor's desk. There was a troubled look in his eyes, which gave way to vexation after he had made three or four fruitless efforts to divert the writer's attention from the sheet of "copy paper" on which he was scribbling furiously.
"How do you spell beverage, Anderson?" inquired Mr. Squires abruptly.
"What kind of beverage?" demanded Mr. Crow.
"Any kind, just so it's intoxicating. Never mind, I'll take a chance and spell it the easiest way. That's the way the dictionary spells it, so I guess it's all right. Well, sir, what's on your mind?—besides your hat, I mean. You look worried."
"I am worried. Have you any idee as to the size of the apple crop in this neighbourhood last summer and fall, Harry?"
"Not the least."
"Well, sir, it was the biggest we've had since 1902, 'specially the fall pickin."
"What's the idea? Do you want me to put something in the Banner about Bramble County's bumper crop of pippins?"
"No. I just want to ask you if there's anything in this new prohibition amendment against apple cider?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
"Well, do you know it's impossible to buy a good eatin' or cookin' apple in this town today, Harry Squires?"
"You don't say so! In spite of the big crop last fall?"
"You could buy all you wanted last week, by the bushel or peck or barrel,—finest, juiciest apples you ever laid your eyes on."
"Well, I don't like apples anyway, so it doesn't mean much in my life."
Anderson was silent for a moment or two, contemplating his foot with singular intentness.
"Was you ever drunk on hard cider?" he inquired at last,—transferring his gaze to the rapidly moving hand that held the pencil.
The reporter jabbed a period,—or "full stop," as they call it in a certain form of literature,—in the middle of a sentence, and looked up with sudden interest.
"Yes," he said, with considerable force. "I'll never forget it. You can get tighter on hard cider than anything else I know of."
"Well, there you are," exclaimed the Marshal, banging his gnarled fist on the arm of the chair. "And as far as I c'n make out, there ain't no law ag'inst cider stayin' in the barrel long enough to get good and hard, an' what's more, there ain't no law ag'ainst sellin' cider, hard or sweet, is there?"
"I get your point, Anderson. And I also get your deductions concerning the mysterious disappearance of all the apples in Tinkletown. Apparently we are to have a shortage of dried apples this year, with an overflow of hard cider instead. By George, it's interesting, to say the least. Looks as though an apple orchard is likely to prove more valuable than a gold mine, doesn't it?"
"Yes, sir! 'Specially if you've got trees that bear in the fall. Fall apples make the best cider. They ain't so mushy. And as fer the feller that owns a cider-press, why, dog-gone it, he ought to be as rich as Crowsis."
"I seem to recall that you have a cider-press on your farm on Crow's Mountain,—and a whacking good orchard, too. Are you thinking of resigning as Marshal of Tinkletown?"
"I see you're not," went on Harry. "Of course you understand you can't very well manufacture hard cider and sell it and still retain your untarnished reputation as a defender of the law."
"I'm not figurin' on makin' hard cider," said Anderson, with some irritation. "You don't make hard cider, Harry. It makes itself. All you do is to rack the apple juice off into a barrel, or something, with a little yeast added, and then leave it to do the work. It ferments an' then, if you want to, you rack it off again an' bottle it an'—well, gee whiz, how tight you c'n get on it if you ain't got sense enough to let it alone. But I ain't thinkin' about what I'm goin' to do, 'cause I ain't to do anything but make applebutter out of my orchard,—an' maybe a little cider-vinegar fer home consumption. What's worryin' me is what to do about all these other people around here. If they all take to makin' cider this fall,—or even sooner,—an' if they bottle or cask it proper,—we'll have enough hard cider in this township to give the whole state of New York the delirium trimmins."
"I don't see that you can do anything, Anderson," said Squires, leaning back in his chair and puffing at his pipe. "You can't keep people from making cider, you know. And you can't keep 'em from drinking it. Besides, who's going to take the trouble to ascertain whether it contains one-half of one percent alcohol? What interests me more than anything else is the possibility of this township becoming 'wet' in spite of itself,—an' to my certain knowledge, it has been up to now the barrenest desert on God's green earth."
"People are so all-fired contrary," Anderson complained. "For the last fifty years the citizens of this town and its suburbs have been so dead set ag'inst liquor that if a man went up to Boggs City an' got a little tipsy he had to run all the way home so's he'd be out of breath when he got there. Nobody ever kept a bottle of whiskey in his house, 'cause nobody wanted it an' it would only be in the way. But now look at 'em! The minute the Government says they can't have it, they begin movin' things around in their cellars so's to make room fer the barrels they're going to put in. An' any day you want to drive out in the country you c'n see farmers an' hired men treatin' the apple-trees as if they was the tenderest plants a-growin'. I heard this mornin' that Henry Wimpelmeyer is to put in a cider-press at his tanyard, an' old man Smock's turnin' his grist mill into an apple-mill. An' everybody is hoardin' apples, Harry. It beats the Dutch."
"It's up to you to frustrate their nefarious schemes, Mr. Hawkshaw. The fair name of the Commonwealth must be preserved. I use the word advisedly. It sounds a great deal better than 'pickled.' Now, do you want me to begin a campaign in the Banner against the indiscriminate and mendacious hardening of apple-cider, or am I to leave the situation entirely in your hands?"
Marshal Crow arose. The fire of determination was in his ancient eye.
"You leave it to me," said he, and strode majestically from the room.
Encountering Deacon Rank in front of the Banner office, he chanced this somewhat offensive remark:
"Say, Deacon, what's this I hear about you?"
The deacon looked distinctly uneasy.
"You can always hear a lot of things about me that aren't true," he said.
"I ain't so sure about that," said Anderson, eyeing him narrowly. "Hold on! What's your hurry?"
"I—I got to step in here and pay my subscription to the Banner," said the deacon.
"Well, that's something nobody'll believe when they hear about it," said Anderson. "It'll be mighty hard fer the proprieter of the Banner to believe it after all these years."
"Times have been so dog-goned hard fer the last couple of years, I ain't really been able to—"
"Too bad about you," broke in Anderson scornfully.
"Everything costs so much in these days," protested the deacon. "I ain't had a new suit of clothes fer seven or eight years. Can't afford 'em. My wife was sayin' only last night she needed a new hat,—somethin' she can wear all the year round,—but goodness knows this ain't no time to be thinkin' of hats. She—"
"She ain't had a new hat fer ten years," interrupted Anderson. "No wonder the pore woman's ashamed to go to church."
"What's that? Who says she's ashamed to go to church? Anybody that says my wife's ashamed to go to church is a—is a—well, he tells a story, that's all."
"Well, why don't she go to church?"
"'Tain't because she's ashamed of her hat, let me tell you that, Anderson Crow. It's a fine hat an' it's just as good as new. She's tryin' to save it, that's what she's tryin' to do. She knows it's got to last her five or six years more, an' how in tarnation can she make it last that long if she wears it all the time? Use a little common sense, can't you? Besides, I'll thank you not to stick your nose in my family affairs any—"
"What's that you got in your pocket?" demanded Anderson, indicating the bulging sides of the deacon's overcoat.
"None of your business!"
"Now, don't you get hot. I ask you again, civil as possible,—what you got in your pocket?"
"I'm a respectable, tax-paying, church-going citizen of this here town, and I won't put up with any of your cussed insinuations," snapped the deacon. "You act as if I'd stole something. You—"
"I ain't accusin' you of stealin' anything. I'm only accusin' you of havin' something in your pocket. No harm in that, is there?"
The deacon hesitated for a minute. Then he made a determined effort to temporize.
"And what's more," he said, "my wife's hat's comin' back into style before long, anyhow. It's just as I keep on tellin' her. The styles kinder go in circles, an' if she waits long enough they'll get back to the kind she's wearin', and then she'll be the first woman in Tinkletown to have the very up-to-datest style in hats,—'way ahead of anybody else,—and it will be as good as new, too, you bet, after the way she's been savin' it."
"Now I know why you got your pockets stuffed full of things,—eggs, maybe, or hick'ry nuts, or—whatever it is you got in 'em. It's because you're tryin' to save a piece of wrappin' paper or a bag, or the wear and tear on a basket. No wonder you got so much money you don't know how to spend it."
"And as for me gettin' a new suit of clothes," pursued the deacon, doggedly, "if times don't get better the chances are I'll have to be buried in the suit I got on this minute. I never knowed times to be so hard—"
The marshal interrupted him. "You go in an' pay up what you owe fer the Banner an' I'll wait here till you come out."
Deacon Rank appeared to reflect. "Come to think of it, I guess I'll stop in on my way back from the post office. Ten or fifteen minutes—"
He stopped short, a fixed intent look in his sharp little eyes. His gaze was directed past Anderson's head at some object down the street. Then, quite abruptly and without even the ceremony of a hasty "good-bye," he bolted into the Banner office, slamming the door in the marshal's face.
"Well, I'll be dog-goned!" burst from the lips of the astonished Mr. Crow. "I never knowed him to change his mind so quick as that in all my life,—or so often. What the dickens—"
Indignation succeeded wonder at this instant, cutting off his audible reflections. Snapping his jaws together, he laid a resolute hand on the doorknob. Just as he turned it and was on the point of stamping in after the deacon, his eye fell upon an approaching figure—the figure of a woman. If it had not been for the hat she was wearing, he would have failed to recognize her at once. But there was no mistaking the hat.
"Hi!" called out the wearer of the too familiar object. Marshal Crow let go of the door knob and stared at the lady in sheer stupefaction.
Mrs. Rank's well-preserved hat was perched rakishly at a perilous angle over one ear. A subsequent shifting to an even more precarious position over the other ear, as the result of a swift, inaccurate sweep of the lady's hand, created an instant impression that it was attached to her drab, disordered hair by means of a new-fangled but absolutely dependable magnet. Never before had Marshal Crow seen that ancient hat so much as the fraction of an inch out of "plumb" with the bridge of Mrs. Rank's undeviating nose.
She approached airily. Her forlorn little person was erect, even soldierly. Indeed, if anything, she was a shade too erect at times. At such times she appeared to be in some danger of completely forgetting her equilibrium. She stepped high, as the saying is, and without her usual precision. In a word, the meek and retiring wife of Deacon Rank was hilariously drunk!
Pedestrians, far and near, stopped stockstill in their tracks to gaze open-mouthed at the jaunty drudge; storekeepers peered wide-eyed and incredulous from windows and doors. If you suddenly had asked any one of them when the world was coming to an end, he would have replied without the slightest hesitation.
She bore down upon the petrified Mr. Crow.
"Is zat you, An'erson?" she inquired, coming to an uncertain stop at the foot of the steps. Where—oh, where! was the subdued, timorous voice of Sister Rank? Whose—oh, whose! were the shrill and fearless tones that issued forth from the lips of the deacon's wife?
"For the Lord's sake, Lucy,—wha—what ails you?" gasped the horrified marshal.
"Nothing ails me, An'erson. Nev' fel' better'n all my lipe—life. Where's my hush—hushban'?"
She brandished her right hand, and clutched in her fingers an implement that caused Anderson's eyes to almost start from his head.
"What's that you got in your hand?" he cried out.
"Thish? Thass a hashet. Don't you know whass a hashet is?"
"I—I know it's a hatchet. Lucy,—but, fer heaven's sake, what are you goin' to do with it?"
"I'm going to cut th' deacon's head off wiz it," she replied blandly.
"Yes, shir; thass what I'm goin' cut off. Right smack off, An'erson,—and you can't stop me, unnerstan', An'erson. I been wannin' cuttiz 'ead off f'r twenny-fi' year. I—"
"Hey! Stop wavin' that thing around like that, Lucy Rank!"
"You needen be 'fraid, An'erson. I woulden hurt you fer whole United States. Where's my hussam, An'erson?"
Marshal Crow looked hopelessly at the well-scattered witnesses who were taking in the scene from a respectful distance. Obviously it was his duty to do something. Not that he really felt that the deacon's head should not be cut off by his long-suffering wife, but that it was hardly the proper thing for her to do it in public. Virtually every man in Tinkletown had declared, at one time or another, that Mrs. Rank ought to slit the old skinflint's throat, or poison him, or set fire to him, or something of the sort, but, even though he agreed with them, the fact still remained that Marshal Crow considered it his duty to protect the deacon in this amazing crisis.
"Gimme that hatchet, Lucy Rank," he commanded, with authority. "You ain't yourself, an' you know it. You gimme that hatchet an' then lemme take you home an' put you to bed. You'll be all right in the mornin', an—"
"Didden my hussam go in the Blammer ossif minute ago?" she demanded, fixing a baleful glare upon the closed door.
"See here, Lucy, you been drinkin'. You're full as a goat. You gimme that—"
"An'erson Crow, are you tryin' inshult me?" she demanded, drawing herself up. "Wha' you mean sayin' I'm dunk,—drump? You know I never touched dropper anything. I'm the bes' frien' your wife's got innis town an' she—who's 'at lookin' out zat winner? Zat my hussam?"
Before the marshal could interfere, she blazed away at one of the windows in the Banner office. There was a crash of glass. She was now empty-handed but the startled guardian of the peace was slow to realize it. He was still trying to convince himself that it was the gentle, long-suffering Mrs. Rank who stood before him.
Suddenly, to his intense dismay, she threw her arms around his neck and began to weep—and wail.
"I—I—love my hussam,—I love my hussam,—an' I didden mean cuttiz 'ead off—I didden—I didden, An'erson. My hussam's dead. My hussam's head's all off,—an' I love my hussam—I love my hussam."
The door flew open and Harry Squires strode forth.
"What the devil does this mean—My God! Mrs. Rank! Wha—what's the matter with her, Anderson?"
The marshal gazed past him into the office. His eyes were charged with apprehension.
"Where—where's the deacon's head?" he gulped.
The editor did not hear him. He had eyes and ears only for the mumbling creature who dangled limply from the marshal's neck; her face was hidden but her hat was very much in evidence. It was bobbing up and down on the back of her head.