BY GEORGE BARR McCUTCHEON
Author of "Brewster's Millions," "Truxton King," "Sherry," etc.
JOHN T. McCUTCHEON
NEW YORK DODD, MEAD AND COMPANY 1920
COPYRIGHT, 1918, 1919, 1920 BY DODD, MEAD AND COMPANY, INC.
VAIL-BALLOU COMPANY BINGHAMTON AND NEW YORK
A NIGHT TO BE REMEMBERED
"YOU ARE INVITED TO BE PRESENT"
THE PERFECT END OF A DAY
THE BEST MAN WINS
THE VEILED LADY AND THE SHADOW
THE ASTONISHING ACTS OF ANNA
NO QUESTIONS ANSWERED
SHADES OF THE GARDEN OF EDEN!
JAKE MILLER HANGS HIMSELF
Three seconds later the two youngsters had the ear of Anderson Crow
"Wha—what was that you said?" gasped her husband, flopping back in the seat
Then, a hundred feet ahead, his lights fell upon the dauntless, abandoned flivver
Words failed Mr. Crow
The Rev. Mr. Maltby, pastor of the Congregational Church, happened to be passing the town hall
Several heartbroken gentlemen threatened to shoot themselves
"The celebrated Anderson Crow?" asked the man with the glasses
The Marshal started off in the direction of the "shanty"
"I—I surrender! I give in!" he yelled
Something terrible must have happened or Marshal Crow wouldn't be summoned in any such imperative manner as this
In the centre of this group was the new candidate for town marshal
Harry Squires stepped to the front of the platform
When they appeared on the street together
He altered his course, and as she passed him, the flat of the spade landed with impelling force
Eight or ten people were congregated in front of the Fry house
The veiled lady made her daily excursions in the big high-powered car
Yanking open the screen-door, he plunged headlong into the softly lighted veranda
He was surrounded by conquerors
Over him stood two men with pistols levelled at the white, terrified face
"Hold on, Mort!" called out Mr. Crow. "Don't monkey with that trunk"
His wife was now standing guard over it on the porch of the Grand View Hotel
These smiling, complacent women formed the Death Watch that was to witness the swift, inevitable finish of the Sunlight Bar
At the trial he was shamelessly complimentary about Mrs. Nixon's pie
"I am going to reveal to you the true facts in the case of our late lamented friend, Jake Miller"
ANDERSON CROW, DETECTIVE
A NIGHT TO BE REMEMBERED
Two events of great importance took place in Tinkletown on the night of May 6, 1918. The first, occurring at half-past ten o'clock, was of sufficient consequence to rouse the entire population out of bed—thereby creating a situation, almost unique, which allowed every one in town to participate in all the thrills of the second. When the history of Tinkletown is written,—and it is said to be well under way at the hands of that estimable authoress, Miss Sue Becker, some fifty years a resident of the town and the great-granddaughter of one of its founders,—when this history is written, the night of May 6, 1918, will assert itself with something of the same insistence that causes the world to refresh its memory occasionally by looking into the encyclopedia to determine the exact date of the Fall of the Bastile. The fire-bell atop the town hall heralded the first event, and two small boys gave notice of the second.
Smock's grain-elevator, on the outskirts of the town, was in flames, and with a high wind blowing from the west, the Congregational and Baptist churches, the high school, Pratt's photograph gallery and the two motion-picture houses were threatened with destruction. As Anderson Crow, now deputy marshal of the town, declared the instant he arrived at the scene of the conflagration, nothing but the most heroic and indefatigable efforts on the part of the volunteer fire-department could save the town—only he put it in this way: "We'll have another Chicago fire here, sure as you're born, unless it rains or the wind changes mighty all-fired sudden; so we got to fight hard, boys."
Mr. Crow, also deputy superintendent of the fire-department, was late in getting to the engine-house back of the town hall—so late that the hand-engine and hose-reel, manned by volunteers who had waited as long as advisable, were belabouring the fire with water some time before he reached the engine-house. This irritated Mr. Crow considerably. He was out of breath when he got to the elevator, or some one would have heard from him. Another cause of annoyance was the fact that his rubber coat and helmet went with the hose-reel and were by this time adorning the person of an energetic fire-fighter who had no official right to them. After a diligent search Mr. Crow located his regalia and commanded the wearer, one Patrick Murphy, to hand 'em over at once. What Patrick Murphy, a recent arrival at Tinkletown, said in response to this demand was lost in the roar of the flames; so Anderson put his hand to his ear and shouted:
Patrick repeated his remark with great vigour, and Mr. Crow, apparently catching no more than the final word in the sentence, moved hastily away, but not before agreeing with Mr. Murphy that it was as hot as the place he mentioned.
Ed Higgins, the feed-store man, was in charge of the fire-fighters, who were industriously throwing a single stream of water from the fire-cistern into the vast and towering conflagration. It was like tossing a pint of water into the Atlantic Ocean.
"Got her under control?" roared Anderson, bristling up to Ed.
"Sure!" shouted Ed. "She's workin' beautiful. Just look at that stream. You—"
"I mean the fire," bellowed Anderson.
"Oh, I thought you meant the engine. I don't think we'll get the fire under contral till the derned warehouse is burned down. Gee whiz, Chief, where you been? We waited as long as we could for you, and then—"
"Don't blame me," was Anderson's answer. "I'd ha' been the first man at the engine-house if I hadn't waited nigh onto half an hour trying to get the chief of the fire-department out of bed and dressed. I argued—"
"What's the matter with you? Ain't you chief of the fire-department? Are you crazy or what?"
"Ain't you got any brains, Ed Higgins? My wife's been chief ever since she was elected marshal last month, an' you know it. That's what we get fer lettin' the women vote an' have a hand in the affairs of the nation. She just wouldn't get up—so I had to come off without her. Where's my trumpet? We got to get this fire under control, or the whole town will go. Gosh, if it'd only rain! Looked a little like rain this evenin'—an' this wind may be bringin' up a storm or—"
"Here's your trumpet, Mr. Crow," screeched a small boy, bursting through the crowd.
Half of the inhabitants of Tinkletown stood outside of the rim of heat and watched the fire, while the other half, in all stages of deshabille, remained in their front yards training the garden hose on the roofs and sides of their houses and yelling to every speeding passer-by to telephone to the commissioner of water-works to turn on more pressure. Among his other offices, Mr. Crow was commissioner of water-works, having held over in that office because the board of selectmen forgot to appoint any one else in his place after the last election. And while a great many citizens carried the complaint of the garden-hose handlers to the commissioner, it is doubtful if he heard them above the combined sound of his own voice and the roar of the flames.
Possessed of his trumpet, the redoubtable Mr. Crow took his stand beside the old hand-pumping "fire-engine" and gave orders right and left in a valiant but thoroughly cracked voice.
"Now, we'll git her out," panted Alf Reesling, the town drunkard, speaking to Father Maloney, the Catholic priest, who was taking a turn with him at the pumping apparatus. "Ed.'s all right, but it takes Anderson to handle a fire as she ought to be handled."
Father Maloney, perspiring copiously and breathing with great difficulty, grunted without conviction.
"Leetle more elbow-grease there, men!" shouted Anderson, directing his command to the futile pumpers. "We got to get water up to that second-story winder. More steam, boys—more steam!"
"Aw, what's the use?" growled Bill Jackson, letting go of the pump to wipe his dripping forehead. "We couldn't put her out with Niagary Falls in flood-time."
"Bring your hose over here, men—lively, now!" called out the leader. "Every second counts. Lively! Git out o' the way, Purt Throcker! Consarn you fool boys! Can't you keep back where you belong? Right over here, men! That's the ticket! Now, shoot her into that winder. Hey! One of you boys bust in that winder glass with a rock. All of you! See if you c'n hit her!"
A fusillade of stones left the hands of a score of small boys and clattered against the walls of the doomed warehouse, some of them coming as near as ten feet to the objective, two of them being so wide of the mark that simultaneous ejaculations of surprise and pain issued from the lips of Miss Spratt and Professor Smith, both of the high school.
The heat was intense, blistering. Reluctantly the crowd, awed and fascinated by the greatest blaze it had ever seen,—not even excepting the burning of Eliphalet Loop's straw-ricks in 1897,—edged farther and farther away, pursued by the relentless heat-waves. The fire-fighters withdrew in good order, obeying the instinct of self-preservation somewhat in advance of the command of their superior, who, indeed, had anticipated such a man[oe]uvre by taking a position from which he could lead the retreat. By the time the fire was at its height, "lighting the way clear to heaven," according to Miss Sue Becker, who had to borrow Marshal Crow's pencil and a piece of paper from Mort Fryback so that she could jot down the beautiful thought before it perished in the "turmoil of frightfulness!"
"More elbow-grease, men!" roared Anderson, "She'll get ahead of us if we let up for a second! Pump! Pump!"
And pump they did, notwithstanding the fact that the stream of water from the nozzle in the hands of Ed Higgins and Petey Cicotte was now falling short of the building by some twenty or thirty feet.
"Serves old man Smock right!" declared Anderson in wrath, addressing the town clerk and two selectmen who by virtue of office retained advantageous positions in the front rank of spectators "If he'd done as I told him an' paid fer havin' water-mains extended as fer out as his warehouse, we could have saved it fer him. It looks to me now as if she's bound to go. Where's Harry?"
Harry Squires, the reporter for The Banner, notebook in hand, came up at that instant.
"Looks pretty serious, doesn't it, Chief?" he remarked.
"The fire-company deserves all the credit, Harry," said Anderson magnanimously. "I want you to put it in the paper, just that way, as comin' from me. If it hadn't been for the loyal, heroic efforts of the finest fire-department Tinkletown has ever had, the—Hey! Pull that hose back here, you derned fools! Do you want to get it scorched an' ruined so's it won't be fit fer anything agin? Fetch that engine over here across the road too! Do you hear me?" Turning again to the reporter, he resumed: "Yes sir, if it hadn't been fer them boys, there wouldn't have been a blessed thing saved, Harry."
Harry Squires squinted narrowly. "I can't say that anything has been saved, Chief. Just mention something, please."
Anderson looked at him in amazement. "Why, ain't you got any eyes? Hain't they saved the engine and every foot of hose the town owns?"
"They could have saved that much by staying at home in bed," said Mr. Squires dryly. "I've just seen Mr. Smock. He says there were fifty thousand bushels of wheat in the bins, waiting for cars to take it down to New York. Every bushel of it was going abroad for the Allies. Does that put any sort of an idea into your nut, Anderson?"
"Into your bean, I should say. Or, in other words, hair-pasture."
"He means head, Mr. Crow," explained Miss Sue Becker.
"Well, why don't he say head—that's what I'd like to know."
"Do you deduce anything from the fact that the grain was to go to the Allies, Anderson?" inquired Harry.
The harassed marshal scratched his head, but said: "Absolutely!"
"Well, what do you deduce, Mr. Hawkshaw?"
"I deduce, you derned jay, that old man Smock won't be able to deliver it. Move back, will you? You're right in my way, an'—"
"I suppose you know that the Germans are still fighting the Allies, don't you? Fighting 'em here as well as over in France? Now does that help you any?"
Mr. Crow's jaw fell—but only for a second. He tightened it up almost immediately and with commendable dignity.
"My sakes alive, Harry Squires, you don't suppose I'm tellin' my real suspicions to any newspaper reporter, do you? How do I know you ain't a spy? Still, dog-gone you, if it will set your mind at rest, I'll say this much: I have positive proof that Smock's warehouse was set on fire by agents of the German gover'ment. That's one of the reasons I was a little late in gettin' to the fire. Now, don't try to pump me any more, 'cause I can't tell you anything that would jeopardize the interests of justice. Hey! Where in thunder are you fellers goin' with that hose an' engine?"
The firemen were on a dead run.
"We're goin' a couple of hundred yards down the road, so's we won't be killed when that front wall caves in," shouted Ed Higgins, without pausing. "Better come along, Anderson. She's beginning to bulge something awful."
Anderson Crow arose to the occasion.
"Lively now!" he barked through the trumpet. "Get that hose and engine back to a safe place! Can't you see the wall's about ready to fall? Everybody fall back! Women and children first! Women first, remember!"
Down the road fled the crowd, looking over its collective shoulders, so to speak—followed by the venerable fire apparatus and the still more venerable commander-in-chief.
Harry Squires, in his two-column account of the fire in the Banner, dilated upon the fact that the women failed to retain the advantage so gallantly extended by the men. For the matter of about ten or fifteen yards they were first; after which, being handicapped by petticoats, they fell ingloriously behind. Some of the older ones—maliciously, he feared—impeded the progress of their protectors by neglecting to get out of the way in time, with the result that at least two men were severely bruised by falling over them—the case of Uncle Dad Simms being a particularly sad one. He collided head-on with the portly Mrs. Loop, and failing to budge her, suffered the temporary loss of a full set of teeth and nearly twenty minutes of consciousness. Mr. Squires went on to say that the only thing that saved Mr. Simms from being run over and killed by the fire-engine was the fact that the latter was about a block and a half ahead of him when the accident occurred.
Sparks soared high and far on the smoke-laden wind, scurrying townward across the barren quarry-lands. The vast canopy was red with the glow of flying embers and fire-lit clouds. Below, in the dusty road, swarmed the long procession of citizens. Grim, stark hemlocks gleamed in the weird, uncanny light that turned the green of their foliage and the black of their trunks into the colour of the rose on the side facing the fire, but left them dark and forbidding on the other. The telegraph-poles beyond the burning warehouse lining the railroad spur that ventured down from the main line some miles away and terminated at Smock's, loomed up like lofty gibbets in the ghastly light. Three quarters of a mile from the scene of the conflagration lay the homes of the people who lived on the rim of Tinkletown, and there also were the two churches and the motion-picture houses.
"We got to save them picture-houses," panted Anderson, and then in hasty apology,—"and the churches, too."
"You got to save my studio first," bawled Elmer K. Pratt, the photographer, trying to keep pace with him in the congested line.
"Halt!" commanded the chief, not because tactics called for such an action but because he was beginning to feel that he couldn't keep up with the engine.
The cavalcade eased down to a walk and finally came to a halt. Every eye was riveted on the burning structure which now stood out alone in all its grandeur beyond the quarries and gravel-pits. Every one waited in breathless suspense for the collapse of the towering walls.
A shrill, boyish voice broke out above the subdued, awe-struck chatter of the crowd.
"Where's Mr. Crow? Mr. Crow! Where are you?"
"Sh!" hissed Alf Reesling, glowering upon the excited boy, who had just come up at full speed from the direction of the town. "Don't you make so much noise! The walls are going to cave in, an'—"
"Where's Mr. Crow?" panted the boy, a lad of twelve. His eyes appeared starting from his head. A second boy joined him, and he was trembling so violently that he could not speak at all. All he could do was to point at the lank figure of the old town marshal, some distance back in the crowd.
Three seconds later the two youngsters had the ear of Anderson Crow, and between them they poured it full of news of the most extraordinary character. The crowd, forgetting the imminent crash of the warehouse wall, pressed eagerly forward.
"Wait a second—wait a second!" roared Anderson. "One at a time now. Don't both of you talk at oncet. You, Bud—you tell it. You keep still, Roswell Hatch. Take your time, Bud!"
"Lemme tell it, Mr. Crow," begged Roswell. "I knowed it first. It ain't fair for Bud to—"
"But I got here first," protested Bud, and there might have been something more sanguinary than mere words if Marshal Crow had not interfered.
"None o' that, now! What's the matter, Bud?"
"Somethin' turrible has happened, Mr. Crow—somethin' awfully turrible," wheezed the boy.
"If you derned little scalawags have run all the way from town to tell me that Smock's warehouse is on fire, you'd—"
"Oh, gee, that ain't nothin'!" gulped Bud. "Wait till you hear what I know."
"I can't wait all night. I got to save Mr. Pratt's studio, an'—"
"Well, you know them two tramps you put in the lock-up yesterday afternoon?" cried Bud.
"Desperit characters, both of 'em. I figgered they was up to some devilment an—"
"Well, they ain't in any more; they're out. Ros an' me seen the whole business. We wuz—"
"Geminy crickets! What's this? A jail-break? Out of the way, everybody! Two desperit villains are loose in town, an—"
"Hold on, Mr. Crow," cried the other lad, seizing his opportunity. "There's more'n two. Three or four more fellers from the outside come up an' busted in the door an' let 'em out. Then they all run down the street to where the new bank is. Me an' Bud seen some of 'em climb into one of the winders of the bank, an' nen we struck out to find you, Mr. Crow. We thought maybe you'd like to know what—"
The rest of Roswell's narrative was lost in the hullabaloo of command and action. The fickle populace turned its back on the burning warehouse and swept down the lane in quest of new excitement. The tottering wall came down with a crash, but its fall was unwitnessed except by those infirm old ladies and gentlemen who had lagged so far behind in the first rush for safety that they were still in ignorance of the latest calamity. It was a pity, wrote Miss Sue Becker in her diary, that the gods crowded so much into a single night when there were "three hundred and sixty-four more perfectly good nights available."
The story of the two boys proved not only to be true, but also woefully lacking in exaggeration. The jail-delivery and the looting of the First National Bank of Tinkletown turned out to be but two in a long and fairly complete list of disasters.
Investigation revealed an astonishing thoroughness and impartiality on the part of the bandits. The safe in Brubaker's drugstore was missing, with something like nineteen dollars in cash; Lamson's store had been entered, and the cash-register rifled; Fryback's hardware-store, Higgins' feed-store and Rush Applegate's tailor-shop were visited, and, as Harry Squires said in the Banner, "contents noted." Two brand-new "shoes" and a couple of inner tubes were missing from Gillespie's Universal Garage, and Ed Higgins' dog was slain in cold blood by the "remorseless ravagers."
* * * * *
Nobody went to sleep that night. Everybody joined in the search for the robbers. Citizens hurried home after the first alarm and did their part by looking under every bed in their houses, after which the more venturesome visited garrets, cellars and woodsheds.
Anderson Crow, after organizing a large posse and commandeering several automobiles, suddenly remembered that he had left his silver watch and a wallet containing eleven dollars under his pillow. He drove home as rapidly as possible in John Blosser's 1903 Pope-Toledo and was considerably aggravated to find his wife sound asleep. He awoke her with some rudeness.
"Wake up, Eva! Consarn it, don't you know the town's full of highwaymen? It'd be just like you to sleep here like a log and let 'em come in an' nip my watch an' purse right out o' your own bed. I wouldn't 'a' been a bit surprised to find 'em gone—an' you chloryformed and gagged. I—"
"Burglars, did you say?" cried his wife, sitting up in bed and staring at him in alarm.
"Dozens of 'em," he declared, pocketing his watch and wallet. "Get up and help me search the house. Where's my revolver?"
"Oh, Lordy, Anderson! Your—your revolver? You're not going to shoot it off, are you?"
"I certainly am—if the derned thing's loaded. Where's it at?"
She sank back with a sigh of relief. "Thank heavens, I just remembered that Milt Cupples borrowed it last winter to—"
"Borrowed my revolver?" roared Anderson. "Why—"
"To loan to a friend of his'n who was going down to New York on business."
"An' he never brought it back?"
"He never did."
Anderson's opinion of Milt Cupples was smothered in a violent chorus of automobile horns. Mrs. Crow promptly covered her head with the bed-clothes and let out a muffled shriek.
"It's only the posse," he shouted, pulling the covers from her face. "Don't be scairt, Evy. Where's your courage? Remember who you are. Rememb—"
"I'm only a poor, weak woman—"
"I know that," he agreed, "but that ain't all. You are marshal o' Tinkletown, an' if you're goin' to cover up your head every time a horn toots, you'll—"
"Oh, go on away and leave me alone, Anderson," she cried. "I don't want to be marshal. I never did. I resign now—do you hear me? I resign this instant. I was a fool to let the women elect me—and the women were worse fools for voting for me. That's what comes of letting women vote. We had a good, well-trained marshal—because that's what you are, Anderson. And—"
The door flew open. Alf Reesling burst into the room, followed by both of Anderson Crow's daughters.
"Come on, Anderson!" shouted Alf, gasping with excitement. "Good even', Mrs. Crow. Howdy do? Hurry up, Ander—"
"We tried to keep him out, Ma," broke in Caroline Crow, glaring at Alf. "We told him you were in bed, but he—"
"Well, gosh a'mighty," cried Alf in exasperation, "we can't wait all night. We got track o' them fellers, but if we got to set around out here till mornin' just because your ma's in bed, I—I—well, that's all I got to say." He turned to Anderson for support, and catching the look in his eye, bawled: "No, I ain't been drinkin', Anderson Crow! I'm as sober as a—"
"Get out of my bedroom this minute, Alf Reesling," cried Mrs. Crow. "I'll tell your wife how you're behavin' if you—"
"Go ahead an' tell her," snorted Alf, goaded beyond endurance. "She ain't had a good laugh since the time Anderson had his pocket picked up at Boggs City, fair-week. Go ahead an'—"
"Come on, Alf—lively now," broke in Mr. Crow hastily. "We got to be on the jump. Gosh, listen to them dogs! Never heard so much barkin' in all my life."
Out of the house rushed the two men. Anderson immediately began issuing orders.
"Ed Higgins, you take a squad o' men and go back to the fire. We got our hands full tonight. Now, all you fellers as has got pistols an' shotguns go home an' get 'em at oncet. Come back here as quick as you can an'—what say, Harry?"
He turned to the reporter.
"I said the first thing to do is to shoot about thirty or forty of these infernal dogs."
"We can't afford to waste ca'tridges, Harry Squires," said Anderson severely. "We got to tackle a desperate gang 'fore we're through."
"Where is your daughter Caroline, Mr. Crow?" inquired the reporter irrelevantly.
"She's in the house tryin' to quiet her ma. A drunk man bust into her room a little while ago an'—"
"Well, tell her to get on the job at once. She's chief telephone operator down at the exchange, and she ought to be there now sending out warnings to every town within twenty miles of—"
"Carrie! Car-ree!" shouted Anderson, racing up the path. "How many times have I got to tell you to 'tend to that telephonin'? Go down to the office this minute an' call up Boggs City an'—"
"I'm not the night operator," snapped Caroline, appearing in the window. "What's the matter with Jane Swiggers and Lucy Cummings? They're supposed to be on duty all night."
"Don't sass back! Do as I tell you. Telephone every town in the county to be on the lookout fer an automobile with two tires and a couple of inner tubes—"
"Two new tires, Caroline," amended Harry Squires.
"And carrying a tin safe with George W. Brubaker's name on it in red letters. Say that a complete description of the robbers will follow. Is your ma still in bed?"
"Yes, she is."
"Well, you tell her I'll be home soon as I capture them desperadoes." He was moving toward the front gate. Caroline's paraphrase pursued him and left a sting:
"What is home without a father!"
Followed now a lengthy and at times acrimonious argument as to the further operations of the marshal's posse.
"We're losing valuable time," protested Harry Squires at the end of a half-hour's fertile discussion. Fertile is here employed instead of futile, for never was there a more extensive crop of ideas raised by human agency.
"We can't do anything till we find out which way the derned rascals went, can we?" said Mr. Crow bitingly. "We got to find somebody that seen 'em start off in that automobile. We—"
"Stuff and nonsense!" cried Harry. "We've got to split up into parties and follow every road out of Tinkletown."
"How in thunder do you expect me to lead five or six different posses?" demanded Anderson.
"Yes, an' what in thunder would we do if we caught up with 'em unexpected-like if we didn't have Anderson with us?" said Alf Reesling, loyal to the core. "In the first place, we wouldn't have any legal right to capture 'em, and in the second place we couldn't do it anyhow."
By this time there were a dozen shotguns on the scene, to say nothing of a most impressive collection of antiquated revolvers, "Flobert" rifles, Civil War muskets and baseball bats.
"I move we move," was the laconic but excellent speech of Mr. Henry Plumb. He already had his forefinger on the trigger of his "single-barrel."
"Second the motion," cried out Ed Higgins loudly.
"I thought I told you to go an' 'tend to that fire, Ed Higgins," said Anderson, in some surprise.
An extremely noisy dog-fight put an end to the discussion for the time being, and it was too late to renew it after Situate Jones' mongrel Pete had finished with Otto Schultz's dachshund Bismarck. So vociferous was the chorus put up by the other dogs that no one noticed the approach of an automobile, coming down the Boggs City pike. The car passed at full speed. Three dogs failed to get out of the way in time, and as a result, the list of casualties was increased to four, including Ed Higgins' previously mentioned black and tan.
The speeding car, a big one loaded with men, was a hundred yards away and going like the wind before the startled group regained its senses.
"There they go!" yelled Harry Squires.
"Exceedin' the speed limit, dog-gone 'em!" roared Anderson. "They ought to be locked up fer ten days an' fined—"
"Come on, men!" shouted Harry. "After 'em! That's the gang! They've been headed off at Boggs City—or something like that."
"Did anybody ketch the number of that car?" shouted Anderson. "I c'n trace 'em by their license number if—"
The rest of the speech was lost in the rush to enter the waiting automobiles, and the shouting that ensued. Then followed a period of frantic cranking, after which came the hasty backing and turning of cars, the tooting of horns and the panic of gears.
Loaded to the "gunnels," the half-dozen machines finally got under way, and off they went into the night, chortling with an excitement all their own.
A lone figure remained standing in front of Anderson Crow's gate—a tall, lank figure without coat or hat, one suspender supporting a pair of blue trousers, the other hanging limp and useless. He wore a red undershirt and carried in his left hand the trumpet of a fire-fighting chieftain.
"Well, I'll be dog-goned!" issued from his lips as the last of the cars rattled away. Then he started off bravely on foot in the wake of the noisy cavalcade. "Now, all of 'em are breakin' the speed laws; an' it's goin' to cost 'em somethin', consarn 'em, when I yank 'em up 'fore Justice Robb tomorrow, sure as my name's Anderson Crow."
Presently he heard a car approaching from behind. It was very dark in the outskirts of the town, and the lonely highway that reached down into the valley was a thing of the imagination rather than of the vision. Profiting by the catastrophes that attended the passing of the big touring-car Anderson hastily leaped to the side of the road. A couple of small headlights veered around a curve in the road and came down the slight grade, followed naturally and somewhat haltingly by an automobile whose timorous brakes were half set. There was a single occupant.
Anderson levelled his trumpet at the driver and shouted:
"Oh-h!" came in a shrill, agitated voice from the car, but the machine gave no sign of halting.
"Hey! Halt, I say!"
"I—I don't know how!" moaned the voice. "How do you stop it?"
"Good gracious sakes alive! Is—is it you, Eva?"
"Oh, Anderson! Thank goodness! I thought you was a highwayman. Oh, dear—oh, dear! Ain't there any way to stop this thing?"
"Shut off the power, an' it'll stop when you start up the grade."
Anderson was trotting along behind, tugging at one of the mud-guards.
"How do you shut it off?"
"The same way you turned it on."
"Goodness, what a fool way to do things!"
The little car came to a stop on the rise of the grade, and Anderson side-stepped just in time to avoid being bumped into as it started back again, released.
"It's Deacon Rank's car," explained Mrs. Crow in response to a series of bewildered, rapid-fire questions from her husband. "He offered to sell it to me for fifty dollars, and I've been learnin' how to run it for two whole days—out in Peters' Mill lane."
"How does it happen I never knowed anything about this, Eva?" demanded he, regaining in some measure his tone of authority.
"I wanted to surprise you."
"Well, by gosh, you have!"
"Deacon Rank's been giving me lessons every afternoon. I know how to start it and steer it, goin' slow-like—but of course I've got a lot to learn."
"Well, you just turn that car around an' skedaddle for home, Eva Crow," was his command. "What business have you got runnin' around the country like this in the dead o' night, all alone—"
"Ain't I the Marshal of Tinkletown?" she broke in crossly. "What right have all you men to be going off without me in this—"
"The only official thing you've done, madam, since you got to be marshal, was to resign while you was in bed not more'n an hour ago. I accepted your resignation, so now you go home as quick as that blamed old rattletrap will take you."
"Besides, I saw the ornery fools go off an' leave you behind, Anderson, and that made me mad. I run over to Deacon Rank's and got the car. Now, you hop right in, and I'll take you wherever you want to go. Get in, I say. I hereby officially withdraw my resignation. I'm still marshal of this town, and if you don't do as I tell you, I'll discharge you as deputy."
So Anderson got up beside her and pulled desperately at his chin-whiskers, no doubt to assist the words that were struggling to escape from his compressed lips.
After considerable back-firing, the decrepit machine began to climb the grade. Presently Mr. Crow found his voice.
"Didn't I tell you to turn around, Eva?"
"Don't talk to me when I'm driving," said she, gripping the wheel tightly with the fingers of death.
"You turn the car around immediately, woman. I'm your husband, an' I order you to do as I tell ye!"
"I'll turn it around when I get good and ready," said she in a strained voice. "Can't you see there ain't room enough to turn around in this road?"
"Well, it don't get any wider."
"Besides, I don't know how to turn it around," she confessed.
"Why, you just back her, same as anybody else does, an' then reverse her, an'—"
"You old goose, how can I back her when she keeps on going for'ard?"
Anderson was silent for a moment.
"Well, if I may be so bold as to ask, madam, where are you going?" he asked, with deep sarcasm in his voice.
"You leave it to me, Anderson Crow. I know what I am doing."
They went on for about a quarter of a mile before she spoke again.
"There's only one way to turn around, and I'm taking it. How far is it to Fisher's lane?"
"You can't turn her around in Fisher's lane, Eva. It's all a good-sized dog c'n do to turn around in that road."
"I asked you how far is it?"
"'Bout a mile an' a half."
"I ain't going to turn around in Fisher's lane, Anderson. I'm going to foller it straight to the Britton toll-road, and then I'm going to turn into that and head for Tinkletown. That's how I'm going to turn this plagued car around."
"Well, of all the—why, geminently, Eva, it's—it's nigh onto nine mile. You shorely can't be such a fool as to—"
"I'm going to turn this car around if it takes twenty miles," she said firmly.
There was another long, intense silence.
"I wonder if the boys have got that fire out yet?" mumbled Anderson. "Course, there ain't no use worryin' about them robbers. They got away. If I'd been along with that posse, we'd 'a' had 'em sure by this time, but—oh, well, there ain't no use cryin' over spilt milk."
In due time they came to Fisher's lane. Mrs. Crow made a very sharp but triumphant turn, and the second leg of the course was before them. Half an hour later the valiant machine sneaked out of the narrow byway into the Britton pike and pointed its nose homeward.
"Let her out a little, Eva," said Anderson, taking a long breath. "It's four mile to town, an'—"
"Oh, goodness!" squeaked the driver, giving the wheel a perilous twist. "Look! There comes a car behind us. Help! They'll run into us! They'll—"
"Pull off to the side of the road—no, this side! Gosh! Hurry up, Eva. They're comin' like greased lightnin'! Look out! Not too fer over! There's a ditch alongside—"
The remainder of the sentence was lost in the wild shriek of a siren, shriek after shriek succeeding each other as a big car, with far-reaching acetylene lamps, roared down upon them. Like a mighty whirlwind it swept by them, careening perilously on the sloping edge of the road. Suddenly the grinding of brakes assailed the ears of the thanksgiving Crows, and to their astonishment the big machine came to a standstill a hundred yards or more down the road. Mrs. Crow promptly "put on" the accelerator, and but for a vehement warning from her husband would have gone full tilt into the rear end of the mighty stranger. She managed to stop the little car when its faithful nose was not more than two yards from the little red light ahead.
"Hey, Ford!" called out a man who had arisen in the tonneau of the big car and was looking back at them.
"Hey, yourself!" responded Anderson.
"Is this the road to Albany?"
"No, it ain't."
"We've lost our way. Where does this road take us?"
"Into the city of Tinkletown."
Three or four voices in the car were guilty of saying things in the presence of a lady.
"Well, where in hell are we?" demanded the spokesman.
"You ain't in hell yet, but you will be pretty soon if you keep up that reckless driving, lemme tell you that."
"Where do we get the Albany road?" called out another voice from the car.
"The quickest way is to go into Tinkletown an' take the first turn to the left after—"
"But we don't want to go to Tinkletown, you damned old hayseed. We—"
"Shut up, Joe!" cried one of the men. "He's excited, Mister. His wife's sick, and we're trying to get him home before she—before she croaks."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," cried Mrs. Crow before Anderson could speak. She also kicked him violently on the ankle-bone. "The quickest way to get to the Albany road," she went on, "is by cuttin' through back of Cole's sawmill an' crossin' the river at Goose's Ferry. That's about seven miles from here. Take the first lane to your left, half a mile further on."
"Much obliged, ma'am."
"You're entirely welcome," said she, this time poking her elbow into Anderson's ribs. He grunted.
"Is the road pretty good all the way?"
"It's a good dirt road."
"We're in a great hurry, ma'am. Is it safe to hit it up a little on the dirt-road? His wife specially wanted to see him before she died."
"Perfectly safe, as long as you keep in it."
"Nightie!" called the spokesman, and the big car leaped forward as if suddenly unchained.
"Well, of all the—" began Anderson wrathfully.
"Get out and crank this car, Anderson," she broke in excitedly.
"You know as well as I do that that dirt road ends at Heffner's farm. It don't go nowheres near the river. What ails you, Eva Crow? That poor feller's wife—"
"Crank, I tell you!"
He got out and cranked the car, grumbling all the while. As he got back in the seat beside her, he exploded:
"An' what's more, there's that soldiers' camp at Green Ridge. They won't be allowed to go through it without a pass. There must be a thousand men there. They're marchin' to some'eres in America, the feller told me this mornin' when he come in at Jackson's to get some smokin' terbaccer. Camp at Green Ridge fer two days, he says, an' then—Hey! Don't drive so blamed reckless, Eva! Can't you get her under control? Put on your brakes, woman! She'll—"
"Hush up, Anderson. You let me alone."
The little old car was sailing along at a speed that caused every joint to rattle with joy unconfined. To Anderson's amazement, and to a certain extent consternation, Mrs. Crow swung into the dirt-road over which the big car was now whizzing a mile or so ahead.
"Here! Where you going?" barked Anderson, arising from the seat.
"There's going to be hell to pay before you know it, Anderson Crow," said she, her voice high and squeaky.
"Wha-what was that you said?" gasped her husband, flopping back in the seat. He couldn't believe his ears.
"I learned that from my predecessor in office," she replied somewhat guiltily. "I've heard you say it a million times."
"But I ain't no woman. I—"
"Set still! Do you want to fall out and break your neck?"
And Anderson sat still, dazed and helpless in the direful presence of a woman who, to his utter horror, had gone violently insane. He began silently but urgently to pray that the gasoline would give out, when he would find himself in a position to reason with her, gently or forcibly as the situation demanded. He broke into a profuse and chilly perspiration. His wife crazy! His wife of forty years! His old comrade!
He was aroused from these horrifying, sickening reflections by a hoarse but imperative word coming from nowhere out of the darkness of the road ahead.
Mrs. Crow put on the brakes.
"Who goes there?"
"Friends!" faltered Mrs. Crow.
"The marshal of Tinkletown," added Anderson, vastly relieved by her singularly intelligent answer.
"Advance and give the countersign!"
"All right. What is it?" inquired Mrs. Crow.
A couple of non-commissioned officers joined the sentry at this moment. They were but half dressed.
"What the devil's the meaning of all this?" exclaimed one of them, planting himself beside the car and flashing a light in Mrs. Crow's face. "Don't you hayseeds know any better than to bust into a military camp—"
His companion interrupted him. "Keep your shirt on, Bill. Didn't I hear the man say he was the marshal of Tinkletown?"
"No, sir, you didn't! I said we are the marshal of Tinkletown. I—"
"All right, all right. Do you happen to be chasin' a gang of joy-riders?"
"We do—we are!" cried Mrs. Crow.
"They zipped through this camp like a rifle-shot about ten minutes ago. They've raised a lovely row. Officer of the day bawlin' everybody out, and—Here, hold on!"
"We've just got to catch them men," pleaded Mrs. Crow.
"One of 'em's got a sick wife," added Anderson, "an' we've got to tell him he's on the wrong road."
"Well, you just sit right where you are," spoke the top sergeant. "They'll be back this way in a few minutes. This road ends about a mile above here, and they'll have to come back. The sentries say they went through here so fast they couldn't see anything but wind."
"Are you going to stop them?" cried Mrs. Crow eagerly.
"We sure are," said the other non-com. "See that bunch of men forming over there? Well, they've got real guns and real bullets, and they're mad, Mrs. Marshal. You can't blame 'em."
Off at one side of the road a little distance away a company of soldiers was lining up. The sharp command of an officer rang out.
"Thank goodness!" cried Mrs. Crow.
"Look here, Eva," said Anderson nervously. "I guess you'd better pull off to one side of the road, just in case them soldiers don't stop 'em. We're right smack in their way, an' gosh only knows where we'd land if they smashed into us. It'd take a week to find us, we'd be so scattered about."
"Don't be uneasy," said the top sergeant. "They'll stop, all right, all right."
"Let me whisper something to you, Mr. Officer," said Mrs. Crow. "It's very important."
He obligingly held up an ear, and she leaned down and spoke rapidly, earnestly into it.
"You don't say so!" he cried out. "Excuse me!" And off he dashed, calling out to his companion to follow.
A minute later the most extraordinary activity affected the group of soldiers over the way. Commands were now issued in lowered tones, and men marched rapidly away, dividing into squads.
"What did you say to that feller?" demanded Anderson.
"I told him who those men are, Anderson Crow."
"You couldn't. They're perfect strangers. If they wasn't, how'd they happen to miss the road?"
"They are the very men I'm looking for," said she. "They're the robbers,—and the men who set fire to Smock's warehouse, I'll bet you—and everything else!"
An officer rushed up.
"Turn that flivver around in the middle of the road and jump out quick. That will stop them. Let 'em smash it up if necessary. It isn't worth more than ten dollars."
While a half-dozen men were dragging the car into position as a barricade, Mrs. Crow exclaimed to her husband:
"That old skinflint! He said it was cheap at fifty dollars. Thank goodness, I—"
But Anderson was hustling her out of the car. In the distance the headlights of the bandits' car burst into view as it swung around a bend in the road.
Soldiers everywhere! They seemed to have sprung out of the ground. On came the big car, thundering into the trap. Bugle-calls sounded; a couple of guns blazed into the air as the car flew past the outposts, lights flared suddenly in the path of bewildered occupants, and loud imperative commands rang out on the air.
Into the gantlet of guns the big car rushed. The man at the wheel bent low and took the reckless chance of getting through.
Then, a hundred feet ahead, his lights fell upon the dauntless abandoned flivver. He jerked frantically at the brakes.
"Halt!" shouted Anderson Crow from the top of the roadside bank. "Surrender in the name of the Law!"
He spoke just in time.
Crash! They halted!
Deacon Rank's little car died a glorious, spectacular death. (Harry Squires, in his account, placed it all alone in the list of "unidentified dead.")
Three minutes after the collision, brawny soldiers were bending over the stretched-out figures of five unconscious men.
Mr. and Mrs. Crow stood on the edge of the group, awe-struck and silent.
"They're coming around, all right," said some one at Anderson's elbow. "He was slowing down when they struck. But there's no hope for the poor old flivver."
Anderson found his voice—a quavering, uncertain voice—and exclaimed:
"Stand aside, men! I am the marshal of Tinkletown, an' them scoundrels are my prisoners."
His progress was barred by a couple of soldiers. An officer approached.
"Easy, Mr. Marshal—easy, now. This is our affair, you know. I guess you'd better come with me to the colonel. Don't be alarmed. They shan't escape."
"They're mighty desperit characters—" began Anderson.
"Step this way, please," said the other shortly.
* * * * *
It was four o'clock in the morning when Mr. and Mrs. Crow were deposited at their front door by the colonel's automobile. The robbers, under heavy guard, remained in the camp, pending action on the part of the civic authorities. They were very much alive and kicking when Anderson left them, after a pompous harangue on the futility of crime in that neck of the woods.
"Yes, sir, Colonel," he said, turning to the camp commander, "a crook ain't got any more chance than a snowball in—you know—when he tries to pull the wool over my eyes. I've been ketchin' thieves and bandits an' the Lord knows what-all for forty years er more, an' so forth. I want to thank you, sir, an' your brave soldier boys—an' the United States Government also—fer the assistance you have given me tonight. I doubt very much whether I could 'a' took 'em single-handed—handicapped as I was by havin' a woman along. An' when you git over to France with these brave troops of yours, I c'n tell you one thing: the Kaiser'll know it, you bet! Never mind about the old car. It's seen its best days. An' it ain't mine, anyhow. I'll be out here bright and early tomorrow morning with my posse, an' we'll take them fellers off'm your hands. If you'll excuse me now, I guess I'll be movin' along to'ards home. I've still got a fire to put out, an' a lot of other things to do besides. I've got to let the bank know I have recovered their money an' left it in good hands, an' I've got to send a posse out to see if they c'n locate George Brubaker's safe along the road anywheres. An' what's more, I've got to repair the jail, and officially notify Deacon Rank he's had an accident to his car."
Mrs. Crow had little to say until she was snugly in bed. Her husband was getting into his official garments.
"I think you're foolish to go out again, Anderson," she said. "It's not daylight yet. There won't be anybody around, this time of day, to listen to how you captured those robbers,—and—"
"Don't you believe it," said he. "I bet you fifty cents you are the only person in Tinkletown that's in bed at this minute. They're all afraid to go to bed, Eva, an' you can't blame 'em. Nobody knows I've got them desperadoes bound hand and foot and guarded by a whole regiment of U. S. troops, specially deputized for the occasion."
"YOU ARE INVITED TO BE PRESENT"
Anderson Crow sat on the porch of the post-office, ruminating over the epidemic that had assailed Tinkletown with singular virulence, and, in a sense, enthusiasm. Not that there was anything sinister or loathsome about the plague. Far from it, he reflected, because it had broken out so soon after his bitter comments on the prolonged absence of the slightest symptom, or indication that a case was even remotely probable. And here he was, holding in his hand four fresh and unmistakable signs that the contagion was spreading. In short, he had just received and opened four envelopes addressed to Mr. and Mrs. A. Crow, and each contained an invitation to a wedding.
Alf Reesling, commonly known as the town drunkard, sat on the top step, whittling.
"No law against gittin' married, is there, constable?" he inquired.
"I don't know much about this new eugenric law," mused Mr. Crow, gingerly pulling at his whiskers. "So fer as I know, it ain't been violated up here."
"What's the harm, anyway? You was sayin' yourself only the other day that it's a crime the way the young fellers in this town never git married. Just set around the parlour stoves all winter holdin' hands, and on the front steps all summer——"
"Like as not the gosh-derned cowards heard what I said and got up spunk enough to tackle matrimony," interrupted the venerable town marshal. "June seems to be a good month fer weddin's everywhere else in the world except right here in Tinkletown. The last one we had was in December, and that was two years ago. Annie Bliss and Joe Hodges. Now we're goin' to have 'em so thick and fast there won't be an unmarried man in the place, first thing you know. Up to date, me and Mrs. Crow have had seventeen printed invitations, and I don't know how many by word o' mouth. Fellers that never even done any courtin', so fer as I know, are gittin' married to girls that ain't had a beau since the Methodist revival in nineteen-ten. They all got religion then, male and female, and there's nothin' like religion to make people think they ought to have somebody to share their repentance with."
"George Hoover's been goin' with Bessie Slayback ever sence McKinley beat Bryan in 'ninety-six. Swore he'd never git married till we had another democratic president. We've had one fer more'n four years and now he says he never dreamed there'd be another one, so he didn't think it was worth while to save up enough to git married on. You don't happen to have a bid there fer his weddin', have you, Anderson? That would be too much to expect, I guess."
"How old do you make out Bessie is, Alf?" asked Mr. Crow, shuffling the envelopes until he found the one he wanted. He removed the card, printed neatly by the Tinkletown Banner Press, and squinted at it through his spectacles.
"Forty-nine," said Alf, promptly. "Twenty-sixth of last January."
"Well, poor old George'll have to do his settin' in Sofer's store after the third o' June," said the other, chuckling. "She has threw him over, as my daughter would say."
"Yep. Bessie's goin' to be married next Sunday to Charlie Smith."
"Fer the Lord's sake!" gasped Alf. "How c'n that be? Charlie's got a wife an' three grown children."
"'Tain't old Charlie. It's young Charlie," said Anderson, looking hard at the invitation. "'Charles Elias Smith, Junior,' it says."
Alf was speechless. He merely stared while the town marshal made mental calculations.
"She's twenty-six years older'n he is, Alf."
"There must be some mistake," muttered Alf.
"Not if you're sure she's forty-nine," said Anderson. "Subtract twenty-three from forty-nine and you have twenty-six, with nothin' to carry. Besides, old Charlie's middle name is Bill."
"Well, I'll be dog-goned," said Alf, in a weak voice.
"And here's another'n'," said Anderson, passing a card to his companion.
Alf read: "'The son and daughter of Mrs. Ellen Euphemia Ricketts request the pleasure of your company at the marriage of their mother to Mr. Pietro Emanuel Cocotte, on June 1, 1917, at twelve o'clock noon at the family residence, No. 17 Lincoln Street, Tinkletown, New York.' Well, I'll be—" Alf interrupted himself to repeat one of the names. "Who is this Pietro Emanuel Cocotte? I never heard of—"
"Petey Sickety," said Anderson.
"The sprinklin'-cart driver?"
"The same," said the marshal, his lips tightening. He had once tried to arrest the young man for "disturbing the peace," and had been obliged to call upon the crowd for help.
"Why, good gosh, he don't earn more'n ten dollars a week and he sends half of that back to Sweden," said Alf.
"Europe," corrected Anderson, patiently. He had put up with a good deal of ignorance on the part of Alf during a long and watchful acquaintanceship.
"Anyhow," said the town drunkard, arising in some haste, "I guess I'll be gittin' home. Maybe I ain't too late." He was moving off with considerable celerity.
"Too late for what?" called out Anderson.
"That measley, good-fer-nothin' Gates boy dropped in to see my girl Queenie last night. First time he's ever done it, but, by criminy, the way they're speedin' things up around here lately there's no tellin' what c'n happen in twenty-four hours."
"Hold on a minute, Alf. I'll walk along with you. Now, see here, Alf,"—Mr. Crow laid a kindly, encouraging hand on the other's shoulder as they ambled down the main street of the village—"no matter what happens, you mustn't let it git the best of you. Keep straight, old feller. Don't touch a drop o'—"
Mr. Reesling stopped short in the middle of the sidewalk. "Dog-gone it, Anderson—leggo of my arm. Do you want everybody to think you're takin' me to jail, or home to my poor wife, or somethin' like that? It'll be all over town in fifteen minutes if you—"
"'Tain't my fault if you've got a reputation, Alf," retorted the town marshal sorrowfully.
"Well, it ain't my fault either," declared Alf. "Look at me. I ain't had a drink in twenty-three years, and what good does it do me? Every time a stranger comes to town people point at me an' say, 'There goes the town drunkard.' Oh, I've heerd 'em. I ain't deef. An' besides, ain't they always preachin' at me an' about me at the Methodist an' Congregational churches? Ain't they always tellin' the young boys that they got to be careful er they'll be like Alf Reesling? An' what's it all come from? Comes from the three times I got drunk back in the fall of 'ninety-three when my cousin was here from Albany fer a visit. I had to entertain him, didn't I? An' there wasn't any other way to do it in this jerk-water town, was there? An' ever since then the windbags in this town have been prayin' fer me an' pityin' my poor wife. That's what a feller gits fer livin' in a—"
"Now, now!" admonished Anderson soothingly. "Don't git excited, Alf. You deserve a lot o' credit. Ain't many men, I tell you, could break off sudden like that, an'—"
"Oh, you go to grass!" exclaimed Alf hotly.
Anderson inspected him closely. "Lemme smell your breath, Alf Reesling," he commanded.
"What's the use?" growled Alf. "Wouldn't last fer twenty-three years, would it?"
"Well, you talk mighty queer," said the marshal, unconvinced. He couldn't imagine such a thing as a strictly sober man telling him to go to grass. He was the most important man in Tinkletown.
Further discussion was prevented by the approach of Mr. Crow's daughter, Susie, accompanied by a tall, pink-faced young man in a resplendent checked suit and a dazzling red necktie. They came from Brubaker's popular drugstore and ice-cream "parlour," two doors below.
"Hello, Pop," said Susie gaily, as the couple sauntered past their half-halting seniors.
"H'are you, Mr. Crow?" was the young man's greeting, uttered with the convulsive earnestness of sudden embarrassment. "Fine day, ain't it?"
Mr. Crow said that it was, and then both he and Alf stopped short in their tracks and gazed intently at the backs of the young people. Even as they stared, a fiery redness enveloped the ears of Susie's companion. A few steps farther on he turned his head and looked back. Something that may be described as sheepish defiance marked that swift, involuntary glance.
Mr. Reesling broke the silence. There was a worried, sympathetic note in his voice.
"Got on his Sunday clothes, Anderson, and this is only Wednesday. Beats the Dutch, don't it?"
"I wonder—" began Mr. Crow, and then closed his lips so tightly and so abruptly that his sparse chin whiskers stuck out almost horizontally.
He started off briskly in the wake of the young people. Alf, forgetting his own apprehensions in the face of this visible manifestation, shuffled along a few paces behind.
Miss Crow and her companion turned the corner below and were lost to view.
"By gosh," said Alf, suddenly increasing his speed until he came abreast of the other; "you better hurry, Anderson. Justice Robb's in his office. I seen his feet in the winder a little while ago."
"They surely can't be thinkin' of—" Mr. Crow did not complete the sentence.
"Why not?" demanded Alf. "Everybody else is. And it would be just like that Schultz boy to do it without an invitation. Ever since this war's been goin' on them Schultzes have been blowin' about always bein' prepared fer anything. German efficiency's what they're always throwin' up to people. I bet he's been over to the county seat an' got a license to—"
Anderson interrupted him with a snort. He put his hand on his right hip pocket, where something bulged ominously, and quickened his pace.
"I been watchin' these Schultzes fer nearly a year," said he, "an' the whole caboodle of 'em are spies."
They turned the corner. Susie and her companion were on the point of disappearing in a doorway fifty yards down Sickle Street.
Anderson slowed up. He removed his broad felt hat with the gold cord around it, and mopped his forehead.
"That's the tin-type gallery," he said, a little out of breath.
"Worse an' more of it," said Alf. "That's the surest sign I know of. It never fails. Mollie an' me had our'n taken the day before we was married an'—an'—why, it's almost the same as a certificat', Anderson."
"Now, you move on, Alf," commanded the marshal. "How many times I got to tell you not to loiter aroun' the streets? Move on, I say."
"Aw, now, Anderson—"
"I'll have to run you in, Alf. The ord'nance is very p'ticular, an' that notice stuck up on the telephone pole over there means you more'n anybody else. No loiterin'."
"If you need any evidence ag'in that Schultz boy, just call on me," said Alf generously. "I seen him commit an atrocity last week."
"What was it?"
"He give that little Griggs girl a lift in his butcher wagon," said Alf darkly.
Anderson scowled. "The sooner we run these cussed Germans out o' town the better off we'll be."
Alf ambled off, casting many glances over his shoulder, and the marshal crossed the street and entered Hawkins's Undertaking and Embalming establishment, from a window of which he had a fair view of the "studio."
Presently Susie and young Schultz emerged, giggling and snickering over the pink objects they held in their hands. They sauntered slowly, shoulder to shoulder, in the direction of Main Street.
Mr. Hawkins was in the middle of one of his funniest stories when Anderson got up and walked out hurriedly. The undertaker had a reputation as a wit. He was the life of the community. He radiated optimism, even when most depressingly employed. And here he was telling Anderson Crow a brand-new story he had heard at a funeral over in Kirkville, when up jumps his listener and "lights out" without so much as a word. Mr. Hawkins went to the door and looked out, expecting to see a fight or a runaway horse or a German airplane. All he saw was the marshal not two doors away, peering intently into a show-window, while from across the street two young people regarded him with visible amusement. For a long time thereafter the undertaker sat in his office and stared moodily at the row of caskets lining the opposite wall. Could it be possible that he was losing his grip?
Miss Crow and Mr. Otto Schultz resumed their stroll after a few moments, and the marshal, following their movements in the reflecting show-window, waited until they were safely around the corner. Then he retraced his steps quickly, passed the undertaker's place, and turned into the alley beyond. Three minutes later, he entered Main Street a block above Sickle Street, and was leaning carelessly against the Indian tobacco sign in front of Jackson's cigar store, when his daughter and her companion bore down upon his left flank.
Mr. Alf Reesling was a few paces behind them.
As they came within earshot, young Schultz was saying in a suspiciously earnest manner:
"You better come in and have anodder sody, Susie."
Just then their gaze fell upon Mr. Crow.
"Goodness!" exclaimed Susie, startled.
"By cheminy!" fell from Otto's wide-open mouth. He blinked a couple of times. "Is—is that you?" he inquired, incredulously.
"You mean me?" asked Anderson, with considerable asperity.
"Sure," said Otto, halting.
"Can't you see it's me?" demanded Mr. Crow.
"But you ain'd here," said the perplexed young man, getting pinker all the time. "You're aroundt in Sickle Street."
"Alf!" called out Anderson. "Look here a minute. Is this me?" He spoke with biting sarcasm.
Mr. Reesling regarded him with some anxiety.
"You better go home, Anderson," he said. "This sun is a derned sight hotter'n you think."
"Didn't we see you a minute ago around in Sickle Street, Pop?" inquired Susie. "Looking in that hair-dresser's window?"
"Maybe you did and maybe you didn't," replied Mr. Crow, shrewdly. Then, with thinly veiled significance: "I'm purty busy lookin' into a good many things nowadays." He favoured Otto with a penetrating glance. "Ever sence the U. S. A. declared war on Germany, Mr. Otto Schultz."
"How aboudt that sody, Miss Susie?" said Otto, in a pained sort of voice.
"You'd better be saving your money, Otto," she advised, with such firmness that her father looked at her sharply.
"Oh, spiffles!" said Otto, getting still redder.
Mr. Crow was all ears. Alf Reesling burned his fingers on a match he held too long in the hot, still air some six or eight inches from the bowl of his pipe.
"Well, getting married is no joke," said Susie, shaking her pretty head solemnly.
Otto took a deep breath. "You bet you it ain'd," he said, with feeling. That seemed to give him courage. He took off his straw hat, and, as he ran his finger around the moist "sweat-band," he blurted out: "I don't mind if you tell your fadder, Susie. Go and tell him."
"Tell him yourself," said Susie.
"As I was saying a few minutes ago," said Otto ingenuously, "the only obchection I had to your tellin' your fadder was that I didn't want everybody in town to know it before I could get home and tell my mother yet."
"Don't go away, Alf," said Mr. Crow, darkly. "I'll need you as a witness. I hereby subpoena you as a witness to what's goin' to happen in less'n no time. Now, Mr. Otto Schultz, spit it out."
Otto disgorged these cyclonic words:
"I'm going to get married, Mr. Crow, that's all."
Mr. Crow was equally explicit and quite as brief.
"Only over my dead body," he shouted, and then turned upon Susie. "You go home, Susan Crow! Skedaddle! Get a move on, I say. I'll nip this blamed German plot right in the beginning. Do you hear me, Susan—"
Susan stared at him. "Hear you?" she cried. "They can hear you up in the graveyard. What on earth's got into you, Pop? What—"
"You'll see what's got into me, purty derned quick," said Anderson, and pointed his long, trembling forefinger at the amazed Mr. Schultz, who had dropped his hat and was stooping over to retrieve it without taking his eyes from the menacing face of the speaker.
It had rolled in the direction of Mr. Alf Reesling. That gentleman obligingly stopped it with his foot. After removing his foot, he undertook to return the hat without stooping at all, the result being that it sped past Otto and landed in the middle of the street some twenty feet away.
"So you think you c'n git married without my consent, do you?" demanded Anderson, witheringly. "You think you c'n sneak around behind my back an'—"
"I ain'd sneakin' aroundt behind anybody's back," broke in Otto, straightening up. "I don't know what you are talking aboud, Mr. Crow,—and needer do you," he added gratuitously. "What for do I haf to get your consent to get married for? I get myself's consent and my girl's consent and my fadder's consent—Say!" His voice rose. "Don't you think I am of age yet?"
"If you talk loud like that, I'll run you in fer disturbin' the peace, young feller," warned Anderson, observing that a few of Tinkletown's citizens were slowly but surely surrendering squatter's rights to chairs and soap-boxes on the shady side of the block. "Just you keep a civil tongue in—"
"You ain'd answered my question yet," insisted Otto, with increased vigour.
"Here's your hat, Otto," said Alf Reesling in a conciliatory voice. He was brushing the article with the sleeve of his coat. "A horse must'a' stepped on it or somethin'. I never see—"
"Ain'd I of age, Mr. Crow?" bellowed Otto. "Didn't I vote for you at the last—"
"That ain't the question," interrupted Anderson sharply. "The question is, is the girl of age?" He favoured his sixteen-year-old daughter with a fiery glance.
Otto Schultz's broad, flat face became strangely pinched. There was something positively apoplectic in the hue that spread over it.
"Oh, Pop!" shrieked Susie, a peal of laughter bursting from her lips. Instantly, however, her two hands were pressed to her mouth, stifling the outburst.
Otto gave her a hurt, surprised—and unmistakably horrified—look. Then a silly grin struggled into existence.
"Maybe she don'd tell the truth aboud her age yet, Mr. Crow," he said huskily. "Women always lie aboud their ages. Maybe she lie aboud hers."
Anderson flared. "Don't you dare say my daughter lies about her age—or anything else," he roared.
"Whose daughter?" gasped Otto.
"But she ain'd your daughter."
"What! Well, of all the—"
Words failed Mr. Crow. He looked helplessly, appealingly at Alf Reesling, as if for support.
Mr. Reesling rose to the occasion.
"Do you mean to insinuate, Otto Schultz, that—" he began as he started to remove his coat.
By this time Susie felt it was safe to trust herself to speech. She removed her hands from her mouth and cried out:
"He isn't talking about me, Pop," she gasped. "It's Gertie Bumbelburg."
"Sure," said Otto hastily.
Mr. Crow still being speechless, Alf suspended his belligerent preparations, and cocking one eye calculatingly, settled the matter of Miss Bumbelburg's age with exasperating accuracy.
"Gertie's a little past forty-two," he announced. "Born in March, 1875, just back o' where Sid Martin's feed-store used to be."
The marshal had recovered his composure.
"That's sufficient," he said, accepting Alf s testimony with a profound air of dignity. "There ain't no law against anybody marryin' a woman old enough to be his mother."
"Everybody in town give Gertie up long ago," added Alf, amiably. "Only goes to show that while there's life there's hope. I'd 'a' swore she was on the shelf fer good. How'd you happen to pick her, Otto?"
"She's all right," growled Otto uncomfortably. Then he added, with considerable acerbity: "I'm goin' to tell her you said she was forty-two, Alf Reesling."
"Well, ain't she?" demanded Alf, bristling.
"No, she ain'd," replied Otto. "She's twendy-nine."
"Come, come," put in Anderson sternly. "None o' this now! Move on, Alf! No scrappin' on the public thoroughfares o' Tinkletown. You're gettin' more and more rambunctious every day, Alf."
"He ought to be ashamed of himself, speakin' by a lady when he knows he's in such a condition," said Otto, turning from the unfortunate Alf to Miss Crow. "Ain'd that so, Susie?"
"Don't answer, Susie," said Mr. Crow, quickly. "This is no time to side in with Germany."
"I'm as good an American as you are already," cried Otto, goaded beyond endurance.
Mr. Crow smiled tolerantly. "Git out! Let's hear you say 'vinegar'."
"Winegar," said Otto triumphantly. "I can say it as good as you can yet."
Anderson nudged Mr. Reesling, and chuckled.
"That's the way to spot 'em," he said significantly.
"There's a better way than that," said Alf.
Alf whispered in the marshal's ear.
Anderson shook his head. "But where are you goin' to get the weenywurst, Alf?"
"Come on, Otto," said Susie, impatiently. "I have an engagement."
They moved off rapidly, passing the ice-cream parlour without hesitating.
"D'you hear that?" said Alf, after a moment. "She said she was engaged."
That night Anderson Crow, town marshal, superintendent of streets, chief of the fire department, post-commander of the G. A. R., truant officer, dog-catcher, member of the American Horse-thief Detective Association, member of the Universal Detective Bureau, chairman of Tinkletown Battlefield Society, etc., lay awake until nearly nine o'clock, seeking a solution to the astonishing problem that confronted Tinkletown and its environs.
* * * * *
Late reports, received by telephone just before retiring, ran the number of prospective marriages up to twenty-eight. His daughters, Susie and Caroline—the latter the eldest of a family of six and secretly approaching the age of thirty-two—confided to him that they had had eleven and three proposals respectively. A singular feature of the craze was the unanimity of impulse affecting men between the ages of twenty and thirty, and the utter absence of concentration on the part of the applicants. It was of record that some of them proposed to as many as five or six young women before being finally accepted. Rashness appeared to be the watchword. The matrimonial stampede swept caution and consequences into a general heap, and delivered a community of the backwardness that threatened to become a menace to posterity.
As Anderson Crow lay in his bed, he tried to enumerate on his fingers the young men who remained unpledged. Starting with his thumb he got as far as the third finger of his left hand and then, being sleepy and the effort a trying one, he lost track of those already counted and had to begin all over again, with the maddening result that he could go no further than the second finger. One of the eligibles had slipped his mind completely. The whole situation was harrowing.
"Fer instance," he ruminated aloud, oblivious of the fact that his wife was sound asleep, "what is a feller like Newt Blossom goin' to keep a wife on, I'd like to know. He c'n hardly keep himself in chewin' tobaccer as it is, an' as fer the other necessities of life he wouldn't have any of 'em if his mother wasn't such a dern' fool about him. The idee of him tryin' to get our Susie to marry him—an' Carrie too, fer that matter—w'y, I git in a cold sweat every time I think of it."
He shook his wife vigorously.
"Say, Ma," he said, yawning, "I just thought o' somethin' I want you to remember in the mornin'. Wake up."
"All right," she mumbled, sleepily. "What is it?"
But Mr. Crow was now fast asleep himself.
* * * * *
Early the next morning he entered the kitchen, where he found Caroline helping her mother with the breakfast.
Mrs. Crow paused in the act of paring slices from a side of bacon. She eyed her husband inimically.
"See here, Anderson, you just got to put a stop to all this foolishness."
"Don't bother me. Can't you see I'm thinkin'?" said he.
"Well, it's time you did somethin' more than think. That Smathers boy was here about ten minutes ago, red as a beet, askin' fer Susie. Carrie told him she wasn't up yet, and what do you think the little whipper-snapper said?"
Anderson blinked, and shook his head.
"He said, 'Well, I guess you'll do, Caroline. Would you mind steppin' outside fer a couple of minutes? I got somethin' I want to say to you in private.'"
Caroline sat down and laughed unrestrainedly.
"Well, by geminy crickets!" gasped Anderson, aghast. Then he added anxiously: "You—you didn't go an' do anything foolish, did you, Carrie?"
"Not unless you'd call throwing a pail of cold water on him foolish," said Carrie, wiping her eyes.
"Somethin's got to be done, Anderson," said his wife, compressing her lips.
Susie came in at that juncture. She was the apple of Anderson's eye—the prettiest girl in town. Mr. Crow hurried to the kitchen door.
"Go back upstairs," he ordered, casting a swift, uneasy glance around the back yard.
"What's the matter, Pop?"
Mr. Crow did not respond. His keen, roving eye had descried a motionless figure at the mouth of the alley.
"Can you beat it?" cried Susie, inelegantly, but with a very proper scorn. "I told him yesterday he ought to be ashamed of himself, trying to coax Fanny Burns away from Ed Foster."
"Ed Foster?" exclaimed Mr. Crow sharply, turning from the doorway. "Why, he's not goin' to be married till after the war, an' that's a long ways off. Ed's around in his uniform an' says the National Guard's likely to be called 'most any day now. He—"
"That's one of the arguments Joe Smathers put up to Fanny," said his youngest daughter. "He said maybe the war would last five years, and he thought she was a fool to wait that long. What's more, he said, if Ed ever does get to France he's likely to be killed—or fatally wounded—and then where would she be?"
Anderson suddenly lifted his right leg and slapped it with great force.
"By the great Jehoshaphat!" he shouted. "I've got it! I've solved the whole derned mystery. Come to me like a flash. Of all the low-down, cowardly—"
Mrs. Crow interrupted him. "Do you mean to say, Anderson Crow, that you never suspected what's got into all these gay Lotharios?"
He was instantly on his guard. "What are you talkin' about, Ma?" he demanded querulously. "You surely can't mean to insinuate that I—"
"What is this mystery you've just been solvin'?" she asked relentlessly.
He met this with a calm intolerance.
"Nothin' much. Just simply got to the bottom of a German plot to stuff the young men of America so full of weddin' cake they won't be able to git into the trenches, that's all."
"My goodness!" exclaimed Mrs. Crow, who, as a dutiful wife, never failed to be impressed by her husband's belated discoveries.
"Eggin' our boys into gittin' married, so's they can't be drafted," went on Anderson, expanding with his new-found idea. "It's a general pro-German plot—world-wide, as the sayin' is. Now, I'll tell you somethin' else. Shut the door, Susie. Like as not some spy's listenin' outside this very minute. They know I'm onto 'em." He lowered his voice. "You'd be surprised if I was to tell you that the whole derned plot originated right here in Tinkletown, wouldn't you? Well, that's exactly what I'm goin' to tell you. Started right here and spread from one end of the land to the other. Sort of headquarters here. I don't know as there is any more prominent or influential Germans in the whole United States than Adolph Schultz, the butcher on Main Street, and Heiney Wimpelmeyer, the tanyard man, and Ben Olson, the contractor, and—"
"Ben Olson is a Swede," interrupted Carrie.
"He claims to be a Swede," said her father severely. "Don't try to tell me anything, Carrie. I guess I know what I'm talkin' about." He paused to mentally repair the break in his chain of thought. "Um—ah—what wuz I talkin' about?"
"About the Swedes," said Carrie, snickering.
"Breakfast's ready, Pa," said Mrs. Crow. "Call the boys, Susie."
"How are you going to stop it, Pop?" inquired Susie, after they were all seated.
"Never you mind," said he. "I've got the thing all worked out. I'll stop it, all right."
"You can't keep people from gittin' married, Anderson, if they're set on doin' it," said his wife.
"You bet if I was old enough I wouldn't be gittin' married," said fourteen-year-old Hiram, in a somewhat ambiguous burst of patriotism.
Immediately after breakfast Mr. Crow set out for the town hall. He was deep in thought. His whiskers were elevated to an almost unprecedented level, so tightly was his jaw set. He had made up his mind to preserve the honour of Tinkletown. Meeting Alf Reesling in front of the post office, he unburdened himself in a flood of indignation that left the town drunkard soberer than he had been in years, despite his vaunted abstemiousness.
"But you can't slap all the Germans in jail, Anderson," protested Alf. "In the first place, it ain't legal, and in the second place—in the second place—" He paused and scratched his head, evidently to some purpose, for suddenly his face cleared. "In the second place, the jail ain't big enough."
"That ain't my fault," said the marshal grimly. "We've got to nip this thing in the bud if we have to—"
"What proof have you got that the Germans are back of all this? Got to have proof, you know."
"Gosh a'mighty, Alf, ain't you got any sense at all? What are all these fellers gittin' married for if there ain't somethin' behind it? They ain't—"
"They're gittin' married because every blamed one of 'em is a slacker," said Alf forcibly.
"Slacker. They don't want to fight, that's what it means."
Anderson pondered. He tugged at his whiskers.
"They don't want to fight who?" he demanded abruptly.
"W'y—w'y—nobody," said Alf.
"They don't want to fight the Germans," said Mr. Crow triumphantly. "That ought to settle the matter, Alf. What better proof do you want than that? That shows the Germans are back of the whole infernal plot. They are corruptin' our young men. Eggin' 'em into gittin' married so's—"
"Well," said Alf, "there's only one way to put a stop to that. You got to appeal to the women and girls of this here town. You simply got to talk to 'em like a Dutch uncle, Anderson. These boys of our'n have just got to remain single fer the duration of the war."
"That puts an idee in my head," said Anderson. "S'posin' I put up an official notice from Washin'ton that all marriages contracted before the draft are fer the duration of the war only. How's that?"
"Thunderation! No! That's just what the boys would like better'n anything."
"But it ain't what the girls would like, it is?"
Mr. Reesling was silent for a long time, letting the idea crystallize, so to speak.
"Supposin' they hear about it in Washin'ton," said he doubtfully, but still dazzled by the thought.
"President Wilson don't know this town's on the map," said Anderson, a most surprising admission for him. "An' even if he does hear about it, he'll back me up, you c'n bet your boots on that—even if I am a Republican. Come on, Alf; let's step around to the Banner printin' office."
Shortly before noon a hastily printed poster, still damp and smelling of ink, appeared on the bulletin-board in front of the town hall. A few minutes later a similar decoration marred the facade of the Fairbanks scales in front of Higgins's Feed Store, and still another loomed up on the telephone pole in front of the post office.
With the help of the editor, who was above all things an enterprising citizen and a patriot, the "official notice" was drafted, doctored and approved in the dingy composing-room of the Tinkletown Banner. The lone compositor, with a bucket of paste, sallied forth and, under the critical eye of the town marshal, "stuck up" the poster in places where no one could help seeing it.
The notice read:
War Proclamation No. 7!!!
The Undersigned by Virtue of the Authority vested in him by his fellowmen hereby gives DUE NOTICE to the citizens of Tinkletown that the President of These United States and Congress in solemn conclave have uttered the following decree, to become effective immediately upon publication thereof:
All marriages entered into by Male Citizens of the United States of America between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one on and after this date, the 21st of May, 1917, shall be in force for the duration of the War only. This measure is taken at this time for the purpose of making things as easy as possible for our young heroes, who, in the grave hour of battle, must not be worried with thoughts of the future.
Men so marrying shall have precedence over all others in the SELECTIVE DRAFT for the National Army Immediately to be Called. Such men shall be the first called to the Colours. TEMPORARY WIDOWS of any and all such Soldiers shall not be entitled to PENSIONS in the Event of the Death of said Provisional Husbands, and shall revert upon notice thereof, to the State of Single-blessedness from which they were LURED!!! By order of ANDERSON CROW, Marshal.
As the first of these desolating posters was put in place, the Rev. Mr. Maltby, pastor of the Congregational Church, happened to be passing the town hall. He halted and, in astonishment, read the notice.
"My dear man," said he to Mr. Crow, "this cannot be true."
"Does seem a little high-handed, don't it?" said Anderson guiltily.
"Can it be possible that the President has issued such a revolutionary—"
"Listen a minute, Mr. Maltby," said the marshal, taking him by the arm and furtively glancing over his own shoulder. "It ain't true—not a derned word of it. Now, wait a minute. Don't fly off the—Mornin', Father Maloney, mornin' to you."
The sunny-faced Catholic priest had joined them. He adjusted his spectacles and peered at the notice.
"Well, well, bless my soul!" he exclaimed, staring blankly at the Congregationalist. "What's all this I see?"
"Come inside," said Anderson hastily. "Alf, if you happen to see Mr. Downs, the Methodist preacher, and Justice Robb, bring 'em here right away, will you?"
"Shall I go ahead and paste any more of these, Anderson?" inquired the compositor, shifting his quid.
"Certainly," said the marshal.
Later on the marshal left the town hall, followed by several smiling gentlemen of the cloth, Justice Robb, and the editor of the Banner.
"Bless your heart, Marshal Crow," said Father Maloney, "we're with ye to a man. It's a glorious lie ye're telling, and ye've got the church solid behind ye."
"Naturally we shall not be obliged to falsify," said the Rev. Mr. Maltby, still a bit shaken. "We can simply say that the matter is news to us. Eh, brothers?"
"Sure," said Father Maloney. "We can do that much for the good of the country. Indeed, if I'm closely pressed I may go as far as to say that I caught a glimpse of the official despatch from Washington. This is no time to deny the President, gentlemen, no matter who issues his proclamation." He added the last with a whimsical smile and a wink that rather shocked his Methodist brother. "Especially when the whole matter is vouched for by our respected town marshal, who, to my certain knowledge, possesses the veracity of a George Washington. Have you ever been caught chopping down a cherry tree, Mr. Marshal?"
"No, sir," said Anderson promptly.
Father Maloney beamed. "There ye are!" he exclaimed heartily. "I told ye so. The epitome of veracity. There isn't another man of his age in America who would have answered no to that question, with no one in a position to contradict him."
The editor had his notebook. "Gentlemen, would you object to being interviewed on this important message from Washington? Giving your views on the situation and anything else—"
"You may say for me, Harry, that I warmly indorse the President of the United States in any act which he may deem wise and expedient," said Rev. Mr. Maltby, rising nobly to the occasion. Father Maloney and Rev. Mr. Downs promptly acquiesced.
"And also that I am prepared to issue marriage certificates for the duration of the war to all females so desirin' 'em," said Justice of the Peace Robb. "It ain't cuttin' me out of any fees," he went on, addressing the marshal. "Fer as I c'n make out, they all want to git married fer nothin'."
"I will be very careful how I word your remarks, gentlemen," said Editor Squires, putting up his notebook. "Now, I'll start out and interview a few of the prospective brides. It ought to make good reading."
Long before nightfall the sleepy village of Tinkletown was in a state of agitation unsurpassed by anything within the memory of the oldest inhabitant.... Along about supper time one could have heard animated arguments rising above the clear stillness of the air, penetrating even to the heaven which was called upon to witness the unswerving fidelity of two opposing sexes. There was a distinct difference, however, in the duration of this professed fidelity. Masculine voices pleaded for the immediate justification of undying constancy, while those of a feminine quality preferred a prolongation of the exquisite agony of suspense. In short, the brides-elect were obdurate. They insisted on waiting, even to the end of time, for the realization of their fondest, dearest hopes. Several heartbroken gentlemen, preferring anything to procrastination, threatened to shoot themselves.