Ted read the letter through three times, trying to clarify it, but each time his mind became more confused over it.
What did it mean, and how could any stranger know his business when he had not told a soul about it?
Even Bud did not know why they were in St. Louis; that is, he did not know the real reason. Ostensibly, they were there to inspect the local horse market.
There was a loud rap on the door, and Ted went to it and unlocked it. Throwing the door open, he saw a stranger standing on the threshold, just about to step in.
He looked at Ted in apparent surprise, then up at the number on the door, but his eyes fell to the letter which Ted still held in his hand, and he stared at it like one fascinated.
Ted noticed this, and put the letter behind his back.
As the stranger did not speak, Ted broke the spell by saying, in a sarcastic tone:
"Oh, I beg your pardon," said the stranger hastily, "but isn't Mr. Fowle in? I expected him to come to the door, and was surprised to see you, don't you know."
"I don't know any Mr. Fowle," said Ted, with a smile that must have told the stranger that he was not taken in by the question.
The fellow threw a quick glance around the room, but did not retreat from his place in the doorway.
Ted was starting to shut the door, considering the incident closed, when the stranger, who was a large, powerful man, well dressed and with the air of a prosperous business man, started to enter.
"This is not Mr. Fowle's room; it is mine," said Ted, blocking the way,
"I'll just step in and wait for him," said the man. "The clerk downstairs said it was his room."
"Wait a minute," said Ted sternly. "I don't know you, and I don't know Fowle. If you have any business with me, state it from the hall."
The warning in the letter flashed through his mind.
Suddenly the man sprang upon Ted, and they fell to the floor together.
"Give me that letter, curse you!" hissed the man, "I saw you get it, and I saw it just now. Give it to me, I tell you."
Ted had managed to put the letter back into his pocket. His right arm was twisted under his body, and he could not release it.
He looked up into the face of the man, who was straddling his body, and saw a gleam of malignant hatred in his eyes.
"Let me up, you cur," said Ted.
"After I get the letter," was the reply.
"It's a private letter, and not for you. Let me up!"
Now Ted saw that the man had a knife in his hand—a long, keen knife, with a pearl hilt and a silver guard.
"If you don't give me that letter at once, you'll not get another chance, but I'll have it," snarled the man.
Ted began to struggle, but he soon saw that he could do nothing with one arm out of commission. The man was not only powerful, but heavy, and it was all Ted could do to more than wriggle his body.
"I tell you you shan't have it," said Ted.
The knife went above the man's head, and in the wielder's face was a look of the most diabolical hatred Ted had ever seen in a human countenance.
"For the last time," said the man hoarsely.
There was something about the fellow's actions that told Ted he was desperate, yet at the same time afraid of the act he was about to commit.
The knife was about to descend when Ted cried out an alarm, the first he had sounded.
He heard some one running in the hall. His assailant heard it, also, and hesitated, looking around with frightened eyes.
"Yi-yipee!" It was Bud's voice, and Ted breathed a prayer of thankfulness.
"I'll give it to you, anyhow," muttered the man, and again the knife went up in the air.
But it did not make a strike, for at that moment Bud bounded into the room, and, taking in the situation with a lightning glance, his foot flew out, and the toe of his heavy boot struck the man on top of Ted fairly in the ribs. There was a cracking sound, and with a groan the fellow dropped the knife and struggled to his feet.
Rushing at Bud, he bowled that doughty individual over like a tenpin, and dashed into the hall, along which he ran swiftly and lightly, for so large a man.
When Bud had picked himself up and run to the stairway, he could hear the fellow clattering down the stairs three flights below.
"Well, dash my hopes," said Bud, "if he didn't get clear away. He shore treated me like a leetle boy. But I reckon he's in sech a hurry because he's on his way ter a drug store fer a porious plaster fer them ribs o' hisn."
Ted had picked himself up and was rubbing his arm, which had been strained by his falling on it.
"What's this yere all erbout?" asked Bud. "I'm comin' up ter call on yer when I hears yer blat, an' I come runnin', an' what do I see? A large, pale stranger erbout ter explore yer system with er bowie. Yer mixin' in sassiety quicker'n usual, seems ter me."
Ted had picked up the knife, which had fallen beneath the bed, and was looking at it.
"I wonder where this came from," he said, turning it over in his hand.
"Wherever it came from, it's a wicked-lookin' cuss," said Bud. "But what wuz ther feller goin' ter explore yer with it fer?"
"This letter," said Ted, taking the crumpled paper from his pocket and handing it to Bud.
"Jumpin' sand hills, ther plot thickens," said Bud, when he had finished reading it. "I don't seem ter be in it at all. What's it all erbout? Ye've got my coco whirlin' shore."
THE ABANDONED MOTOR CAR.
"I'll tell you," said Ted, "if you'll take a seat and keep quiet until I get the thing straightened out in my own mind, for the incidents of the past hour certainly have got me going."
Bud sat down and waited patiently for Ted, who was thinking deeply.
"I didn't tell you the precise object of our visit to St. Louis," began Ted, "not because I didn't trust your ability to keep a secret, but in order to keep every one else in the dark."
"D'yer mean ter say that ye hev stalled me along ter this town ter give me a leetle airin', an' not ter sell hosses?" asked Bud indignantly.
"Not exactly. I want to sell the horses for the top price, but there was something else behind it."
"A large man astraddle o' ye with a keen an' bitin' bowie at yer throat. Yer must be hard up fer amoosement."
"Not that, either," said Ted, laughing. "I manage to get all the amusement that's coming to me."
"I'm still gropin' fer enlightenment."
"Here goes, then. For a couple of months the trains on the Union Pacific, in Nebraska and Wyoming, have been running the gantlet between bands of train robbers. If a train missed being robbed at one place, it was almost sure to get it at another, especially if it carried wealth of any description."
"But ther railroads is erbout ther biggest chumps ter stand fer all this monkeydoodle business o' train robbin' ez long ez they hev. Why don't they get inter ther exterminatin' business, an' clean up ther last o' them?"
"Too busy making money, I guess. But this time it is not the railroads who are going after them."
"Who is it, me an' you?"
"Almost. By orders of the government."
"That's more like it. I don't hev no love fer a train robber, fer all I ever come in contact with wuz a bunch o' cowardly murderers, who fight like rats when they're cornered, an' kill innercent express messengers fer amoosement er devilment. But if Uncle Sammy sez so, an' needs my help, he's got it right swift an' willin'."
"Well, he seems to need it, for just before we left Moon Valley I received a letter from the United States secret service, telling me about the robberies, of which I had heard something, but not much, as they have been kept away from the newspapers as much as possible."
"Hev there been so many of them?"
"As I tell you, they have been so numerous as to lead one to believe that there was a chain of train robbers clear across the continent, and strong and capable robbers they have proved themselves to be."
"Did they git much?"
"They have got away with a vast amount of money belonging to individuals. They seem to have had information in advance of all the big shipments of treasure leaving San Francisco and Carson City, Nevada, as well as of private shipments."
"Wise Injuns, eh?"
"I should say so. They have even been able to spot shipments of United States gold en route from the mints in Frisco and Carson to Washington, and in two instances have got away with it."
"Wow! There's where your Uncle Samuel reaches out his long arms and takes a hand in the game. How much did they get away with?"
"The chief did not say. That is not for us to know, I guess, or he doesn't think it will make any difference with us in our enthusiasm for our work of running down and capturing that gang, or gangs, as the ease may be."
"But it wouldn't do a feller no harm ter know. I'd feel a heap more skittish if I wuz runnin' after a million than if it wuz thirty cents."
"There's something in that, but we won't let it interfere with the performance of our duty."
"How does the chief put it up to us?"
"He tells the facts briefly, and says: 'Go and get the robbers.'"
"That's short an' ter ther p'int. Anything else?"
"He says that the worst bunch of train robbers in ten years has been organized, with men operating on various railroads, and that from past performances it would seem that they had inside and powerful friends who were keeping them informed as to what trains to rob. In other words, the thing seems to be a syndicate of robbers operated and directed from a central point by men of brains and resource."
"An' whar's ther central p'int?"
"Ah, I begins ter smell a mice. So yer gradooly led up ter this place, pretendin' ter sell hosses, eh?"
"No; we'll kill two birds with one stone. We'll sell the horses if we can get our price for them, and it will be an excellent cloak to hide our real purpose, which is to try to get next to the headquarters of the train robbers."
"Good idee. But how aire yer goin' ter go erbout it?"
"To tell you the truth, I haven't an idea. We will have to do our own scouting. If the chief knew, it is not likely that he would employ us to find out."
"Thet's so. Well, let's be on ther scout."
"We'll still pose as ranchers with pony stock to sell, and let folks know it. We'll go over to the stockyards right now."
"All right, but the stunt is ter keep our eyes peeled fer ther train-robber syndicate's office."
"That's it. One never can tell when he will run onto just the thing he's looking for when he least expects it."
"We're being shadowed," said Ted, a short time after they had left their hotel and were walking through the streets toward the bridge that spans the Mississippi River to East St. Louis.
"How d'yer know?" asked Bud, sending a cautious eye around.
"See that fellow with the checked suit, on the opposite side of the street?"
"He's on our trail. Don't give him a hint that we're on to him, and if he chases us all day he'll see that we are what we represent ourselves to be, just plain cow-punchers."
The man in the checked suit got on the same trolley car with them at the bridge, and while they were walking through the stockyards they saw him frequently, not always in evidence, but always somewhere in their vicinity.
They visited the offices of the commission merchants who dealt in horseflesh, and got their prices for the sort of stock the boys had to sell, and before the day was over they had disposed of six carloads of horses for immediate delivery.
While they were talking the deal over with the purchaser, they noticed that the man in the checked suit hovered around, and Ted purposely permitted him to overhear part of the conversation about the delivery of the ponies.
Ted then sent a telegram to Kit Summers, informing him of the sale, and telling him to select the sort of horses from the herds that were wanted, and to come through with them, bringing a sufficient number of the boys with him to protect the stock and deliver it.
When the operator took the message and began to send it, Ted noticed that the man with the checked suit was leaning against the wall, apparently not paying any attention to what was going on. But Ted knew by the way he was holding his head that he was a telegraph operator also, and that he was reading the message as it went onto the wire.
"Say, Bud, we've had enough of that gentleman for one day, haven't we?"
"I shore hev."
"Then let's give him the slip."
"Easier said than done. Thet thar feller sticks like a leech ter a black eye."
"I think we can do it."
"See that automobile over there? In front of that office."
"I see a long, low, rakish craft painted like an Eyetalian sunset. If thet is yer means o' communication with ther other side o' ther river, oxcuse me."
"Why, what's the matter with that? That's a mighty fine car."
"I reckon it is, but walkin's good ernuf fer me."
"But you'll never walk away from that shadow."
"I'll bet I kin run erway from 'his checkers' before we're halfway ter St. Looey, even if I am a cow-puncher, an' muscle bound from straddlin' a saddle fer so many years."
"What's the use, when we can run away from him in a gasoline wagon. That machine is standing in front of the office of Truax & Wells, and they have sold a lot of cattle for us in times past. It wouldn't surprise me if the car belonged to one or the other of them, and that if we asked for a lift to the other side they would be glad to let us have it."
"All right, if you're so keen on it, tackle 'em. You'll find me game ter ride ther ole thing. I've rid everything from a goat ter a huffier, an' yer kin bet yer gold-plugged tooth I ain't goin' ter welsh fer no ole piece o' machinery."
They entered the office, and were at once greeted by an elderly man, Mr. Truax, in a warm manner. After talking over things in general, Ted said:
"That's a fine car of yours out there, Mr. Truax."
"Funny thing about that car," said the commission merchant. "That's not my car, and nobody seems to know whose car it is."
"That certainly is strange," said Ted. "How does it come to be standing out there?"
"It was this way, and it's a good story, but none of the newspaper boys have been in to-day, and so I couldn't give it out: Right back of us here is a railroad station. There's an eastbound train through here at seven-thirty every morning. She was just pulling into the station this morning as I was unlocking the office door, and I heard a chugging behind me. I looked up, and here came the car with only one man in it. He pulls up short, picks up a bag, which was very heavy, for it was all he could do to stagger along with it.
"The bell on the engine was ringing for the start when he runs through the arcade there as fast as he could with the heavy bag, and just catches the rear of the train as it comes along. He manages to hoist the bag onto the rear platform steps, and is running along trying to get on, and the train picking up speed with every revolution of the wheels. I thought sure he would be left, or killed, for he wouldn't let go, when the conductor came out on the rear platform, saw him, and jerked him aboard by the collar."
"Didn't he say anything about his machine?" asked Ted.
"Not a word. That's what I thought so strange about it. But, thinks I, some one will come for it after a while. Perhaps, thinks I, he was in such a hurry to make the train that he left home without a chauffeur, who will be along when he wakes up."
"And no one has appeared?"
"There she lays, just as he left her. When my partner came down, I spoke to him about it. He's a fan on motoring. That's his car over there; that white one. When I spoke to him about it, he went out and looked it over.
"'That car don't belong here,' says he. 'There's no number of the maker on it, and everything that would serve to identify it has been taken off. Besides, I don't think the license number is on the square.'
"That excited my curiosity, and I called up the license collector's office and asked him whose motor car No. 118 was. In a few minutes he calls me and says it belongs to Mr. Henry Inchcliffe, the banker. I gets Mr. Inchcliffe on the phone and asks him if his car is missing, and he says he can look out of the window as he is talking and see it beside the curb with his wife sitting in it. 'What is the color of your car?' says I. 'Dark green, picked in crimson. Why do you ask?' says he. I tells him that an abandoned car is standing in front of our place with his number on it. But he says he guesses not, for his number looms up like a sore thumb, hanging on the axle of his car in front of the bank, and I rings off. That's the story of the car."
"Since it belongs to no one in particular, I've a mind to borrow it, and put it in a garage over on the other side. It'll be ruined if it stays out here in the weather," said Ted.
"I don't care," said Mr. Truax. "It wasn't left in my care, and I haven't got much use for the blamed thing, anyhow. Take it along. If the owner comes and proves property, I suppose you'll give it up?"
"Sure thing. I'll telephone you the name and address of the garage where I leave it, so that if there is any inquiry for it you may direct inquirers there. But I've got a hunch that this car was thrown away, having served its purpose."
"Great Scott! that's a valuable thing to throw away."
"Yes, but the man who abandoned it probably thought it a good sacrifice."
"How is that?"
"What do you suppose was in that bag he carried?"
"Couldn't say, but it was pretty heavy."
"It would hold a good deal of paper money, wouldn't it?"
"If the bills were of big enough denomination, I should say you could pack away a million in it, for it was a powerful big sack."
"Well, suppose the man whom you saw jump out of the car and get aboard the train had stolen the car, or even if he had owned it, and had made a big haul, and it was contingent upon his getting away with the money that he abandon the car."
"That's possible. But there has been no big robbery to cover that part of the theory."
"You don't know. There may have been a big robbery, and it has not been made public. Not all robberies are reported to the public. If they were, there would be slim chance for the authorities to catch the thieves."
"Perhaps so. Say, Mr. Strong, you're a deputy United States marshal, ain't you?"
"Yes. Both Mr. Morgan and I are in the government service."
"I've been thinking over what you said about a possible robbery, and perhaps you've got it right. I believe you'd better take that car along. You might need it as evidence some day."
"That occurred to me."
"Can you run the pesky thing."
"Yes; I learned to run a motor car long ago. It is, like everything else a fellow can know, mighty useful to me in my business."
"All right, take her along."
The man in the checked suit was nowhere in sight, but as Ted started up the abandoned motor car he came running out of a doorway.
"Hi, there! Come back with that car!" he yelled, running after them in the middle of the road. But Ted let her out a couple of links, and in a moment the man in checks was out of sight.
THE LODGING-HOUSE BATTLE.
"What aire ye goin' ter do with ther blamed thing, now yer got it?" asked Bud, as they sped across the Eads Bridge into St. Louis.
"I haven't made up my mind yet. It certainly doesn't belong in this town, and if we use it here we will have to get a local license."
"Jumpin' sand hills, yer not goin' ter run it yere?"
"Whoever owns it is li'ble ter come erlong some day, an—"
"Then I'll give it to him, if he can prove it is his, but I don't think it will ever be claimed."
"Because the owner is a thief, and if he finds it is in the hands of an officer he will let it go rather than face an investigation. Besides, I need it."
"Ted Strong, aire yer goin' dotty over them derned smell wagons, too?"
"No, I can't say that I am, but if I lived in a town like this, and could afford it, you bet I'd have one."
"But where aire yer goin' ter keep it? We shore can't take it up ter our room."
"Not exactly," laughed Ted. "You forget that we have friends in this man's town."
"Not a whole heap."
"What's the matter with Don Dorrington?"
"By ginger, that's so. Ther young feller what was with us down in Mexico when we found ther jewels and things under ther president's palace."
"Yes, and we're heading right for his house now."
"What fer? Goin' ter try ter git him inter trouble, too?"
Ted piloted the machine through the thronged downtown streets, and coming at last to Pine Street Boulevard, he let her out, and went skimming over the smooth pavement until he came to Newstead Avenue, and was ringing the bell of Don Dorrington's flat before the astonished Bud could recover his breath from the swift ride.
Dorrington himself came to the door, having looked through the window and seen Ted arrive.
"Well, by all that's glorious," exclaimed Don, as he grasped Ted by the hand. "Where are you from, and why? Hello, Bud, you old rascal! Get out of that car and come in. Where did you get the bubble?"
Ted and Bud entered the house and were taken into Don's workroom, where he was soon put in possession of the facts concerning the motor car, although Ted said nothing about the real object of his visit lo St. Louis.
"Well, what can I do for you?" asked Don.
"Have you a place where I can store this car for a while?" asked Ted.
"I sure have," said Don. "You can run it right into the basement from the back yard. When these flats were built it was intended that the basement be used as a garage, but so far none of the tenants have shown a disposition to get rich enough to buy one. No one will be able to get the machine out of there,"
"That's the only thing I fear," said Ted. "It's a cinch that the owner, if he is a thief who has escaped with a pot of money, as I strongly suspect, will have his pals try to get it back. And I don't want them to get it until I have used it to try to trace them."
"I'll bet a cooky ther feller with ther checked suit wuz after ther machine himself," said Bud. "When we eloped with it he came holler in' after us ter bring it back, but we gave him the glazed look an' left him fannin' ther air in our wake."
The boys rolled the motor car into the basement, which was securely locked. Then Ted and Bud returned to town on a street car.
As they got closer to the downtown section, they could hear the shouts of the newsboys announcing an "extra" newspaper in all the varieties of pronunciation of that word as it issues from the mouths of city "newsies."
"Wonder what the 'extra' is all about?" said Ted.
"Oh, same old thing, I reckon," said Bud. "'All erbout ther turribul disaster.' An' when yer buys a paper yer see in big letters at ther top, 'Man Kills,' and down below it, 'Mother-in-law!' But in little type between them yer read ther follerin', to wit, 'Cat to spite.' I've been stung by them things before."
"I'm going to buy one, anyway," laughed Ted. "I don't mind being stung for a cent."
He beckoned to a newsboy, bought a paper, and opened it.
"What's this?" he almost shouted.
Great black letters sprawled across the top of the page.
"Express Messenger Found Dead," was the first line, and below it was the confirmation of Ted's belief that a great robbery had taken place. It was "Forty Thousand Dollars Taken from the Safe."
"There's the owner of the abandoned automobile, the fellow who boarded the train with the heavy grip," said Ted to Bud, who was staring over his shoulder.
The article following the startling headlines told the circumstances of the robbery.
The train that entered the Union Station at six o'clock that morning had been robbed in some mysterious manner between a junction a short distance out of St. Louis, where the express messenger had been seen alive by a fellow messenger in another car. When the car was opened in the station, after being switched to the express track, the messenger was found lying on the floor of the car with a bullet through his head. The safe had been blown open and its contents rifled.
The express company had kept silent about the murder and robbery until late in the day, when the body of the messenger was found by a reporter in an undertaker's establishment.
As for the other details, a policeman at the Union Station said that he had noticed a man come out of the waiting room carrying a grip that seemed more than ordinarily heavy. A red motor car was waiting outside the station, and the man got into it and drove away at a fast pace. The policeman had not noticed the number on the car.
How the robber and murderer got into the express car was a mystery, as the car was locked when it was switched into the express track, and there were no marks of a violent entry on the outside of the car.
"What aire yer goin' ter do erbout it?" asked Bud. "Aire yer goin' ter turn over ther motor car an' give yer infermation ter ther police?"
"Not on your life," answered Ted. "At least, not yet. I'm going to work on it a bit myself first."
"But won't Mr. Truax tip it off?"
"I'll warn him not to."
"But how erbout ther feller in ther check suit what wuz so kind an' attentive ter us?"
"He's hiding out, now that the robbery has become public. I'm not afraid of him."
"What's ther first move?"
"Locate and identify the car."
Ted called Mr. Truax up on the telephone. The commission merchant had read about the express robbery, and had connected the man in the red car with it, but promised to say nothing about it until Ted had had an opportunity to unravel the mystery.
Ted lay awake a long time that night thinking the matter over, and in the morning awoke with a plan in his mind.
"Well, hev yer determined what ter do erbout ther red car?" asked Bud at the breakfast table. "I'm shore gittin' sore at myself fer a loafer, sittin' eround here doin' nothin' but eat an' look at ther things in ther stores what I can't buy."
"I've got a scheme that I'm going to try," answered Ted.
"What is it?"
"I'm going to run that car all over this town until I get some of the train-robbing syndicate anxious about it and to following it. Then I'm going to get on to their place of doing business and their methods."
"Wish yer luck," was Bud's cheerless comment.
Bud had been out wandering restlessly around the streets all morning, and Ted was writing letters. When he got through he thought about the missing trunk, and concluded that he would go to the Union Station to see if it had been received.
The words of warning in the note not to go on the street alone were clear in his memory; but this he took to mean at night, for in a crowded street in the daytime he could see no danger.
After he had waited an hour or more for Bud, and the yellow-haired cow-puncher had not returned, Ted decided to delay no longer, and started off at a brisk walk for the station, which was six or seven blocks distant.
His hotel being on Pine Street, he chose that for his route.
He had walked three blocks when he stopped to watch a man who was slightly in advance of him.
It was the fellow he had seen in the checked suit.
He had just come out of a saloon.
In the middle of the block he stopped to talk with another man, who looked as if he worked on the railroad, and Ted loitered in a doorway until the two separated, and the man in the checked suit continued on his way.
A block farther on Ted observed two men standing on the corner talking. A policeman stood on the opposite corner.
The two men on the corner Ted knew instantly for "plain-clothes men," as the headquarters detectives are called.
He was well aware that the police by this time were on the alert to find the express robber and murderer, and knew that every available man on the city detective force was on the watch, like a cat at a rat hole.
To capture the train robber meant a reward and promotion.
Ted stood on the corner opposite the detectives and watched proceedings.
When the man in the checked suit had gone about ten paces beyond the detectives, one of them started after him, and the other signaled the policeman in uniform to cross over.
The detective called to the man in the check suit to halt, but instead of obeying he started to run.
But he had not gone more than ten feet when he was seized by the detective, and was dragged back to the corner.
"Take him to the box, Casey," said the detective, turning his prisoner over to the policeman.
At that moment the two detectives were joined by a third, and they entered into an earnest conversation, drawn closely together and looking over their shoulders occasionally in the direction of the house into which the man in the checked suit was about to enter when arrested.
"I have stumbled right into it," said Ted to himself. "The check-suit man is the spy for the train robbers, and their headquarters are in that house. The detectives are going to raid it, and I'm in on it. This certainly is lucky."
He was glad now that he had not waited for Bud.
The three detectives moved slowly down the street, The policeman stood on the corner holding his man, waiting for the patrol wagon.
The scene was vividly impressed on Ted's mind, for it had happened so quickly, so easily, so quietly, and not at all like his own strenuous times when he had gone after desperadoes in his capacity of deputy marshal.
The detectives did not notice that they were being followed by a youth, and it is doubtful if they would have paid any attention to him if they had.
The foot of the first detective was on the lower step of the stairway leading to the door of the suspected house when suddenly a shrill whistle cut the air from the direction of the corner, and Ted turned to see the policeman strike the man in the check suit a blow with his club.
"Curse him, he's tipped us off," said the detective. "Come on, we've got to rush them now."
Quickly the three sprang up the steps, threw the door open, and entered a long hall.
"Back room," said one.
Ted was following them as closely as he could without being noticed and warned away.
He saw a big, fine-looking policeman entering by a back door.
"That's it," said one of the detectives, motioning to a door.
The policeman walked boldly to the door and threw it open.
As he did so a shot rang out, and the policeman staggered back and fell, a crimson stain covering his face.
He was dead before he struck the floor.
Without a word, the three detectives ran to the door, and within a moment or two at least fifteen shots were fired within the room.
They were so many and so close together that it sounded like a single crash. Then there was silence for a few moments, followed by a few desultory shots which seemed to pop viciously after the crash that had gone before.
It all happened so suddenly that Ted had hardly time to think, and stood rooted to the spot until he was aroused by the cry of "Help!" in a feeble voice, and, drawing his revolver, he sprang into the room.
As he did so, a shot rang out, and a ball sped close to his head.
The room was so dense with suffocating powder smoke that he could not see across it, but he had seen the dull-red flash from the muzzle of a revolver and shot in that direction.
"I'm done," he heard, followed by a deep groan.
"Get me out of here," said a man, trying to struggle to his feet, and Ted hurried to his side. It was one of the detectives, and Ted helped him to his feet and supported him to the hall.
"Let me down. I've got mine. Go in and help Dunnigan," said the wounded man. There was a spot, red and ever widening, on his breast.
Ted laid him on the floor and reentered the room. Another shot came in his direction, and missed, although he could feel the wind of it as it passed close to his head, and he returned it with two shots, and there was silence.
The smoke had by this time cleared away somewhat, and Ted saw five men lying prone in the room.
One of the detectives lay on his face across the bed, and Ted tried to raise him up, but he was a dead weight. Ted finally got him turned over on his back, and then he saw that the detective was dead.
Kneeling on the floor with his head in his arms, which were thrown across a chair, was the third detective. He was breathing hard, and every time he moved the blood gushed from his mouth. He had been shot through the stomach.
But on the other side of the bed lay three men, apparently all of them dead.
While he was observing this there was a commotion in the hall, and a policeman rushed in, followed by a large man who wore an authoritative air.
"Oh, this is too bad; this is too bad," he kept repeating, as he went from man to man. It was Chief of Detectives Desmond. Turning to the policeman, he said:
"They've killed the boys, but the boys got the whole gang except two, 'Checkers' out there, and a man in the red automobile."
THE MAN IN THE YELLOW CAR.
A patrol wagon full of policemen had dashed up in front of the house, and they came running down the hall, followed by a horde of eager reporters, who stood aghast at the slaughter of a few minutes.
The only participant in the fight who could talk was the detective whom Ted had carried to the hall, and he was telling the chief of detectives in whispers what had occurred.
"That young fellow followed us in," he said, pointing to Ted. "He took me out, and then went in and finished the gang. He's a game one, he is. I don't know who he is, but, by Jove! he's a game un."
"Who were the gang?" asked the chief.
"'Big Bill' Minnis, 'Bull' Dorgan, and 'Feathers' Lavin," was the reply. "Checkers we caught on the corner, and the other member of the gang, Dude Wilcox, got away. I guess it was him that rode off with the swag in the automobile, but where he went we couldn't get."
"I can tell you about that," said Ted quietly to the chief.
Desmond looked up at him curiously.
"Not now," he said. "Don't go. I want to talk to you after a while. Now, brace up, Tom; you're going to come out all right. The ambulance is out here, and we'll get you to the hospital."
"It ain't no use to jolly me, chief," said the man on the floor. "I'm all in. I'm bleedin' inside. I've seen too many fellows with a shot like this ever to have any hopes. Send for my wife and a priest. I ain't afraid to go, chief, but I hate to leave Maggie like this."
"We'll take care of her, Tom. Get that off your mind."
"All right, chief. If you say so, I know it'll be all right. Poor girl, it's hard luck for her."
"That's right, Tom, but brace up and don't let her see that you're worried."
A woman's scream sounded through the hall, and a slender, girlish figure pushed its way toward the prostrate man.
"Tom," she cried, and knelt beside him. "Are you hit? Did they get you at last?"
"Oh, I ain't bad, Maggie," said the dying detective bravely. "The chief's going to have me sent to the hospital, and I'll be all right in a week."
But before midnight he died.
An hour later Ted met the chief of detectives.
"Get into my car," said the chief, "and come down to my office, and we'll have a talk."
In a short time they were at the Four Courts, the big central police station of St. Louis, and when they were in the chief's private office and the door barred to intruders the great detective turned inquiringly to Ted.
"Now, who are you, and how did you happen to be mixed up in that mess?" asked Desmond.
"My name is Ted Strong," began Ted.
Suddenly Chief Desmond sat up straight and looked at Ted sharply.
"Not the leader of the broncho boys, are you?" he asked.
"The same," said Ted.
"I know about you. What were you doing near those detectives, that you should have got in so handily?"
"I'm a deputy United States marshal, as perhaps you know."
Desmond nodded. "Yes, I know," he said.
"I was working on this very case," said Ted, "and I had got hold of one end of it, and was about to follow it to a conclusion, when I saw the man Checkers on the street, and was following him. He led me to the detectives. The minute I saw them and him, I knew there would be something doing."
"What did you know of Checkers?"
"Nothing at all, except that he knew somehow that I was working on the express-robbery cases, and yesterday he shadowed my partner and me to East St. Louis, where we left him behind in an automobile."
Ted then told the chief how he had come about taking possession of the red car, to which Desmond listened carefully. When Ted had finished, Desmond rose and paced the room for a minute.
"Young man, you've got the big end of the chase," he said. "Dude Wilcox is the man who we are positive killed the messenger and got away with the swag. If it were you who found out how he got away with it, you will have got the last of the gang."
"Is that all there is to it?" asked Ted.
"Lord bless you, no. That's only the bunch that has been working in St. Louis. The big end of it is operating from some town farther west. There's where Dude Wilcox came from. I don't know where they make their headquarters, and it is out of my territory. I have all I can do to take care of St. Louis."
"The government officers were of the opinion that St. Louis was headquarters."
"That was true up to a few weeks ago, but we made it so hot for them here that they emigrated."
"Well, there's no use in my staying here any longer. I might as well hike out west. I'm not much good in a big town, anyway. I suppose you'll have no trouble in handling Checkers without any word from me."
"Oh, yes. But let's have Checkers up and hear what he has to say for himself."
The chief pushed a button and presently an officer entered.
"Go down to the hold-over and bring Checkers to me," ordered the chief.
In less than ten minutes the officer was back again.
"The jailer says he has no such man, chief," was the report.
"Where is he?"
Back he came in a few minutes.
"Casey had him on the corner waiting for the wagon, sir, but in the excitement during the fight Casey let go of Checkers for a moment, and he got away."
Ted could see that the chief was very angry, but he controlled his temper admirably.
"Very well," was all he said.
He turned and gave Ted a sharp look.
"If you stay around here much longer, you'll have to look out for Checkers. He's a dangerous man, as well with a knife as with a gun."
"I guess I can take care of him," answered Ted.
"You look as if you could, lad," said the chief.
After a few more minutes of conversation regarding the red motor car, during which the chief advised Ted to keep the car until he was through with it, Ted took his leave, and returned to the hotel.
There he found Bud pacing the floor.
"Peevish porcupines," grunted the old cow-puncher, "but you've got yourself in up to ther neck in printer's ink."
"How's that?" asked Ted.
"Haven't you seen the evening papers?"
"I've been too busy to look at them."
"I reckon you be. Busier than a cranberry merchant. Look at this."
Bud handed Ted a bundle of evening papers.
Of course, the fight between the detectives and the bandits was given an immense amount of space in the extras which followed one another rapidly from the presses. In all of them were accounts of Ted's going to the rescue of the detectives, and the statement that balls from Ted's revolver had killed two of the gang.
"Rubbish!" said Ted. "I didn't kill any bandits. I took a couple of shots at them after they had fired on me, that's all."
"Well, yer won't be able to get away from these newspaper stories. If any of ther gang run across yer, they'll shore go after yer with a hard plank. Ye've placed ther black mark on yerself with ther gang."
"All right. I can stand it if they can. I've got a few up my sleeve for them."
Then Ted related exactly how the thing happened, and of his talk with Desmond.
"And they let that fellow Checkers get away," sighed Ted. "The chief says he's the most dangerous of them all, and warned me to look out for him. Bud, I've got a hunch."
"Let her flicker. I'm kinder stuck on yer hunches; they pay dividends right erlong."
"The fellow in the check suit was the man who tried to stab me because I wouldn't let him see the anonymous letter. I don't know which was the real man, Checkers or the other. But there were many points of similarity between them, and when Checkers called for us to stop the automobile, it was the voice of the man who commanded me to give him the letter. Keep Checkers in your mind."
The next morning they went out to Don Dorrington's house and got out the automobile.
"We'll circulate around pretty well in this," said Ted, "and if Checkers is in town he'll spot us, and we may get a chance at him yet."
"What do you want with him?"
"I'm depending on him to lead us to headquarters."
For an hour or more they rode about the town, making the machine as conspicuous as possible.
"Bud, we're being followed," said Ted, nodding toward a yellow car that had been in evidence oftener than mere chance made possible.
"Yep. I've had him spotted fer some time," answered Bud.
"Why didn't you say something about it?" Ted laughed at Bud's silence.
"Oh, I knew that you were on to it, too," was the characteristic reply.
"What do you suppose he's chasing us for? He must know that he can't harm us."
"He don't want us. He wants that red car. It's a beautiful piece of red evidence against him an' his gang. Yer see, it's ther best kinder a clew."
"Right again. But he needn't think he can steal it, for he can't."
They put the car up during the middle of the day.
"We'll let it rest for a while," said Ted, as they ran it into a public garage. "This evening we'll take it out again, and if we're followed then we'll be sure that it is Checkers, and that he is on our trail."
It was seven o'clock when they trundled forth again.
A bright moonlight night made motoring highly enjoyable, and after they had run about for a couple of hours Bud got out, saying that he was tired of the sport, and would return to the hotel, and leave Ted to take the machine back to Don Dorrington's basement.
They had been followed by the yellow car again, but in going through Forest Park they had managed to give their trailer the slip among the intricate roads and bypaths, and had seen nothing of him for half an hour.
As soon as Ted had let Bud out, he hit up the speed, for the boulevard was comparatively free of traffic, and he fairly spun along to the western part of the city.
Cutting off the boulevard, he entered upon a side street to make a short cut to Dorrington's house.
He noticed, as he turned into the side street, a light-colored car standing close to the curb as he passed, but so many cars were standing in front of houses here and there that he paid no attention to it.
But he had no sooner passed than the light-colored car glided after him noiselessly. Ted's own machine was making so much noise that he was not aware of the presence of another car until it was abreast of him, and so close that he could reach out his hand and touch it.
He thought the car was trying to pass him close to the curb, and started to turn out to give it more steerage room.
"Sheer off, there," he called, "until I can get out of here."
Suddenly something wet struck him in the face. He gave a gasp, as a fearful suffocating pain filled his head and lungs, and he sank down into the bottom of the car, insensible.
At the same instant the man in the other car reached over and throttled the red car, then stopped his own.
Leaving his own car in the middle of the road, he leaped into the red car and gave her her full head.
In half an hour the red car had left the city and was speeding along a smooth country road in the moonlight.
Ted still lay in a stupor in the bottom of the car, and the only sound that came from him was an occasional gasp as his lungs, trying to recover from a shock, took in short gulps of air.
It was midnight before the red car slowed down.
Ahead in the moonlight rose the black bulk of a building.
It presented the appearance of a country house of some pretensions.
The house was dark. Not a light appeared at any of the windows.
The red car approached it cautiously, running into the deep shadow cast by a high brick wall. A dog on the other side of the wall barked a warning.
The man in the red car whistled softly in a peculiar way.
A window was raised somewhere, and the whistle was answered by another.
In a few minutes there was the sound of a man walking on a graveled path, then the creak of rusty iron and a gate swung open.
"All right?" asked a voice at the gate.
"You bet. Got them both," answered the man in the red machine.
"Bully for you. Run her in."
The red machine, with Ted still lying in the bottom, ran into a large yard, and the gate was closed again, and the car was stopped in front of the house.
"Come, help me carry him in," said the man in the car. "He'll be coming around all right in a few minutes, then we may have some trouble with him, for he's the very devil to fight."
Ted was dragged out of the car in no gentle manner, and carried into the house, which was unlighted save where the moonlight shone through the windows.
"Into the strong room with him," said the man of the house.
Ted was carried into a room and dumped upon a lounge. Then a light was struck, and both men bent over the prostrate form of the leader of the broncho boys.
Both of them started back.
"Whew! You must have given him an awful dose, Checkers," said the man of the house.
"Had to do it, Dude. If I hadn't, I'd never got him here, that's a cinch."
"Well, get his gun off before he comes to."
Ted was stripped of his weapons, a glass of water was thrown into his face, and he began to regain consciousness.
He had been shot down with an ammonia gun, and the powerful alkaloid gas had almost killed him. For a long time he breathed in gasps, but his splendid constitution pulled him through.
When they saw that he was recovering, the two men left the room, after examining the iron-barred windows, and as they went out they locked and barred the door behind them.
MURDER IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE.
Ted lay for a long time only half conscious.
But gradually his senses returned, and he opened his eyes to find himself in darkness, trying hard to think what had happened to him.
He knew that he had been felled by something powerful and terrible, that had knocked him in a heap so suddenly that he hardly knew what had happened to him.
Slowly the consciousness of it all came to him. Some one in an automobile had ridden alongside him and thrown ammonia in his face.
His eyes were still smarting with it, and he wondered, seeing no light, if it had blinded him, and he was now lying in the dark when there was light all around him.
He struggled with this thought for a moment, because the idea of going blind was terrible to him.
He wondered where he was, and felt around and learned that he was lying on a couch.
Then he swung his feet to the floor and sat up. The ammonia had left him still weak, but gradually he became stronger, and got to his feet and began to explore the room with his fingers.
He found a chair and a table, and presently came to the door, which he tried to open, but could not.
Passing around the room, he arrived at the window, and, looking through the glass, saw a star, and thanked Heaven that he could see.
He tried the fastenings of the window, unlocked it, and threw it up, stretching out his hand. The window was closed with iron bars.
He had made the circuit of the room, and had discovered that he was securely shut in.
He went back to the lounge and lay down to think matters over.
He felt quite sure that the man Checkers had been his assailant. The warning had not been without reason, after all.
As he lay quietly he heard footsteps in the next room. Two men evidently had entered it. They were talking, and occasionally, when their voices rose higher than usual, he could catch a word or two.
From the tones of their voices he learned that the conversation was not of the most pleasant nature. They were quarreling about something.
By degrees their voices grew higher, and occasionally Ted caught such words as "money," "half," "thousand," enough to tell him that they were dividing something.
"They're quarreling over the swag," said Ted to himself. "Good! 'When thieves fall out, honest men get their dues,'" he quoted. "Keep it up, and I'll get you yet."
They did keep it up.
It was the voice of Checkers that rose high.
"I tell you I'll have half or I'll split on you, if I go to the 'stir' for the rest of my life."
"If you do split, you won't go to the 'stir.' The boys will kill you before you get the chance."
"Well, what's your proposition?"
"I'll give you five thousand. That's enough for putting me next to the train. What do you want? The earth? Didn't I do the dirty work? If I'd been caught, who'd have been soaked? You? I guess not. It would have been me who would have been killed, for I'm like the other fellows—I'd have fought until they killed me. You're not entitled to more than five thousand, and that's all you'll get."
"I won't take it. Half or I squeal."
There was a sudden trampling of feet in the other room, the crash of an overturning table, followed by a yell of death agony, and the thud of a falling body.
"Great Scott, one of them is dead," said Ted, with a shudder.
He was listening intently, and heard a scuffle of feet, then hurried footsteps died away and a door slammed somewhere.
Deep silence followed.
Then the horror of the situation burst upon Ted, The house had been deserted by the only living creature, except himself, who was left to starve to death in this prison, with a dead man in the next room.
One or the other of the two men who had held him captive had done murder and escaped with the stolen money.
Ted lay speculating which was dead and which had escaped, but he could make nothing of it.
The night dragged wearily on for Ted could not sleep, for thinking of the dead man in the next room, and his own precarious position.
He reviewed the chances of his being rescued. They were very slim, indeed.
Bud and Chief Desmond would start a hunt for him about the city, but would not find him, and no one would think of looking for him in this deserted house.
But at last the night passed, and Ted watched with a grateful heart the gradual dawning of the day.
At last it was light enough to see, and he looked around the room.
It was old-fashioned and high. Through the window he could see a bit of the high brick fence, and a few trees and long, tangled, dead grass. That was the extent of his view from the window.
He examined the door, which was the only other means of exit from the room.
It was very heavy, and made of oak. The lock on it was massive and old-fashioned, and set into the oak frame so that an examination of it dispelled all hope of getting it off.
If he was to escape there was only one way, to cut a hole in the door. He felt for his knife. It was gone, and Ted wandered disconsolately to the couch and sat down to ponder. But the more he racked his brains the further he got from a plan of escape.
The day dragged slowly on, but he would not sleep for fear that he might miss some one passing to whom he could call and bring assistance.
Late in the afternoon he stepped to the window and looked at an apple tree in the grounds beyond. It was full of red apples, and he was very hungry, but they were not for him.
He wondered that he had not heard any one pass along the road on the other side of the brick wall.
Suddenly he noticed that the leaves in an apple tree were being violently agitated, although there was not a breath of wind stirring.
Some one was in the tree, and his first impulse was to yell for help, then he reflected that if it was a boy pilfering apples the cry would scare him, and his only chance for rescue would be ruined by the boy running away.
He would wait for the boy to come to the ground, and would then speak to him.
But as he was watching the tree intently the movement of the leaves ceased, and soon he perceived a peering face and two dark, roguish eyes. They reminded him of a bird, so bright and inquiring were they.
Ted smiled at the eyes, and thought he saw an answering twinkle in them.
They disappeared after a few moments. The leaves shook again, and a boy of about ten years, incredibly ragged, with a dirty face, hands, and bare feet and legs, dropped to the ground. His head was covered with a tangled mop of brown hair in lieu of a hat.
The boy stared at the window, all the while munching an apple, while from the bulges in his scant trousers it was evident that he had others for future consumption.
"Hello, boy!" said Ted, with a friendly way.
"Hello! Who are you?" said the boy, coming a few steps nearer, to get a better view.
"Do you mean what's my name?"
"My name is Ted Strong. What's yours?"
Ted laughed at the solemnity of the boy when he gave this answer.
"Well," said the boy, "it's just as much Napoleon as yours is Ted Strong."
"But my name is Ted Strong."
"Aw, come off."
"All right, if you don't believe me, ask me any questions you like to prove it."
"Where do you come from?"
"Moon Valley, South Dakota."
"That's right. What's the names of some of Ted Strong's fellers?"
Ted named them all, the boy giving a nod after every name.
"Now, what's the name of your horse? The one you ride most?"
"Sultan. You seem to know something about me."
"You bet. Well, maybe you're all right, but what are you doing here? I always thought you stayed out West—away out West."
"Usually I do."
"Then what are you doing in the haunted house?"
"Is this a haunted house?"
"You bet. There was a feller killed there once, and nobody will live in it no more."
"Honest, now, what is your name?"
"My name's— Say, are you sure enough Ted Strong?"
"Certainly I am."
The boy came closer, looking at Ted fixedly.
"Gee, I wouldn't go inter that house fer a hundred million dollars."
"I've been here all night, and it didn't scare me any."
"That settles it. I reckon you must be Ted Strong. He's the only feller I ever heard of that wouldn't be scared to stay in a haunted house. How did you get there?"
Without hesitation, Ted told the boy how he had been held up by a man in an automobile, and knocked out by ammonia fumes, and then locked up in the house. But he said nothing about the murdered man in the next room.
"Now I've told you all about myself, it's only fair that you should tell me about yourself."
"Oh, I ain't nothin'. I'm just 'Scrub.'"
"Haven't you got any other name?"
"Nary one that I know of that's fastened to me all the time."
"When I'm living with old man Jones, I'm Scrub Jones, and when I'm with Mr. Foster, I'm Scrub Foster, and that way. I don't belong to nobody, an' I just live around doing chores for my keep. Just now I ain't got no place to stop, and I'm sleeping in hay-stacks and living on apples and turnips and potatoes, when I make a fire and bake 'em, and once in a while I trap a rabbit. But, gee, what a good time you must have!"
"How would you like to go with me out to Moon Valley?"
"Aw, quit your kiddin'."
"I mean it I'd just like to take you out there and give you a good time for once in your life."
"Would you? By golly, you can."
"Then I'll tell you what to do. Go around to the front door and come in, and back to this room, and unlock the door and let me out, and we'll go together."
"Gee, I wouldn't go into that house for four thousand barrels of hoarhound candy. Say, are you a prisoner?"
"I am, and if you don't come in and let me out I can't take you with me to Moon Valley."
"That's so. But I'm scared of the ghost."
"Oh, so you're afraid, are you?"
At this the boy flushed and fiddled with his toes in the grass.
"No kid that's afraid could live in Moon Valley. He'd be scared to death in a week."
"Are there ghosts there?"
"There are no such things as ghosts. Bet you never saw one yourself."
"No, I never did. But all the folks around here say there is ghosts in that house."
"Well, say there are, they wouldn't come out in the daytime, would they?"
"I reckon not. Gee, I'll come in."
The boy disappeared like a flash, and in a few moments Ted heard the front door open, then a scream.
"I'll bet he's found the dead man," said Ted, aloud, in a tone of annoyance. "That's just my luck."
The door slammed, and all was silent. The boy evidently had run away, and Ted was left alone in the house with the dead man.
Once more darkness descended upon the earth, and Ted took up another hole in his belt, and tried to believe that he was not hungry.
About nine o'clock Ted, who was lying on the couch looking at the ceiling, saw a faint flicker of light pass across it, and sprang to his feet. It was the light cast by a lantern somewhere outside.
He sprang to the window and looked out.
Behind the brick wall he could see the reflection of a bobbing lantern, and hear the shuffle of many feet.
"Ho, there!" he cried.
The shuffle stopped, and a voice that was trembling with fear answered him.
"Come in here, and let me out," called Ted.
"We'll be thar in a minute," was the answer, and presently the front door was thrown open, followed by exclamations, as whoever had come in viewed the body in the next room.
Then the voices were outside his door.
"You open it an' go in," said a voice. "You're the constable."
"Well, supposin' he's got a gun?" asked the constable tremulously.
"Don't be afraid," said Ted. "I have no gun. They took everything away from me."
"There! Ain't that enough? Open the door."
Ted heard the bar being taken down, then the key grate in the lock, and the door was thrown open with a bang. He found himself looking into the barrels of a shotgun.
"If yer makes a motion, I'll blow yer head plumb off, blame yer," shouted the man with the gun.
"Honest," said Ted, "I'm not armed."
"How come yuh here?"
"I was made insensible by ammonia fumes and brought here last night."
"How come yuh ter kill that man in ther next room?"
"I didn't kill him."
"That's a likely story. I find yuh alone in ther house with him. Yuh'll hev ter answer ter ther magistrate fer this."
"See here, my friend, how could I have killed that man, then come in here, and locked and barred the door on the outside?"
"He's got yuh there, Si," said one of the men.
"Look here," said Ted, showing his star. "I'm an officer of the law. The fellows who captured and brought me here were robbers, and I was on their trail. That's all there is to it. Now, let me pass. I want to see what is in the next room."
STELLA ADOPTS A BROTHER.
Taking up a lantern, Ted entered the room. Beside the overturned table lay the body of a man. It was not Checkers. There was nothing in the room except the table, two chairs, a broken lamp, which lay in a pool of kerosene on the floor, and the body of the murdered man.
Wait, what was this?
Beneath the table was a scrap of green.
It was a bank bill, and, drawing it forth, Ted found it to be a fifty-dollar note issue'd by the First National Bank of Green River, Nebraska. A valuable clew, this.
When he had searched the body of the dead man, and found several letters and a small memorandum book, he left the room and locked it.
"Notify the coroner," said he to the constable, "and give him this key. If he wants me as a witness in his inquest, he will find me at the Stratford Hotel, in St. Louis."
The constable promised to carry out Ted's instructions.
"Where is that boy Scrub?" asked Ted.
"Here I am," said the boy, emerging from the crowd.
"Who knows anything about this boy?" Ted asked.
"He's just a loose kid," said the constable. "His father died when he was young, and his mother left him a few years ago. Since then no one has claimed him."
"Then I will. Do you want to come with me?" Ted asked the boy. "I will give you a good home and clothes, teach you something, and make a useful man of you. Is he a good boy?"
Ted turned to the men about him.
"Yes, Scrub is a good boy, only he never ain't had no chance," seemed to be the universal verdict.
"Say the word, Scrub. Do you want to come with me?"
"You bet," said Scrub fervently.
"Good! Come along! We'll be getting back to St. Louis."
"But yuh can't get back to-night. The last train has gone."
"Never mind. I'll get there somehow. Some one lend me a lantern for a few minutes."
Ted was given one, and he went out into the yard and outhouses to search for the red motor car. He could not find it anywhere.
"Did any of you folks see a red automobile going down the road any time to-day?" he asked.
"Yes, there's a red machine down in the lane running over to the Rock Road," said one of the men. "But I reckon it's bust."
"Come on, Scrub, we'll take a look at it," said Ted, Leading off with the man who had seen the car, and followed by the whole crowd, Ted made his way to the lane.
Standing in the middle of it was the red car with its No. 118 swaying from the rear axle in the wind.
Evidently Checkers had started away in it, using it as a swift means of escape, but it had stopped, and, as he could go no farther in it, he had abandoned it in the road.
Ted examined the machinery carefully, but could find nothing wrong with it until he discovered that it had exhausted its supply of gasoline.
But he learned that the grocer at the village, half a mile away, had gasoline for sale, and two young fellows volunteered to go after some while Ted overhauled the car.
In half an hour he was ready to start. He made Scrub get into the seat, and, shaking hands with the constable and shouting a merry good-by to the others, he started for St. Louis.
It was past midnight when he drew up in front of the Stratford Hotel, hungry and tired. Scrub was fast asleep, and, taking him in his arms, Ted entered the hotel.
As he stepped inside, the clerk stared at him as if he had seen a ghost.
"How's everything?" asked Ted of the clerk.
"Great Scott, where did you come from?" asked, the clerk, and added hastily: "Better hurry upstairs to your room. Everybody is crazy about your disappearance."
Ted went up in the elevator with the boy still sleeping in his arms. There was a light in his room and a confused murmur of voices.
Without the formality of a knock he opened the door and entered. As he appeared in the doorway there was silence for a moment, then such a bedlam of shouts and laughter burst forth that every one on the floor was aroused.
"It's Ted! It's Ted!" they shouted, and crowded around him.
The place was full of them. Across the room he saw the shining face of Stella, smiling a welcome at him. Ben and Kit, Carl, Clay, and all of them were there, and sitting at the table was the chief of detectives.
"Hello! Holding a post-mortem over me?" asked Ted.
"It comes pretty near that," said Bud. "Dog-gone you, what do you mean by goin' erway an' hidin' out on us that way? What in ther name o' Sam Hill an' Billy Patterson hev yer picked up now?" Bud was looking curiously at the bundle of rags in Ted's arms, for the boy still slept.
"This is a new pard," said Ted. "If it hadn't been for this kid you'd probably never seen me again."
"Erlucerdate," demanded Bud.
"Not until some one goes out to the nearest restaurant and orders up a stack of grub for Scrub and me. I haven't had anything to eat or drink for thirty-six hours, and I'm almost all in, and this kid has been living on apples and water for a couple of weeks. Now, hustle somebody and let me put this kid on the bed—-my back's nearly broke—or maybe it's my stomach, they're so close together now I can't tell which it is that hurts."
While Ted was laying the boy on the bed he woke up, and, finding himself in a strange place, and a finer room than he had ever been in before, surrounded by a lot of rather boisterous young men, he leaped to the floor and started to the door. But Ted caught him by the arm and drew him back.
"What's the matter with you, you young savage?" said Ted.
"Oh, I'm all right now," said the boy. "When I woke up I got rattled, I guess, but as long as you're here it's all right."
The food came up now borne by two waiters and piloted by Kit. There were oysters and steak and potatoes and biscuit and a lot of what Missouri folk call "fixin's," and a big pot of coffee.
Scrub's eyes stood out like doorknobs as he viewed this wonderful array of things to eat. The table was cleared, the waiters set out the food, and the boys stood back to give Ted and the boy "room to swell," as Bud expressed it. The way they tucked into the good things was a caution.
After their hunger was satisfied and the waiters had restored order to the table, Ted began the story of his adventures since he had let Bud out of the automobile. As he talked, Stella wooed the small boy to her side, and listened to the story with her arm around his shoulder, and long before it was done Scrub was her worshiper forever.
Chief Desmond listened with close attention, and when Ted finished and exhibited the bill of the Green River Bank, which he examined carefully, he said:
"Mr. Strong, you've beaten us all to it. I will go out to-morrow—I mean to-day, for it's one o'clock now—and view the body myself. If it is, as seems almost certain to be, Dude Wilcox, one of the most dangerous men in the West is gone, but he has left behind for us to fight, and you to find, the man Checkers. This bill is your clew to the gang, but it is a counterfeit. As I have the thing figured out, the gang knew that forty thousand dollars was going to be shipped, but for some reason or other they dared not hold up the train out there, and telegraphed the gang in St. Louis to get it. Dude was at the head of the bunch here, and as it was a one-man game so near to St. Louis, Dude was elected to pull it off, which he did to the queen's taste. Perhaps the bill you have is the only counterfeit in the lot. Perhaps not. That is for you to work out."
"But how he managed to get away with the swag I haven't managed to figure out yet," said Ted.
"Of course, I don't know either, but deducing facts from what I know of the gang's methods, and from long experience with gentlemen of the road, I would say that the members of the gang who were killed in their rendezvous in Pine Street by my unfortunate men were awaiting the arrival of Dude with the swag. Checkers had secret knowledge that you had been put on their trail, and when he saw you pick up that red car in East St. Louis he was sure that you knew about the robbery and that you were on to Dude."
"That's likely," said Ted. "I hadn't thought of that."
"Well, he got into communication with Dude, and warned him against coming to the Pine Street place. You see, they had another rendezvous out in the country, a haunted house, the reputation of which would keep prying country boys away from it."
"Best sort of a place for a criminal hangout," said Ted.
"You're right, and now that you have discovered it, I'll take pains to see that it's never used for such again. But, as I was going to say, Dude's intention was to get out of town, return, go to the Pine Street room, divide the swag, and skip. He probably left the train at Somerset, or some other little town down the line, hid in the cornfields until dusk, stole a horse and buggy, and drove across the country to the haunted house, and later was joined by Checkers, who had been trailing you, and later succeeded in getting you. Had it not been for the quarrel between Dude and Checkers, it is more than likely that you would have been murdered by Checkers. But one murder was enough for his nerve, and, forgetting you, he vamosed."
The detective arose to take his departure, again congratulating Ted on the outcome of his adventure.
"Keep your eye peeled for Checkers, and if you do run across him, have your gun at half cock," he said, and, bidding good night to all, went away.
"And now, good fellows, all to bed," said Ted. "To-morrow we start for the West, and the capture of the head men of the train-robber syndicate, and the extermination of the business."
In the morning, before the others were up, Ted made Scrub take a bath, and then they sallied forth to a clothing store. When they came out, instead of the ragged and dirty little boy, there walked proudly by Ted's side a fine, clean, fresh-looking lad in a well-fitting serge suit, and other appointments that transformed him completely.
When they arrived at the hotel the boys professed not to know Scrub.
"Hello, picked up another kid?" asked Bud. "I swow, yer allers goin' round pickin' up mavericks. I reckon yer aim ter brand this one as well ez ther one yer brought in last night."
"Why, here's another kid," said Ben, looking over Scrub's new outfit with interest. "He don't look much like the one you brought in last night. I reckon that one has run away, I don't see him anywhere."
Poor Scrub was standing first on one foot and then on the other, fairly squirming with embarrassment.
Ted gave the boys the nod to cease teasing the boy.
"Don't mind those fellows, they're only joshing," said Ted.
"Oh, I don't mind it if they can get any fun out of it," said Scrub, with a smile. "Maybe, some day I can get back at them, when I know them better."
Stella came down in the elevator at that moment, and, catching sight of Scrub, gave a little scream of astonishment at his altered appearance.
"Goodness, what a fine-looking addition to the family!" she said, shaking hands with the boy, who blushed and looked pleased. "I don't like the name Scrub a bit. I'm going to change his name."
"This isn't leap year, Stella," said Ben.
"You hush! What name would you rather have than Scrub? That's no name for a broncho boy," she said to the boy.
"I don't know," answered the boy. "What name do you like?"
"I think she likes Ben better than any," said Ben, posing in a very handsome manner.
"Don't listen to him, he's always teasing. You want something short and easy to say."
"What's the matter with 'Say'?" said Ben. "That's always easy to remember. I notice that when a man wants to call another on the street he just hollers 'Say,' and half a dozen fellows turn around."
"Then that makes it too common," decided Stella. "What name would you suggest, Ted? He's got to have two names."
"Let us get one of the newspapers to start a voting contest on it."
"Ben, if you don't stop your foolishness, I won't play," said Stella.
"You name him, Stella," said Ted. "Anything you say goes."
"Then we'll call him Dick, after my father," said Stella. "He never had a boy, and always wanted one. I'm going to adopt this boy as a brother. His name shall be Dick Fosdick. That sounds funny, doesn't it, but I didn't do it on purpose."
There was a tear in her eye at the thought of her father, and the boys looked rather solemn, for while they hoped for the best, they didn't as yet know the lad, and perhaps they had saddled themselves with a future regret, but Stella trusted and believed in the little chap, who was very proud that at last he had thrown off and buried forever the name of Scrub.
That evening they took the train for the West, their destination being Green River.
The automobile Ted sent on by express that he might have it not only for use, for he was becoming attached to it, but as a clew to the detection of the express robbers.
EZRA, THE LIFE-SAVING GOAT.
Ted had engaged several sections on the through sleeping car to North Platte, Nebraska, the old home of Colonel William Cody, known all over the world as "Buffalo Bill."
But they were to leave the train at Green River, ostensibly to buy cattle for their ranch. This, of course, was to avert suspicion from their real purpose of hunting down the express robbers.
For Mrs. Graham and Stella the stateroom of the car Orizaba had been engaged, and the boys made it a sort of ceremonial chamber.
The car was well filled with other passengers, many of them tourists on the way to Colorado or the Pacific coast, and they were much amused at the free-and-easy spirit with which the boys conducted themselves, and when it became generally known that they were the broncho boys, with Ted Strong at their head, they received a great deal of attention, which was not particularly to Ted's liking.
As usual, wherever they were, Bud Morgan, Ben Tremont, and Carl Schwartz provided a fund of amusement for everybody.
Little Dick Fosdick had never known such happiness as he was now experiencing. He worshiped Stella, admired Ted, and looked upon Bud as the greatest pal a boy ever had.
He and Bud were inseparable, and Bud never tired of telling him yarns about cow-punching and Indian fighting, while the boy proved a breathless listener, hanging upon every word that fell from the yellow-haired cowboy's lips.
He knew by heart many of the adventures through which Ted Strong had passed, and often surprised Ted by correcting some inaccuracy which, through a lapse of memory, Ted had made.
They were sailing across Missouri toward the West, and the boy kept his face glued to the window, watching for the first glimpse of the golden West of his fancy. Just at present he saw only farms and little towns, through which the fast train whizzed without stopping.
The boy knew this sort of country well, and was rather disappointed that the boundless prairie did not roll before him from horizon to horizon.
Then he turned his attention to the luxury of the car, but being a healthy boy, this did not impress him long, and he turned to his heroes for relief.
Bud was sitting comfortably sprawled out on two seats, singing softly to himself. Bud could not sing a little bit, but he thought he could, which served his purpose personally quite as well as if he could.
Ben was in the seat behind him, reading. After a while Bud's music, or the lack of it, got on Ben's nerves, and he reached over and poked Bud on top of his golden head with the corner of his book.
"Say," said he, "put on the soft pedal, won't you? Perhaps you can sing, and maybe some one told you you could, but take it from me you have no more voice or musical ability than a he-goat."
"Oh, mercy!" retorted Bud. "Does my music annoy you?"
"It certainly does," snapped Ben.
"Then why don't yer move away?"
"Bah! You're an old goat."
"Thanks fer ther compliment, although yer don't mean it thet away. But when yer likens me ter a goat yer do me proud. If yer were more goatlike yerself ye'd be a heap more wiser."
"I'm glad you like it. The pleasure's all yours. But if a fellow called me a goat, I know what I'd do."
"Maybe, perhaps. But yer needn't be afraid that any one will liken yer ter a goat. Any self-respectin' goat would get sore at it. If I wuz ter pick out yer counterpart in ther animile world, I'd say yer most resembled the phillaloo?"
"What's a phillaloo?"
"A phillaloo is a cross between a penguin and a jassack."
"Say, you long-haired lobster!" cried Ben, leaping to his feet, apparently in great anger, "don't you call me anything like that."
"Well, didn't yer jest call me a goat?"
"Then sit down an' git back ter yer love story; we're square. Nothin' is lost on both sides. But callin' me a goat don't make me sore none. I jest dote on goats. If I wasn't jest what I am, I'd sooner be a goat than a collidge gradooate."
"I've heard about enough, if you're alluding to me."
"Take it er leave it. But, ez I wuz goin' ter say before my conversation was cut inter by a loud an' empty noise, speakin' o' goats reminds me o' a time down on ther Pecos—"
"By Jove! I'm going to ask the conductor to move me into another car. This is too much. I might, perhaps, stand for being called a phillaloo, but I swear I'll not be compelled to stay here and listen to one of those silly and impossible stories of this insane cow-puncher."
At first some of the passengers thought that Bud and Ben were really angry at one another, but the wise ones soon saw that it was all bluff, as, of course, the broncho boys knew.
But it was very real to Dick Fosdick, who had yet many things to learn about the boys and their ways, and while the little chap was far too clever naturally to show his feelings, he sided with Bud, and thought that Ben was very unreasonable, especially as the boys, and some of the passengers, had flocked around Bud, who appeared not to notice them.
"I reckon, Dick, you'd like ter hear thet thar story erbout the time I lied down on ther Pecos in the summer o'—"
"Conductor," said Ben, detaining that official as he was passing through the car, "is there no way of stopping the noise this person is making? I cannot take my nap on account of his chatter."
Several persons who were not in the secret were for interfering in behalf of Bud and his story, which they wanted to hear, but were headed off by the conductor, who said:
"Sorry, but I cannot interfere with the gentleman. He does not seem to be annoying the other passengers. If you wish to take a nap you are at liberty to go up ahead in the smoking car."
At this Bud began to gloat.
"I hear they've put a cattle car up next ter ther injine fer sech sensitive people like you. Yer might enj'y a leetle siesta on ther straw."
Ben sank back into his seat, and began to snore gently.
"What about the story down on the Pecos, Bud?" said Dick.
"You'd like to hear it, eh? Then I'll tell it to you. Of course, the other folks may listen to it, but it is understood betwixt me an' you thet it's all yours, an' whatever goes inter their ears is jest ther leavin's. Is that a go?"
The boy nodded eagerly, even though he didn't understand the drift of Bud's remarks.
"What's the story about?" asked the boy.
"The goat, my boy. Perhaps you don't know it, but the goat is one of the noblest animals what walks. He is also one o' ther smartest, an' in former years used ter be able ter talk, but ez soon ez he got ter be so popular in secret societies ther gift o' speech was withdrawed from him, so thet he wouldn't be able ter give erway ther secret things what he saw an' heard at ther meetin's."
"But, Bud, are they really smart?" asked Dick.
"Smart ain't no name fer it. All yer got ter do to find out if they're smart is ter look at their whiskers. The smartest o' all animiles is man, an' don't he wear whiskers? An' I want ter ast yer what other animile hez whiskers exceptin' ther goat. Ther goat knew what he was about when he begin ter raise whiskers. He says ter hisself—"
"What bosh!" exclaimed Ben, snorting in his sleep.
"Aire you addressin' yer remarks ter me?" asked Bud, looking over the back of the seat at Bud. But the only answer was a gentle snore.
"What did he say?" asked Dick eagerly.
"'Why,' says he, 'if they won't let me talk they can't keep me from bein' ez near a man ez I kin go; by gravy, I'll raise whiskers like Deacon Smith,' who was a member o' ther lodge in which ther goat officiated; and, by jinks, he did, an' ther fashion wuz follered, an' they wear them ter this day.
"There ain't no question o' their smartness, an' their prominence. Ain't one o' ther signs o' the zodiac up in ther heavens named after ther goat—Capricornus is ther feller ter what I refer—an' them heathen chaps what wuz half man an' half goat? Didn't they come pretty near bein' ther whole thing?"
"But about the Pecos?" inquired Dick, who was not partial to preaching, but wanted to get at the heart of the story.
"Oh. yes. I wuz leadin' up ter it gradooal, fer what I'm goin' ter relate—if thet yap will choke off on thet moosical snore—"
"Here, wake up, you're snoring so loud we can't hear ourselves holler," said Kit, reaching over and shaking Ben.
"I can't keep awake while that fellow persists in yarning away like a fanning machine. It's so monotonous I can't keep awake," and Ben stretched and yawned.
"Let's get away from here and go to some other part of the car," whispered Dick.
"No, we'll just stay here an' spite him. He'll wake up after a while an' be glad to listen to ther story. So here goes!
"I was punchin' cow's down on the Pecos one summer fer ther Crazy B Ranch. We had eight punchers in ther bunch, a good chuck wagon, an' easy work, so I wuz pretty well suited, an' thet summer I gained twelve pounds, even if it wuz a hundred an' forty in ther shade, which we hed forgotten ter bring along with us."
"Forgotten to bring what?" asked the boy.
"Our shade. Yer see, down in thet country ther sun is so strong thet every one carries his own shade, fer there isn't a tree in ther whole country big enough ter cast a shadder o' any sort. Out on ther ranches, at certain seasons o' ther year, they serve out shade ter ther men jest ther same ez they do bacon an' saleratus ter ther outfit thet goes out herdin'."
Dick looked seriously at Bud for a moment, hardly knowing whether or not to doubt him, but Bud's face was as grave as a deacon's.
"I don't understand it, I'm sure," he said. "But where do they get the shade to give to the men?"
"That's easy enough. It's always gathered on dark nights, generally late in ther fall er in ther winter, so thet it'll be real cool."
"But where do they get it?"
"What—ther shade? Why, they just go out an' gather it off the ground in thin shapes, kinder longer than broad. It can be rolled up just like a blanket, an' carried behind ther saddle. It's gathered in ther cold months. Ye've heard o' ther 'cool shade.' Well, that's why they gather it late in the year. Summer shade is no good, because it's too warm."
"But what is it like?"
"Oh, it's black, an' I hear they strip it off close ter ther ground. We don't get no shade like it in this part o' ther country. Ther only place what hez it is ther West, whar it's needed most."
"But how about the Pecos?"
"Sho! I almost fergot it, didn't I, while teachin' yer something erbout ther way they do things in Arizony an' her sister-in-law, Noo Mexico? Now I'm off, shore.
"Ping-pong Martin wuz in ther outfit thet year. Mebbe yer knows him?" Bud looked at the small boy inquiringly, much to his embarrassment.
"No, sir, I never heard of him before."
"Well, no matter, but this Ping-pong cuss, he had a personal friend, a goat, what couldn't no more be shook than a sore thumb, and had follered Ping off ter ther wars, so to speak.
"Ping run off from home on ther quiet ter join our outfit, leavin' ther goat to home, locked up in ther barn. Ping thought he hed ther goat faded, but one day, when we wuz half asleep in our saddles, a feller over on ther other side come a-runnin' in.
"'What's ther matter?' sez I.
"Thar's a funny animile over here. He shore is ther devil, fer he wears horns, an' hez a face exactly like thet o' ole man Pillsbury. I ain't bettin' none it ain't him. But if it is Pillsbury, he better not go home lookin' like thet 'thout lettin' his wife know first.'
"Ping an' me rode over ter ther other side, an' thar stood a goat, lookin' so nice an' socierble.
"'Great hevings!' shouted Ping, makin' a rush fer ther goat, 'thet's my goat Ezra, ain't you?'"
"Did the goat understand him?"
"Did he understand him? Well, I should whisper sweetly. Why, thet goat jest jumped all over Ping, a-runnin' his whiskers inter his eyes, an' laughin', he wuz so glad ter see him. He'd traced Ping plumb ercross ther desert ter get ter us, an', o' course, we couldn't sic him home after that.
"We all got ter love Ezra fer his lovely ways; that is, all except 'Boney Bill' Henderson."
"Why? Didn't the goat like him?"
"Well, it wuz this way: Boney Bill had a habit o' beggin' ther grease from ther fryin' pan every night ter ile his boots. This made 'em good an' strong, ez well ez easy ter chew on. One night, Ezra bein' fond o' boots, finds 'em an' chews ther tops off'n 'em. They wuz ther only boots Bill hed, an' we wuz two hundred mile ter another pair, so Bill hed ter go through ther season barefoot, an' ther sun jest nacherly warped his feet out o' all shape.
"But thet wuzn't what I wuz goin' ter tell yer erbout. That fall ther Utes went on ther warpath, an' wuz headin' our way, an' I want ter tell yer we wuz some scared. We hed several brushes with ther Injuns, an' ther courier we sent ter ther fort fer help wuz killed an' scalped.
"Thar we wuz, in a little valley entirely surrounded by Injuns thirstin' fer our gore. How long we could hold out agin' 'em wuz ther problem. But whenever one o' 'em showed his head we took a pop at it, an' they returned ther compliment. We wuz prayin' fer ther comin' o' ther soldiers, which wuz ther only thing what could save us from a horrible death.
"Ther Injuns got next ter ther fact thet our ammunition wuz runnin' short, an' they wuz gittin' some gay; sorter takin' advantage o' us in a way. I could see thet they wuz gettin' ready ter make a rush down inter ther valley an' massacree us all, an' we prepared ter sell our lives dearly.
"One mornin' we missed Ezra, ther goat. I'll never fergit ther misery on ther face o' Ping-pong when he finds it out.
"'Bud,' he says ter me, 'I'm goin' out ter find Ezra, an' if them Injuns hez got him, I'm goin' ter bust ther whole tribe wide open.'
"I tried ter persuade him not ter go, but he will, so I goes with him. We sneaks up ther side o' ther hill, an' looks over ther ridge right down inter ther Injun village. The sight what met our gaze almost, but not quite, made me bust open with laughin'.
"Ther Injuns wuz all down on their hands an' knees, bowin' ter Ezra, who wuz walkin' eround on his hind legs, sashayin' sideways an' noddin' his head jest like a live bock-beer sign. Yer see, ther Injuns hed never seen a goat before, an' when Ezra walks onto them, waggin' his whiskers in a wise sort o' way, they thinks he's some kind o' a god, er somethin' like that. But when he got up on his hind legs an' begin ter sashay thet settled it. They wuz shore o' it then.