The deputy sheriff slipped to the ground. His terror had overcome him, leaving him in happy unconsciousness. Byrne stood looking down upon the man for a moment. His wrist was chained to that of the other, and the pull of the deputy's body was irritating.
Byrne stooped and placed the muzzle of the revolver back of the man's ear. "Justice!" he muttered, scornfully, and his finger tightened upon the trigger.
Then, conjured from nothing, there rose between himself and the unconscious man beside him the figure of a beautiful girl. Her face was brave and smiling, and in her eyes was trust and pride—whole worlds of them. Trust and pride in Billy Byrne.
Billy closed his eyes tight as though in physical pain. He brushed his hand quickly across his face.
"Gawd!" he muttered. "I can't do it—but I came awful close to it."
Dropping the revolver into his side pocket he kneeled beside the deputy sheriff and commenced to go through the man's clothes. After a moment he came upon what he sought—a key ring confining several keys.
Billy found the one he wished and presently he was free. He still stood looking at the deputy sheriff.
"I ought to croak you," he murmured. "I'll never make my get-away if I don't; but SHE won't let me—God bless her."
Suddenly a thought came to Billy Byrne. If he could have a start he might escape. It wouldn't hurt the man any to stay here for a few hours, or even for a day. Billy removed the deputy's coat and tore it into strips. With these he bound the man to a tree. Then he fastened a gag in his mouth.
During the operation the deputy regained consciousness. He looked questioningly at Billy.
"I decided not to croak you," explained the young man. "I'm just a-goin' to leave you here for a while. They'll be lookin' all along the right o' way in a few hours—it won't be long afore they find you. Now so long, and take care of yerself, bo," and Billy Byrne had gone.
A mistake that proved fortunate for Billy Byrne caused the penitentiary authorities to expect him and his guard by a later train, so no suspicion was aroused when they failed to come upon the train they really had started upon. This gave Billy a good two hours' start that he would not otherwise have had—an opportunity of which he made good use.
Wherefore it was that by the time the authorities awoke to the fact that something had happened Billy Byrne was fifty miles west of Joliet, bowling along aboard a fast Santa Fe freight. Shortly after night had fallen the train crossed the Mississippi. Billy Byrne was hungry and thirsty, and as the train slowed down and came to a stop out in the midst of a dark solitude of silent, sweet-smelling country, Billy opened the door of his box car and dropped lightly to the ground.
So far no one had seen Billy since he had passed from the ken of the trussed deputy sheriff, and as Billy had no desire to be seen he slipped over the edge of the embankment into a dry ditch, where he squatted upon his haunches waiting for the train to depart. The stop out there in the dark night was one of those mysterious stops which trains are prone to make, unexplained and doubtless unexplainable by any other than a higher intelligence which directs the movements of men and rolling stock. There was no town, and not even a switch light. Presently two staccato blasts broke from the engine's whistle, there was a progressive jerking at coupling pins, which started up at the big locomotive and ran rapidly down the length of the train, there was the squeaking of brake shoes against wheels, and the train moved slowly forward again upon its long journey toward the coast, gaining momentum moment by moment until finally the way-car rolled rapidly past the hidden fugitive and the freight rumbled away to be swallowed up in the darkness.
When it had gone Billy rose and climbed back upon the track, along which he plodded in the wake of the departing train. Somewhere a road would presently cut across the track, and along the road there would be farmhouses or a village where food and drink might be found.
Billy was penniless, yet he had no doubt but that he should eat when he had discovered food. He was thinking of this as he walked briskly toward the west, and what he thought of induced a doubt in his mind as to whether it was, after all, going to be so easy to steal food.
"Shaw!" he exclaimed, half aloud, "she wouldn't think it wrong for a guy to swipe a little grub when he was starvin'. It ain't like I was goin' to stick a guy up for his roll. Sure she wouldn't see nothin' wrong for me to get something to eat. I ain't got no money. They took it all away from me, an' I got a right to live—but, somehow, I hate to do it. I wisht there was some other way. Gee, but she's made a sissy out o' me! Funny how a feller can change. Why I almost like bein' a sissy," and Billy Byrne grinned at the almost inconceivable idea.
Before Billy came to a road he saw a light down in a little depression at one side of the track. It was not such a light as a lamp shining beyond a window makes. It rose and fell, winking and flaring close to the ground.
It looked much like a camp fire, and as Billy drew nearer he saw that such it was, and he heard a voice, too. Billy approached more carefully. He must be careful always to see before being seen. The little fire burned upon the bank of a stream which the track bridged upon a concrete arch.
Billy dropped once more from the right of way, and climbed a fence into a thin wood. Through this he approached the camp fire with small chance of being observed. As he neared it the voice resolved itself into articulate words, and presently Billy leaned against a tree close behind the speaker and listened.
There was but a single figure beside the small fire—that of a man squatting upon his haunches roasting something above the flames. At one edge of the fire was an empty tin can from which steam arose, and an aroma that was now and again wafted to Billy's nostrils.
Coffee! My, how good it smelled. Billy's mouth watered. But the voice—that interested Billy almost as much as the preparations for the coming meal.
We'll dance a merry saraband from here to drowsy Samarcand. Along the sea, across the land, the birds are flying South, And you, my sweet Penelope, out there somewhere you wait for me, With buds, of roses in your hair and kisses on your mouth.
The words took hold of Billy somewhere and made him forget his hunger. Like a sweet incense which induces pleasant daydreams they were wafted in upon him through the rich, mellow voice of the solitary camper, and the lilt of the meter entered his blood.
But the voice. It was the voice of such as Billy Byrne always had loathed and ridiculed until he had sat at the feet of Barbara Harding and learned many things, including love. It was the voice of culture and refinement. Billy strained his eyes through the darkness to have a closer look at the man. The light of the camp fire fell upon frayed and bagging clothes, and upon the back of a head covered by a shapeless, and disreputable soft hat.
Obviously the man was a hobo. The coffee boiling in a discarded tin can would have been proof positive of this without other evidence; but there seemed plenty more. Yes, the man was a hobo. Billy continued to stand listening.
The mountains are all hid in mist, the valley is like amethyst, The poplar leaves they turn and twist, oh, silver, silver green! Out there somewhere along the sea a ship is waiting patiently, While up the beach the bubbles slip with white afloat between.
"Gee!" thought Billy Byrne; "but that's great stuff. I wonder where he gets it. It makes me want to hike until I find that place he's singin' about."
Billy's thoughts were interrupted by a sound in the wood to one side of him. As he turned his eyes in the direction of the slight noise which had attracted him he saw two men step quietly out and cross toward the man at the camp fire.
These, too, were evidently hobos. Doubtless pals of the poetical one. The latter did not hear them until they were directly behind him. Then he turned slowly and rose as they halted beside his fire.
"Evenin', bo," said one of the newcomers.
"Good evening, gentlemen," replied the camper, "welcome to my humble home. Have you dined?"
"Naw," replied the first speaker, "we ain't; but we're goin' to. Now can the chatter an' duck. There ain't enough fer one here, let alone three. Beat it!" and the man, who was big and burly, assumed a menacing attitude and took a truculent step nearer the solitary camper.
The latter was short and slender. The larger man looked as though he might have eaten him at a single mouthful; but the camper did not flinch.
"You pain me," he said. "You induce within me a severe and highly localized pain, and furthermore I don't like your whiskers."
With which apparently irrelevant remark he seized the matted beard of the larger tramp and struck the fellow a quick, sharp blow in the face. Instantly the fellow's companion was upon him; but the camper retained his death grip upon the beard of the now yelling bully and continued to rain blow after blow upon head and face.
Billy Byrne was an interested spectator. He enjoyed a good fight as he enjoyed little else; but presently when the first tramp succeeded in tangling his legs about the legs of his chastiser and dragging him to the ground, and the second tramp seized a heavy stick and ran forward to dash the man's brains out, Billy thought it time to interfere.
Stepping forward he called aloud as he came: "Cut it out, boes! You can't pull off any rough stuff like that with this here sweet singer. Can it! Can it!" as the second tramp raised his stick to strike the now prostrate camper.
As he spoke Billy Byrne broke into a run, and as the stick fell he reached the man's side and swung a blow to the tramp's jaw that sent the fellow spinning backward to the river's brim, where he tottered drunkenly for a moment and then plunged backward into the shallow water.
Then Billy seized the other attacker by the shoulder and dragged him to his feet.
"Do you want some, too, you big stiff?" he inquired.
The man spluttered and tried to break away, striking at Billy as he did so; but a sudden punch, such a punch as Billy Byrne had once handed the surprised Harlem Hurricane, removed from the mind of the tramp the last vestige of any thought he might have harbored to do the newcomer bodily injury, and with it removed all else from the man's mind, temporarily.
As the fellow slumped, unconscious, to the ground, the camper rose to his feet.
"Some wallop you have concealed in your sleeve, my friend," he said; "place it there!" and he extended a slender, shapely hand.
Billy took it and shook it.
"It don't get under the ribs like those verses of yours, though, bo," he returned.
"It seems to have insinuated itself beneath this guy's thick skull," replied the poetical one, "and it's a cinch my verses, nor any other would ever get there."
The tramp who had plumbed the depths of the creek's foot of water and two feet of soft mud was crawling ashore.
"Whadda YOU want now?" inquired Billy Byrne. "A piece o' soap?"
"I'll get youse yet," spluttered the moist one through his watery whiskers.
"Ferget it," admonished Billy, "an' hit the trail." He pointed toward the railroad right of way. "An' you, too, John L," he added turning to the other victim of his artistic execution, who was now sitting up. "Hike!"
Mumbling and growling the two unwashed shuffled away, and were presently lost to view along the vanishing track.
The solitary camper had returned to his culinary effort, as unruffled and unconcerned, apparently, as though naught had occurred to disturb his peaceful solitude.
"Sit down," he said after a moment, looking up at Billy, "and have a bite to eat with me. Take that leather easy chair. The Louis Quatorze is too small and spindle-legged for comfort." He waved his hand invitingly toward the sward beside the fire.
For a moment he was entirely absorbed in the roasting fowl impaled upon a sharp stick which he held in his right hand. Then he presently broke again into verse.
Around the world and back again; we saw it all. The mist and rain
In England and the hot old plain from Needles to Berdoo. We kept a-rambling all the time. I rustled grub, he rustled rhyme— Blind-baggage, hoof it, ride or climb—we always put it through.
"You're a good sort," he broke off, suddenly. "There ain't many boes that would have done as much for a fellow."
"It was two against one," replied Billy, "an' I don't like them odds. Besides I like your poetry. Where d'ye get it—make it up?"
"Lord, no," laughed the other. "If I could do that I wouldn't be pan-handling. A guy by the name of Henry Herbert Knibbs did them. Great, ain't they?"
"They sure is. They get me right where I live," and then, after a pause; "sure you got enough fer two, bo?"
"I have enough for you, old top," replied the host, "even if I only had half as much as I have. Here, take first crack at the ambrosia. Sorry I have but a single cup; but James has broken the others. James is very careless. Sometimes I almost feel that I shall have to let him go."
"Who's James?" asked Billy.
"James? Oh, James is my man," replied the other.
Billy looked up at his companion quizzically, then he tasted the dark, thick concoction in the tin can.
"This is coffee," he announced. "I thought you said it was ambrose."
"I only wished to see if you would recognize it, my friend," replied the poetical one politely. "I am highly complimented that you can guess what it is from its taste."
For several minutes the two ate in silence, passing the tin can back and forth, and slicing—hacking would be more nearly correct—pieces of meat from the half-roasted fowl. It was Billy who broke the silence.
"I think," said he, "that you been stringin' me—'bout James and ambrose."
The other laughed good-naturedly.
"You are not offended, I hope," said he. "This is a sad old world, you know, and we're all looking for amusement. If a guy has no money to buy it with, he has to manufacture it."
"Sure, I ain't sore," Billy assured him. "Say, spiel that part again 'bout Penelope with the kisses on her mouth, an' you can kid me till the cows come home."
The camper by the creek did as Billy asked him, while the latter sat with his eyes upon the fire seeing in the sputtering little flames the oval face of her who was Penelope to him.
When the verse was completed he reached forth his hand and took the tin can in his strong fingers, raising it before his face.
"Here's to—to his Knibbs!" he said, and drank, passing the battered thing over to his new friend.
"Yes," said the other; "here's to his Knibbs, and—Penelope!"
"Drink hearty," returned Billy Byrne.
The poetical one drew a sack of tobacco from his hip pocket and a rumpled package of papers from the pocket of his shirt, extending both toward Billy.
"Want the makings?" he asked.
"I ain't stuck on sponging," said Billy; "but maybe I can get even some day, and I sure do want a smoke. You see I was frisked. I ain't got nothin'—they didn't leave me a sou markee."
Billy reached across one end of the fire for the tobacco and cigarette papers. As he did so the movement bared his wrist, and as the firelight fell upon it the marks of the steel bracelet showed vividly. In the fall from the train the metal had bitten into the flesh.
His companion's eyes happened to fall upon the telltale mark. There was an almost imperceptible raising of the man's eyebrows; but he said nothing to indicate that he had noticed anything out of the ordinary.
The two smoked on for many minutes without indulging in conversation. The camper quoted snatches from Service and Kipling, then he came back to Knibbs, who was evidently his favorite. Billy listened and thought.
"Goin' anywheres in particular?" he asked during a momentary lull in the recitation.
"Oh, south or west," replied the other. "Nowhere in particular—any place suits me just so it isn't north or east."
"That's me," said Billy.
"Let's travel double, then," said the poetical one. "My name's Bridge."
"And mine's Billy. Here, shake," and Byrne extended his hand.
"Until one of us gets wearied of the other's company," said Bridge.
"You're on," replied Billy. "Let's turn in."
"Good," exclaimed Bridge. "I wonder what's keeping James. He should have been here long since to turn down my bed and fix my bath."
Billy grinned and rolled over on his side, his head uphill and his feet toward the fire. A couple of feet away Bridge paralleled him, and in five minutes both were breathing deeply in healthy slumber.
CHAPTER III. "FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS REWARD"
"'WE KEPT a-rambling all the time. I rustled grub, he rustled rhyme,'" quoted Billy Byrne, sitting up and stretching himself.
His companion roused and came to one elbow. The sun was topping the scant wood behind them, glinting on the surface of the little creek. A robin hopped about the sward quite close to them, and from the branch of a tree a hundred yards away came the sweet piping of a song bird. Farther off were the distance-subdued noises of an awakening farm. The lowing of cows, the crowing of a rooster, the yelping of a happy dog just released from a night of captivity.
Bridge yawned and stretched. Billy rose to his feet and shook himself.
"This is the life," said Bridge. "Where you going?"
"To rustle grub," replied Billy. "That's my part o' the sketch."
The other laughed. "Go to it," he said. "I hate it. That's the part that has come nearest making me turn respectable than any other. I hate to ask for a hand-out."
Billy shrugged. He'd done worse things than that in his life, and off he trudged, whistling. He felt happier than he had for many a day. He never had guessed that the country in the morning could be so beautiful.
Behind him his companion collected the material for a fire, washed himself in the creek, and set the tin can, filled with water, at the edge of the kindling, and waited. There was nothing to cook, so it was useless to light the fire. As he sat there, thinking, his mind reverted to the red mark upon Billy's wrist, and he made a wry face.
Billy approached the farmhouse from which the sounds of awakening still emanated. The farmer saw him coming, and ceasing his activities about the barnyard, leaned across a gate and eyed him, none too hospitably.
"I wanna get something to eat," explained Billy.
"Got any money to pay for it with?" asked the farmer quickly.
"No," said Billy; "but me partner an' me are hungry, an' we gotta eat."
The farmer extended a gnarled forefinger and pointed toward the rear of the house. Billy looked in the direction thus indicated and espied a woodpile. He grinned good naturedly.
Without a word he crossed to the corded wood, picked up an ax which was stuck in a chopping block, and, shedding his coat, went to work. The farmer resumed his chores. Half an hour later he stopped on his way in to breakfast and eyed the growing pile that lay beside Billy.
"You don't hev to chop all the wood in the county to get a meal from Jed Watson," he said.
"I wanna get enough for me partner, too," explained Billy.
"Well, yew've chopped enough fer two meals, son," replied the farmer, and turning toward the kitchen door, he called: "Here, Maw, fix this boy up with suthin' t'eat—enough fer a couple of meals fer two on 'em."
As Billy walked away toward his camp, his arms laden with milk, butter, eggs, a loaf of bread and some cold meat, he grinned rather contentedly.
"A year or so ago," he mused, "I'd a stuck 'em up fer this, an' thought I was smart. Funny how a feller'll change—an' all fer a skirt. A skirt that belongs to somebody else now, too. Hell! what's the difference, anyhow? She'd be glad if she knew, an' it makes me feel better to act like she'd want. That old farmer guy, now. Who'd ever have taken him fer havin' a heart at all? Wen I seen him first I thought he'd like to sic the dog on me, an' there he comes along an' tells 'Maw' to pass me a hand-out like this! Gee! it's a funny world. She used to say that most everybody was decent if you went at 'em right, an' I guess she knew. She knew most everything, anyway. Lord, I wish she'd been born on Grand Ave., or I on Riverside Drive!"
As Billy walked up to his waiting companion, who had touched a match to the firewood as he sighted the numerous packages in the forager's arms, he was repeating, over and over, as though the words held him in the thrall of fascination: "There ain't no sweet Penelope somewhere that's longing much for me."
Bridge eyed the packages as Billy deposited them carefully and one at a time upon the grass beside the fire. The milk was in a clean little graniteware pail, the eggs had been placed in a paper bag, while the other articles were wrapped in pieces of newspaper.
As the opening of each revealed its contents, fresh, clean, and inviting, Bridge closed one eye and cocked the other up at Billy.
"Did he die hard?" he inquired.
"Did who die hard?" demanded the other.
"Why the dog, of course."
"He ain't dead as I know of," replied Billy.
"You don't mean to say, my friend, that they let you get away with all this without sicing the dog on you," said Bridge.
Billy laughed and explained, and the other was relieved—the red mark around Billy's wrist persisted in remaining uppermost in Bridge's mind.
When they had eaten they lay back upon the grass and smoked some more of Bridge's tobacco.
"Well," inquired Bridge, "what's doing now?"
"Let's be hikin'," said Billy.
Bridge rose and stretched. "'My feet are tired and need a change. Come on! It's up to you!'" he quoted.
Billy gathered together the food they had not yet eaten, and made two equal-sized packages of it. He handed one to Bridge.
"We'll divide the pack," he explained, "and here, drink the rest o' this milk, I want the pail."
"What are you going to do with the pail?" asked Bridge.
"Return it," said Billy. "'Maw' just loaned it to me."
Bridge elevated his eyebrows a trifle. He had been mistaken, after all. At the farmhouse the farmer's wife greeted them kindly, thanked Billy for returning her pail—which, if the truth were known, she had not expected to see again—and gave them each a handful of thick, light, golden-brown cookies, the tops of which were encrusted with sugar.
As they walked away Bridge sighed. "Nothing on earth like a good woman," he said.
"'Maw,' or 'Penelope'?" asked Billy.
"Either, or both," replied Bridge. "I have no Penelope, but I did have a mighty fine 'maw'."
Billy made no reply. He was thinking of the slovenly, blear-eyed woman who had brought him into the world. The memory was far from pleasant. He tried to shake it off.
"'Bridge,'" he said, quite suddenly, and apropos of nothing, in an effort to change the subject. "That's an odd name. I've heard of Bridges and Bridger; but I never heard Bridge before."
"Just a name a fellow gave me once up on the Yukon," explained Bridge. "I used to use a few words he'd never heard before, so he called me 'The Unabridged,' which was too long. The fellows shortened it to 'Bridge' and it stuck. It has always stuck, and now I haven't any other. I even think of myself, now, as Bridge. Funny, ain't it?"
"Yes," agreed Billy, and that was the end of it. He never thought of asking his companion's true name, any more than Bridge would have questioned him as to his, or of his past. The ethics of the roadside fire and the empty tomato tin do not countenance such impertinences.
For several days the two continued their leisurely way toward Kansas City. Once they rode a few miles on a freight train, but for the most part they were content to plod joyously along the dusty highways. Billy continued to "rustle grub," while Bridge relieved the monotony by an occasional burst of poetry.
"You know so much of that stuff," said Billy as they were smoking by their camp fire one evening, "that I'd think you'd be able to make some up yourself."
"I've tried," admitted Bridge; "but there always seems to be something lacking in my stuff—it don't get under your belt—the divine afflatus is not there. I may start out all right, but I always end up where I didn't expect to go, and where nobody wants to be."
"'Member any of it?" asked Billy.
"There was one I wrote about a lake where I camped once," said Bridge, reminiscently; "but I can only recall one stanza."
"Let's have it," urged Billy. "I bet it has Knibbs hangin' to the ropes."
Bridge cleared his throat, and recited:
Silver are the ripples, Solemn are the dunes, Happy are the fishes, For they are full of prunes.
He looked up at Billy, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. "How's that?" he asked.
Billy scratched his head.
"It's all right but the last line," said Billy, candidly. "There is something wrong with that last line."
"Yes," agreed Bridge, "there is."
"I guess Knibbs is safe for another round at least," said Billy.
Bridge was eying his companion, noting the broad shoulders, the deep chest, the mighty forearm and biceps which the other's light cotton shirt could not conceal.
"It is none of my business," he said presently; "but from your general appearance, from bits of idiom you occasionally drop, and from the way you handled those two boes the night we met I should rather surmise that at some time or other you had been less than a thousand miles from the w.k. roped arena."
"I seen a prize fight once," admitted Billy.
It was the day before they were due to arrive in Kansas City that Billy earned a hand-out from a restaurant keeper in a small town by doing some odd jobs for the man. The food he gave Billy was wrapped in an old copy of the Kansas City Star. When Billy reached camp he tossed the package to Bridge, who, in addition to his honorable post as poet laureate, was also cook. Then Billy walked down to the stream, near-by, that he might wash away the grime and sweat of honest toil from his hands and face.
As Bridge unwrapped the package and the paper unfolded beneath his eyes an article caught his attention—just casually at first; but presently to the exclusion of all else. As he read his eyebrows alternated between a position of considerable elevation to that of a deep frown. Occasionally he nodded knowingly. Finally he glanced up at Billy who was just rising from his ablutions. Hastily Bridge tore from the paper the article that had attracted his interest, folded it, and stuffed it into one of his pockets—he had not had time to finish the reading and he wanted to save the article for a later opportunity for careful perusal.
That evening Bridge sat for a long time scrutinizing Billy through half-closed lids, and often he found his eyes wandering to the red ring about the other's wrist; but whatever may have been within his thoughts he kept to himself.
It was noon when the two sauntered into Kansas City. Billy had a dollar in his pocket—a whole dollar. He had earned it assisting an automobilist out of a ditch.
"We'll have a swell feed," he had confided to Bridge, "an' sleep in a bed just to learn how much nicer it is sleepin' out under the black sky and the shiny little stars."
"You're a profligate, Billy," said Bridge.
"I dunno what that means," said Billy; "but if it's something I shouldn't be I probably am."
The two went to a rooming-house of which Bridge knew, where they could get a clean room with a double bed for fifty cents. It was rather a high price to pay, of course, but Bridge was more or less fastidious, and he admitted to Billy that he'd rather sleep in the clean dirt of the roadside than in the breed of dirt one finds in an unclean bed.
At the end of the hall was a washroom, and toward this Bridge made his way, after removing his coat and throwing it across the foot of the bed. After he had left the room Billy chanced to notice a folded bit of newspaper on the floor beneath Bridge's coat. He picked it up to lay it on the little table which answered the purpose of a dresser when a single word caught his attention. It was a name: Schneider.
Billy unfolded the clipping and as his eyes took in the heading a strange expression entered them—a hard, cold gleam such as had not touched them since the day that he abandoned the deputy sheriff in the woods midway between Chicago and Joliet.
This is what Billy read:
Billy Byrne, sentenced to life imprisonment in Joliet penitentiary for the murder of Schneider, the old West Side saloon keeper, hurled himself from the train that was bearing him to Joliet yesterday, dragging with him the deputy sheriff to whom he was handcuffed.
The deputy was found a few hours later bound and gagged, lying in the woods along the Santa Fe, not far from Lemont. He was uninjured. He says that Byrne got a good start, and doubtless took advantage of it to return to Chicago, where a man of his stamp could find more numerous and safer retreats than elsewhere.
There was much more—a detailed account of the crime for the commission of which Billy had been sentenced, a full and complete description of Billy, a record of his long years of transgression, and, at last, the mention of a five-hundred-dollar reward that the authorities had offered for information that would lead to his arrest.
When Billy had concluded the reading he refolded the paper and placed it in a pocket of the coat hanging upon the foot of the bed. A moment later Bridge entered the room. Billy caught himself looking often at his companion, and always there came to his mind the termination of the article he had found in Bridge's pocket—the mention of the five-hundred-dollar reward.
"Five hundred dollars," thought Billy, "is a lot o' coin. I just wonder now," and he let his eyes wander to his companion as though he might read upon his face the purpose which lay in the man's heart. "He don't look it; but five hundred dollars is a lot o' coin—fer a bo, and wotinell did he have that article hid in his clothes fer? That's wot I'd like to know. I guess it's up to me to blow."
All the recently acquired content which had been Billy's since he had come upon the poetic Bridge and the two had made their carefree, leisurely way along shaded country roadsides, or paused beside cool brooklets that meandered lazily through sweet-smelling meadows, was dissipated in the instant that he had realized the nature of the article his companion had been carrying and hiding from him.
For days no thought of pursuit or capture had arisen to perplex him. He had seemed such a tiny thing out there amidst the vastness of rolling hills, of woods, and plain that there had been induced within him an unconscious assurance that no one could find him even though they might seek for him.
The idea of meeting a plain clothes man from detective headquarters around the next bend of a peaceful Missouri road was so preposterous and incongruous that Billy had found it impossible to give the matter serious thought.
He never before had been in the country districts of his native land. To him the United States was all like Chicago or New York or Milwaukee, the three cities with which he was most familiar. His experience of unurban localities had been gained amidst the primeval jungles of far-away Yoka. There had been no detective sergeants there—unquestionably there could be none here. Detective sergeants were indigenous to the soil that grew corner saloons and poolrooms, and to none other—as well expect to discover one of Oda Yorimoto's samurai hiding behind a fire plug on Michigan Boulevard, as to look for one of those others along a farm-bordered road.
But here in Kansas City, amidst the noises and odors that meant a large city, it was different. Here the next man he met might be looking for him, or if not then the very first policeman they encountered could arrest him upon a word from Bridge—and Bridge would get five hundred dollars. Just then Bridge burst forth into poetry:
In a flannel shirt from earth's clean dirt, Here, pal, is my calloused hand! Oh, I love each day as a rover may, Nor seek to understand. To enjoy is good enough for me; The gypsy of God am I. Then here's a hail to—
"Say," he interrupted himself; "what's the matter with going out now and wrapping ourselves around that swell feed you were speaking of?"
Billy rose. It didn't seem possible that Bridge could be going to double-cross him.
In a flannel shirt from earth's clean dirt, Here, pal, is my calloused hand!
Billy repeated the lines half aloud. They renewed his confidence in Bridge, somehow.
"Like them?" asked the latter.
"Yes," said Billy; "s'more of Knibbs?"
"No, Service. Come on, let's go and dine. How about the Midland?" and he grinned at his little joke as he led the way toward the street.
It was late afternoon. The sun already had set; but it still was too light for lamps. Bridge led the way toward a certain eating-place of which he knew where a man might dine well and from a clean platter for two bits. Billy had been keeping his eyes open for detectives. They had passed no uniformed police—that would be the crucial test, thought he—unless Bridge intended tipping off headquarters on the quiet and having the pinch made at night after Billy had gone to bed.
As they reached the little restaurant, which was in a basement, Bridge motioned Billy down ahead of him. Just for an instant he, himself, paused at the head of the stairs and looked about. As he did so a man stepped from the shadow of a doorway upon the opposite side of the street.
If Bridge saw him he apparently gave no sign, for he turned slowly and with deliberate steps followed Billy down into the eating-place.
CHAPTER IV. ON THE TRAIL. AS THEY entered the place Billy, who was ahead, sought a table; but as he was about to hang up his cap and seat himself Bridge touched his elbow.
"Let's go to the washroom and clean up a bit," he said, in a voice that might be heard by those nearest.
"Why, we just washed before we left our room," expostulated Billy.
"Shut up and follow me," Bridge whispered into his ear.
Immediately Billy was all suspicion. His hand flew to the pocket in which the gun of the deputy sheriff still rested. They would never take him alive, of that Billy was positive. He wouldn't go back to life imprisonment, not after he had tasted the sweet freedom of the wide spaces—such a freedom as the trammeled city cannot offer.
Bridge saw the movement.
"Cut it," he whispered, "and follow me, as I tell you. I just saw a Chicago dick across the street. He may not have seen you, but it looked almighty like it. He'll be down here in about two seconds now. Come on—we'll beat it through the rear—I know the way."
Billy Byrne heaved a great sigh of relief. Suddenly he was almost reconciled to the thought of capture, for in the instant he had realized that it had not been so much his freedom that he had dreaded to lose as his faith in the companion in whom he had believed.
Without sign of haste the two walked the length of the room and disappeared through the doorway leading into the washroom. Before them was a window opening upon a squalid back yard. The building stood upon a hillside, so that while the entrance to the eating-place was below the level of the street in front, its rear was flush with the ground.
Bridge motioned Billy to climb through the window while he shot the bolt upon the inside of the door leading back into the restaurant. A moment later he followed the fugitive, and then took the lead.
Down narrow, dirty alleys, and through litter-piled back yards he made his way, while Billy followed at his heels. Dusk was gathering, and before they had gone far darkness came.
They neither paused nor spoke until they had left the business portion of the city behind and were well out of the zone of bright lights. Bridge was the first to break the silence.
"I suppose you wonder how I knew," he said.
"No," replied Billy. "I seen that clipping you got in your pocket—it fell out on the floor when you took your coat off in the room this afternoon to go and wash."
"Oh," said Bridge, "I see. Well, as far as I'm concerned that's the end of it—we won't mention it again, old man. I don't need to tell you that I'm for you."
"No, not after tonight," Billy assured him.
They went on again for some little time without speaking, then Billy said:
"I got two things to tell you. The first is that after I seen that newspaper article in your clothes I thought you was figurin' on double-crossin' me an' claimin' the five hun. I ought to of known better. The other is that I didn't kill Schneider. I wasn't near his place that night—an' that's straight."
"I'm glad you told me both," said Bridge. "I think we'll understand each other better after this—we're each runnin' away from something. We'll run together, eh?" and he extended his hand. "In flannel shirt from earth's clean dirt, here, pal, is my calloused hand!" he quoted, laughing.
Billy took the other's hand. He noticed that Bridge hadn't said what HE was running away from. Billy wondered; but asked no questions.
South they went after they had left the city behind, out into the sweet and silent darkness of the country. During the night they crossed the line into Kansas, and morning found them in a beautiful, hilly country to which all thoughts of cities, crime, and police seemed so utterly foreign that Billy could scarce believe that only a few hours before a Chicago detective had been less than a hundred feet from him.
The new sun burst upon them as they topped a grassy hill. The dew-bespangled blades scintillated beneath the gorgeous rays which would presently sweep them away again into the nothingness from which they had sprung.
Bridge halted and stretched himself. He threw his head back and let the warm sun beat down upon his bronzed face.
There's sunshine in the heart of me, My blood sings in the breeze; The mountains are a part of me, I'm fellow to the trees. My golden youth I'm squandering, Sun-libertine am I, A-wandering, a-wandering, Until the day I die.
And then he stood for minutes drinking in deep breaths of the pure, sweet air of the new day. Beside him, a head taller, savagely strong, stood Billy Byrne, his broad shoulders squared, his great chest expanding as he inhaled.
"It's great, ain't it?" he said, at last. "I never knew the country was like this, an' I don't know that I ever would have known it if it hadn't been for those poet guys you're always spouting.
"I always had an idea they was sissy fellows," he went on; "but a guy can't be a sissy an' think the thoughts they musta thought to write stuff that sends the blood chasin' through a feller like he'd had a drink on an empty stomach.
"I used to think everybody was a sissy who wasn't a tough guy. I was a tough guy all right, an' I was mighty proud of it. I ain't any more an' haven't been for a long time; but before I took a tumble to myself I'd have hated you, Bridge. I'd a-hated your fine talk, an' your poetry, an' the thing about you that makes you hate to touch a guy for a hand-out.
"I'd a-hated myself if I'd thought that I could ever talk mushy like I am now. Gee, Bridge, but I was the limit! A girl—a nice girl—called me a mucker once, an' a coward. I was both; but I had the reputation of bein' the toughest guy on the West Side, an' I thought I was a man. I nearly poked her face for her—think of it, Bridge! I nearly did; but something stopped me—something held my hand from it, an' lately I've liked to think that maybe what stopped me was something in me that had always been there—something decent that was really a part of me. I hate to think that I was such a beast at heart as I acted like all my life up to that minute. I began to change then. It was mighty slow, an' I'm still a roughneck; but I'm gettin' on. She helped me most, of course, an' now you're helpin' me a lot, too—you an' your poetry stuff. If some dick don't get me I may get to be a human bein' before I die."
"It IS odd," he said, "how our viewpoints change with changed environment and the passing of the years. Time was, Billy, when I'd have hated you as much as you would have hated me. I don't know that I should have said hate, for that is not exactly the word. It was more contempt that I felt for men whom I considered as not belonging upon that intellectual or social plane to which I considered I had been born.
"I thought of people who moved outside my limited sphere as 'the great unwashed.' I pitied them, and I honestly believe now that in the bottom of my heart I considered them of different clay than I, and with souls, if they possessed such things, about on a par with the souls of sheep and cows.
"I couldn't have seen the man in you, Billy, then, any more than you could have seen the man in me. I have learned much since then, though I still stick to a part of my original articles of faith—I do believe that all men are not equal; and I know that there are a great many more with whom I would not pal than there are those with whom I would.
"Because one man speaks better English than another, or has read more and remembers it, only makes him a better man in that particular respect. I think none the less of you because you can't quote Browning or Shakespeare—the thing that counts is that you can appreciate, as I do, Service and Kipling and Knibbs.
"Now maybe we are both wrong—maybe Knibbs and Kipling and Service didn't write poetry, and some people will say as much; but whatever it is it gets you and me in the same way, and so in this respect we are equals. Which being the case let's see if we can't rustle some grub, and then find a nice soft spot whereon to pound our respective ears."
Billy, deciding that he was too sleepy to work for food, invested half of the capital that was to have furnished the swell feed the night before in what two bits would purchase from a generous housewife on a near-by farm, and then, stretching themselves beneath the shade of a tree sufficiently far from the road that they might not attract unnecessary observation, they slept until after noon.
But their precaution failed to serve their purpose entirely. A little before noon two filthy, bearded knights of the road clambered laboriously over the fence and headed directly for the very tree under which Billy and Bridge lay sleeping. In the minds of the two was the same thought that had induced Billy Byrne and the poetic Bridge to seek this same secluded spot.
There was in the stiff shuffle of the men something rather familiar. We have seen them before—just for a few minutes it is true; but under circumstances that impressed some of their characteristics upon us. The very last we saw of them they were shuffling away in the darkness along a railroad track, after promising that eventually they would wreak dire vengeance upon Billy, who had just trounced them.
Now as they came unexpectedly upon the two sleepers they did not immediately recognize in them the objects of their recent hate. They just stood looking stupidly down on them, wondering in what way they might turn their discovery to their own advantage.
Nothing in the raiment either of Billy or Bridge indicated that here was any particularly rich field for loot, and, too, the athletic figure of Byrne would rather have discouraged any attempt to roll him without first handing him the "k.o.", as the two would have naively put it.
But as they gazed down upon the features of the sleepers the eyes of one of the tramps narrowed to two ugly slits while those of his companion went wide in incredulity and surprise.
"Do youse know dem guys?" asked the first, and without waiting for a reply he went on: "Dem's de guys dat beat us up back dere de udder side o' K. C. Do youse get 'em?"
"Sure?" asked the other.
"Sure, I'd know dem in a t'ous'n'. Le's hand 'em a couple an' beat it," and he stooped to pick up a large stone that lay near at hand.
"Cut it!" whispered the second tramp. "Youse don't know dem guys at all. Dey may be de guys dat beats us up; but dat big stiff dere is more dan dat. He's wanted in Chi, an' dere's half a t'ou on 'im."
"Who put youse jerry to all dat?" inquired the first tramp, skeptically.
"I was in de still wit 'im—he croaked some guy. He's a lifer. On de way to de pen he pushes dis dick off'n de rattler an' makes his get-away. Dat peter-boy we meets at Quincy slips me an earful about him. Here's w'ere we draws down de five hundred if we're cagey."
"Whaddaya mean, cagey?"
"Why we leaves 'em alone an' goes to de nex' farm an' calls up K. C. an' tips off de dicks, see?"
"Youse don't tink we'll get any o' dat five hun, do youse, wit de dicks in on it?"
The other scratched his head.
"No," he said, rather dubiously, after a moment's deep thought; "dey don't nobody get nothin' dat de dicks see first; but we'll get even with dese blokes, annyway."
"Maybe dey'll pass us a couple bucks," said the other hopefully. "Dey'd orter do dat much."
Detective Sergeant Flannagan of Headquarters, Chicago, slouched in a chair in the private office of the chief of detectives of Kansas City, Missouri. Sergeant Flannagan was sore. He would have said as much himself. He had been sent west to identify a suspect whom the Kansas City authorities had arrested; but had been unable to do so, and had been preparing to return to his home city when the brilliant aureola of an unusual piece of excellent fortune had shone upon him for a moment, and then faded away through the grimy entrance of a basement eating-place.
He had been walking along the street the previous evening thinking of nothing in particular; but with eyes and ears alert as becomes a successful police officer, when he had espied two men approaching upon the opposite sidewalk.
There was something familiar in the swing of the giant frame of one of the men. So, true to years of training, Sergeant Flannagan melted into the shadows of a store entrance and waited until the two should have come closer.
They were directly opposite him when the truth flashed upon him—the big fellow was Billy Byrne, and there was a five-hundred-dollar reward out for him.
And then the two turned and disappeared down the stairway that led to the underground restaurant. Sergeant Flannagan saw Byrne's companion turn and look back just as Flannagan stepped from the doorway to cross the street after them.
That was the last Sergeant Flannagan had seen either of Billy Byrne or his companion. The trail had ceased at the open window of the washroom at the rear of the restaurant, and search as he would be had been unable to pick it up again.
No one in Kansas City had seen two men that night answering the descriptions Flannagan had been able to give—at least no one whom Flannagan could unearth.
Finally he had been forced to take the Kansas City chief into his confidence, and already a dozen men were scouring such sections of Kansas City in which it seemed most likely an escaped murderer would choose to hide.
Flannagan had been out himself for a while; but now he was in to learn what progress, if any, had been made. He had just learned that three suspects had been arrested and was waiting to have them paraded before him.
When the door swung in and the three were escorted into his presence Sergeant Flannagan gave a snort of disgust, indicative probably not only of despair; but in a manner registering his private opinion of the mental horse power and efficiency of the Kansas City sleuths, for of the three one was a pasty-faced, chestless youth, even then under the influence of cocaine, another was an old, bewhiskered hobo, while the third was unquestionably a Chinaman.
Even professional courtesy could scarce restrain Sergeant Flannagan's desire toward bitter sarcasm, and he was upon the point of launching forth into a vitriolic arraignment of everything west of Chicago up to and including, specifically, the Kansas City detective bureau, when the telephone bell at the chief's desk interrupted him. He had wanted the chief to hear just what he thought, so he waited.
The chief listened for a few minutes, asked several questions and then, placing a fat hand over the transmitter, he wheeled about toward Flannagan.
"Well," he said, "I guess I got something for you at last. There's a bo on the wire that says he's just seen your man down near Shawnee. He wants to know if you'll split the reward with him."
Flannagan yawned and stretched.
"I suppose," he said, ironically, "that if I go down there I'll find he's corraled a nigger," and he looked sorrowfully at the three specimens before him.
"I dunno," said the chief. "This guy says he knows Byrne well, an' that he's got it in for him. Shall I tell him you'll be down—and split the reward?"
"Tell him I'll be down and that I'll treat him right," replied Flannagan, and after the chief had transmitted the message, and hung up the receiver: "Where is this here Shawnee, anyhow?"
"I'll send a couple of men along with you. It isn't far across the line, an' there won't be no trouble in getting back without nobody knowin' anything about it—if you get him."
"All right," said Flannagan, his visions of five hundred already dwindled to a possible one.
It was but a little past one o'clock that a touring car rolled south out of Kansas City with Detective Sergeant Flannagan in the front seat with the driver and two burly representatives of Missouri law in the back.
CHAPTER V. ONE TURN DESERVES ANOTHER
WHEN the two tramps approached the farmhouse at which Billy had purchased food a few hours before the farmer's wife called the dog that was asleep in the summer kitchen and took a shotgun down from its hook beside the door.
From long experience the lady was a reader of character—of hobo character at least—and she saw nothing in the appearance of either of these two that inspired even a modicum of confidence. Now the young fellow who had been there earlier in the day and who, wonder of wonders, had actually paid for the food she gave him, had been of a different stamp. His clothing had proclaimed him a tramp, but, thanks to the razor Bridge always carried, he was clean shaven. His year of total abstinence had given him clear eyes and a healthy skin. There was a freshness and vigor in his appearance and carriage that inspired confidence rather than suspicion.
She had not mistrusted him; but these others she did mistrust. When they asked to use the telephone she refused and ordered them away, thinking it but an excuse to enter the house; but they argued the matter, explaining that they had discovered an escaped murderer hiding near—by—in fact in her own meadow—and that they wished only to call up the Kansas City police.
Finally she yielded, but kept the dog by her side and the shotgun in her hand while the two entered the room and crossed to the telephone upon the opposite side.
From the conversation which she overheard the woman concluded that, after all, she had been mistaken, not only about these two, but about the young man who had come earlier in the day and purchased food from her, for the description the tramp gave of the fugitive tallied exactly with that of the young man.
It seemed incredible that so honest looking a man could be a murderer. The good woman was shocked, and not a little unstrung by the thought that she had been in the house alone when he had come and that if he had wished to he could easily have murdered her.
"I hope they get him," she said, when the tramp had concluded his talk with Kansas City. "It's awful the carryings on they is nowadays. Why a body can't never tell who to trust, and I thought him such a nice young man. And he paid me for what he got, too."
The dog, bored by the inaction, had wandered back into the summer kitchen and resumed his broken slumber. One of the tramps was leaning against the wall talking with the farmer woman. The other was busily engaged in scratching his right shin with what remained of the heel of his left shoe. He supported himself with one hand on a small table upon the top of which was a family Bible.
Quite unexpectedly he lost his balance, the table tipped, he was thrown still farther over toward it, and all in the flash of an eye tramp, table, and family Bible crashed to the floor.
With a little cry of alarm the woman rushed forward to gather up the Holy Book, in her haste forgetting the shotgun and leaving it behind her leaning against the arm of a chair.
Almost simultaneously the two tramps saw the real cause of her perturbation. The large book had fallen upon its back, open; and as several of the leaves turned over before coming to rest their eyes went wide at what was revealed between.
United States currency in denominations of five, ten, and twenty-dollar bills lay snugly inserted between the leaves of the Bible. The tramp who lay on the floor, as yet too surprised to attempt to rise, rolled over and seized the book as a football player seizes the pigskin after a fumble, covering it with his body, his arms, and sticking out his elbows as a further protection to the invaluable thing.
At the first cry of the woman the dog rose, growling, and bounded into the room. The tramp leaning against the wall saw the brute coming—a mongrel hound-dog, bristling and savage.
The shotgun stood almost within the man's reach—a step and it was in his hands. As though sensing the fellow's intentions the dog wheeled from the tramp upon the floor, toward whom he had leaped, and sprang for the other ragged scoundrel.
The muzzle of the gun met him halfway. There was a deafening roar. The dog collapsed to the floor, his chest torn out. Now the woman began to scream for help; but in an instant both the tramps were upon her choking her to silence.
One of them ran to the summer kitchen, returning a moment later with a piece of clothesline, while the other sat astride the victim, his fingers closed about her throat. Once he released his hold and she screamed again. Presently she was secured and gagged. Then the two commenced to rifle the Bible.
Eleven hundred dollars in bills were hidden there, because the woman and her husband didn't believe in banks—the savings of a lifetime. In agony, as she regained consciousness, she saw the last of their little hoard transferred to the pockets of the tramps, and when they had finished they demanded to know where she kept the rest, loosening her gag that she might reply.
She told them that that was all the money she had in the world, and begged them not to take it.
"Youse've got more coin dan dis," growled one of the men, "an' youse had better pass it over, or we'll find a way to make youse."
But still she insisted that that was all. The tramp stepped into the kitchen. A wood fire was burning in the stove. A pair of pliers lay upon the window sill. With these he lifted one of the hot stove-hole covers and returned to the parlor, grinning.
"I guess she'll remember she's got more wen dis begins to woik," he said. "Take off her shoes, Dink."
The other growled an objection.
"Yeh poor boob," he said. "De dicks'll be here in a little while. We'd better be makin' our get-away wid w'at we got."
"Gee!" exclaimed his companion. "I clean forgot all about de dicks," and then after a moment's silence during which his evil face underwent various changes of expression from fear to final relief, he turned an ugly, crooked grimace upon his companion.
"We got to croak her," he said. "Dey ain't no udder way. If dey finds her alive she'll blab sure, an' dey won't be no trouble 'bout gettin' us or identifyin' us neither."
The other shrugged.
"Le's beat it," he whined. "We can't more'n do time fer dis job if we stop now; but de udder'll mean—" and he made a suggestive circle with a grimy finger close to his neck.
"No it won't nothin' of de kind," urged his companion. "I got it all doped out. We got lots o' time before de dicks are due. We'll croak de skirt, an' den we'll beat it up de road AN' MEET DE DICKS—see?"
The other was aghast.
"Wen did youse go nuts?" he asked.
"I ain't gone nuts. Wait 'til I gets t'rough. We meets de dicks, innocent-like; but first we caches de dough in de woods. We tells 'em we hurried right on to lead 'em to dis Byrne guy, an' wen we gets back here to de farmhouse an' finds wot's happened here we'll be as flabbergasted as dey be."
"Oh, nuts!" exclaimed the other disgustedly. "Youse don't tink youse can put dat over on any wise guy from Chi, do youse? Who will dey tink croaked de old woman an' de ki-yi? Will dey tink dey kilt deyreselves?"
"Dey'll tink Byrne an' his pardner croaked 'em, you simp," replied Crumb.
Dink scratched his head, and as the possibilities of the scheme filtered into his dull brain a broad grin bared his yellow teeth.
"You're dere, pal," he exclaimed, real admiration in his tone. "But who's goin' to do it?"
"I'll do it," said Crumb. "Dere ain't no chanct of gettin' in bad for it, so I jest as soon do the job. Get me a knife, or an ax from de kitchen—de gat makes too much noise."
Something awoke Billy Byrne with a start. Faintly, in the back of his consciousness, the dim suggestion of a loud noise still reverberated. He sat up and looked about him.
"I wonder what that was?" he mused. "It sounded like the report of a gun."
Bridge awoke about the same time, and turned lazily over, raising himself upon an elbow. He grinned at Billy.
"Good morning," he said, and then:
Says I, "Then let's be on the float. You certainly have got my goat; You make me hungry in my throat for seeing things that's new. Out there somewhere we'll ride the range a-looking for the new and strange; My feet are tired and need a change. Come on! It's up to you!"
"Come on, then," agreed Billy, coming to his feet.
As he rose there came, faintly, but distinct, the unmistakable scream of a frightened woman. From the direction of the farmhouse it came—from the farmhouse at which Billy had purchased their breakfast.
Without waiting for a repetition of the cry Billy wheeled and broke into a rapid run in the direction of the little cluster of buildings. Bridge leaped to his feet and followed him, dropping behind though, for he had not had the road work that Billy recently had been through in his training for the battle in which he had defeated the "white hope" that time in New York when Professor Cassidy had wagered his entire pile upon him, nor in vain.
Dink searched about the summer kitchen for an ax or hatchet; but failing to find either rummaged through a table drawer until he came upon a large carving knife. This would do the job nicely. He thumbed the edge as he carried it back into the parlor to Crumb.
The poor woman, lying upon the floor, was quite conscious. Her eyes were wide and rolling in horror. She struggled with her bonds, and tried to force the gag from her mouth with her tongue; but her every effort was useless. She had heard every word that had passed between the two men. She knew that they would carry out the plan they had formulated and that there was no chance that they would be interrupted in their gruesome work, for her husband had driven over to a farm beyond Holliday, leaving before sunrise, and there was little prospect that he would return before milking time in the evening. The detectives from Kansas City could not possibly reach the farm until far too late to save her.
She saw Dink return from the summer kitchen with the long knife. She recalled the day she had bought that knife in town, and the various uses to which she had put it. That very morning she had sliced some bacon with it. How distinctly such little things recurred to her at this frightful moment. And now the hideous creature standing beside her was going to use it to cut her throat.
She saw Crumb take the knife and feel of the blade, running his thumb along it. She saw him stoop, his eyes turned down upon hers. He grasped her chin and forced it upward and back, the better to expose her throat.
Oh, why could she not faint? Why must she suffer all these hideous preliminaries? Why could she not even close her eyes?
Crumb raised the knife and held the blade close above her bared neck. A shudder ran through her, and then the door crashed open and a man sprang into the room. It was Billy Byrne. Through the window he had seen what was passing in the interior.
His hand fell upon Crumb's collar and jerked him backward from his prey. Dink seized the shotgun and turned it upon the intruder; but he was too close. Billy grasped the barrel of the weapon and threw the muzzle up toward the ceiling as the tramp pulled the trigger. Then he wrenched it from the man's hands, swung it once above his head and crashed the stock down upon Dink's skull.
Dink went down and out for the count—for several counts, in fact. Crumb stumbled to his feet and made a break for the door. In the doorway he ran full into Bridge, winded, but ready. The latter realizing that the matted one was attempting to escape, seized a handful of his tangled beard, and, as he had done upon another occasion, held the tramp's head in rigid position while he planted a series of blows in the fellow's face—blows that left Crumb as completely out of battle as was his mildewed comrade.
"Watch 'em," said Billy, handing Bridge the shotgun. Then he turned his attention to the woman. With the carving knife that was to have ended her life he cut her bonds. Removing the gag from her mouth he lifted her in his strong arms and carried her to the little horsehair sofa that stood in one corner of the parlor, laying her upon it very gently.
He was thinking of "Maw" Watson. This woman resembled her just a little—particularly in her comfortable, motherly expansiveness, and she had had a kind word and a cheery good-bye for him that morning as he had departed.
The woman lay upon the sofa, breathing hard, and moaning just a little. The shock had been almost too much even for her stolid nerves. Presently she turned her eyes toward Billy.
"You are a good boy," she said, "and you come just in the nick o' time. They got all my money. It's in their clothes," and then a look of terror overspread her face. For the moment she had forgotten what she had heard about this man—that he was an escaped convict—a convicted murderer. Was she any better off now that she had let him know about the money than she was with the others after they discovered it?
At her words Bridge kneeled and searched the two tramps. He counted the bills as he removed them from their pockets.
"Eleven hundred?" he asked, and handed the money to Billy.
"Eleven hundred, yes," breathed the woman, faintly, her eyes horror-filled and fearful as she gazed upon Billy's face. She didn't care for the money any more—they could have it all if they would only let her live.
Billy turned toward her and held the rumpled green mass out.
"Here," he said; "but that's an awful lot o' coin for a woman to have about de house—an' her all alone. You ought not to a-done it."
She took the money in trembling fingers. It seemed incredible that the man was returning it to her.
"But I knew it," she said finally.
"Knew what?" asked Billy.
"I knew you was a good boy. They said you was a murderer."
Billy's brows contracted, and an expression of pain crossed his face.
"How did they come to say that?" he asked.
"I heard them telephonin' to Kansas City to the police," she replied, and then she sat bolt upright. "The detectives are on their way here now," she almost screamed, "and even if you ARE a murderer I don't care. I won't stand by and see 'em get you after what you have done for me. I don't believe you're a murderer anyhow. You're a good boy. My boy would be about as old and as big as you by now—if he lives. He ran away a long time ago—maybe you've met him. His name's Eddie—Eddie Shorter. I ain't heard from him fer years.
"No," she went on, "I don't believe what they said—you got too good a face; but if you are a murderer you get out now before they come an' I'll send 'em on a wild-goose chase in the wrong direction."
"But these," said Billy. "We can't leave these here."
"Tie 'em up and give me the shotgun," she said. "I'll bet they don't come any more funny business on me." She had regained both her composure and her nerve by this time.
Together Billy and Bridge trussed up the two tramps. An elephant couldn't have forced the bonds they placed upon them. Then they carried them down cellar and when they had come up again Mrs. Shorter barred the cellar door.
"I reckon they won't get out of there very fast," she said. "And now you two boys run along. Got any money?" and without waiting for a reply she counted twenty-five dollars from the roll she had tucked in the front of her waist and handed them to Billy.
"Nothin' doin'," said he; "but t'anks just the same."
"You got to take it," she insisted. "Let me make believe I'm givin' it to my boy, Eddie—please," and the tears that came to her eyes proved far more effective than her generous words.
"Aw, all right," said Billy. "I'll take it an' pass it along to Eddie if I ever meet him, eh?"
"Now please hurry," she urged. "I don't want you to be caught—even if you are a murderer. I wish you weren't though."
"I'm not," said Billy; "but de law says I am an' what de law says, goes."
He turned toward the doorway with Bridge, calling a goodbye to the woman, but as he stepped out upon the veranda the dust of a fast-moving automobile appeared about a bend in the road a half-mile from the house.
"Too late," he said, turning to Bridge. "Here they come!"
The woman brushed by them and peered up the road.
"Yes," she said, "it must be them. Lordy! What'll we do?"
"I'll duck out the back way, that's what I'll do," said Billy.
"It wouldn't do a mite of good," said Mrs. Shorter, with a shake of her head. "They'll telephone every farmer within twenty mile of here in every direction, an' they'll get you sure. Wait! I got a scheme. Come with me," and she turned and bustled through the little parlor, out of a doorway into something that was half hall and half storeroom. There was a flight of stairs leading to the upper story, and she waddled up them as fast as her legs would carry her, motioning the two men to follow her.
In a rear room was a trapdoor in the ceiling.
"Drag that commode under this," she told them. "Then climb into the attic, and close the trapdoor. They won't never find you there."
Billy pulled the ancient article of furniture beneath the opening, and in another moment the two men were in the stuffy atmosphere of the unventilated loft. Beneath them they heard Mrs. Shorter dragging the commode back to its accustomed place, and then the sound of her footsteps descending the stair.
Presently there came to them the rattling of a motor without, followed by the voices of men in the house. For an hour, half asphyxiated by the closeness of the attic, they waited, and then again they heard the sound of the running engine, diminishing as the machine drew away.
Shortly after, Mrs. Shorter's voice rose to them from below:
"You ken come down now," she said, "they've gone."
When they had descended she led them to the kitchen.
"I got a bite to eat ready for you while they was here," she explained. "When you've done you ken hide in the barn 'til dark, an' after that I'll have my ol' man take you 'cross to Dodson, that's a junction, an' you'd aughter be able to git away easy enough from there. I told 'em you started for Olathe—there's where they've gone with the two tramps.
"My, but I did have a time of it! I ain't much good at story-tellin' but I reckon I told more stories this arternoon than I ever tole before in all my life. I told 'em that they was two of you, an' that the biggest one hed red hair, an' the little one was all pock-marked. Then they said you prob'ly wasn't the man at all, an' my! how they did swear at them two tramps fer gettin' 'em way out here on a wild-goose chase; but they're goin' to look fer you jes' the same in Olathe, only they won't find you there," and she laughed, a bit nervously though.
It was dusk when Mr. Shorter returned from Holliday, but after he had heard his wife's story he said that he'd drive "them two byes" all the way to Mexico, if there wasn't any better plan.
"Dodson's far enough," Bridge assured him, and late that night the grateful farmer set them down at their destination.
An hour later they were speeding south on the Missouri Pacific.
Bridge lay back, luxuriously, on the red plush of the smoker seat.
"Some class to us, eh, bo?" asked Billy.
The tide-hounds race far up the shore—the hunt is on! The breakers roar! Her spars are tipped with gold, and o'er her deck the spray is flung, The buoys that frolic in the bay, they nod the way, they nod the way! The hunt is up! I am the prey! The hunter's bow is strung!
CHAPTER VI. "BABY BANDITS"
IT WAS twenty-four hours before Detective Sergeant Flannagan awoke to the fact that something had been put over on him, and that a Kansas farmer's wife had done the putting.
He managed to piece it out finally from the narratives of the two tramps, and when he had returned to the Shorter home and listened to the contradictory and whole-souled improvisations of Shorter pere and mere he was convinced.
Whereupon he immediately telegraphed Chicago headquarters and obtained the necessary authority to proceed upon the trail of the fugitive, Byrne.
And so it was that Sergeant Flannagan landed in El Paso a few days later, drawn thither by various pieces of intelligence he had gathered en route, though with much delay and consequent vexation.
Even after he had quitted the train he was none too sure that he was upon the right trail though he at once repaired to a telegraph office and wired his chief that he was hot on the trail of the fugitive.
As a matter of fact he was much hotter than he imagined, for Billy and Bridge were that very minute not two squares from him, debating as to the future and the best manner of meeting it before it arrived.
"I think," said Billy, "that I'll duck across the border. I won't never be safe in little old U. S., an' with things hoppin' in Mexico the way they have been for the last few years I orter be able to lose myself pretty well.
"Now you're all right, ol' top. You don't have to duck nothin' for you ain't did nothin'. I don't know what you're runnin' away from; but I know it ain't nothin' the police is worryin' about—I can tell that by the way you act—so I guess we'll split here. You'd be a boob to cross if you don't have to, fer if Villa don't get you the Carranzistas will, unless the Zapatistas nab you first.
"Comin' or goin' some greasy-mugged highbinder's bound to croak you if you cross, from what little I've heard since we landed in El Paso.
"We'll feed up together tonight, fer the last time. Then I'll pull my freight." He was silent for a while, and then: "I hate to do it, bo, fer you're the whitest guy I ever struck," which was a great deal for Billy Byrne of Grand Avenue to say.
Bridge finished rolling a brown paper cigarette before he spoke.
"Your words are pure and unadulterated wisdom, my friend," he said. "The chances are scarcely even that two gringo hoboes would last the week out afoot and broke in Viva Mexico; but it has been many years since I followed the dictates of wisdom. Therefore I am going with you."
Billy grinned. He could not conceal his pleasure.
"You're past twenty-one," he said, "an' dry behind the ears. Let's go an' eat. There is still some of that twenty-five left."
Together they entered a saloon which Bridge remembered as permitting a very large consumption of free lunch upon the purchase of a single schooner of beer.
There were round tables scattered about the floor in front of the bar, and after purchasing their beer they carried it to one of these that stood in a far corner of the room close to a rear door.
Here Bridge sat on guard over the foaming open sesame to food while Billy crossed to the free lunch counter and appropriated all that a zealous attendant would permit him to carry off.
When he returned to the table he took a chair with his back to the wall in conformity to a habit of long standing when, as now, it had stood him in good stead to be in a position to see the other fellow at least as soon as the other fellow saw him. The other fellow being more often than not a large gentleman with a bit of shiny metal pinned to his left suspender strap.
"That guy's a tight one," said Billy, jerking his hand in the direction of the guardian of the free lunch. "I scoops up about a good, square meal for a canary bird, an' he makes me cough up half of it. Wants to know if I t'ink I can go into the restaurant business on a fi'-cent schooner of suds."
"Well, you didn't do so badly at that," he said. "I know places where they'd indict you for grand larceny if you took much more than you have here."
"Rotten beer," commented Billy.
"Always is rotten down here," replied Bridge. "I sometimes think they put moth balls in it so it won't spoil."
Billy looked up and smiled. Then he raised his tall glass before him.
"Here's to," he started; but he got no further. His eyes traveling past his companion fell upon the figure of a large man entering the low doorway.
At the same instant the gentleman's eyes fell upon Billy. Recognition lit those of each simultaneously. The big man started across the room on a run, straight toward Billy Byrne.
The latter leaped to his feet. Bridge, guessing what had happened, rose too.
"Flannagan!" he exclaimed.
The detective was tugging at his revolver, which had stuck in his hip pocket. Byrne reached for his own weapon. Bridge laid a hand on his arm.
"Not that, Billy!" he cried. "There's a door behind you. Here," and he pulled Billy backward toward the doorway in the wall behind them.
Byrne still clung to his schooner of beer, which he had transferred to his left hand as he sought to draw his gun. Flannagan was close to them. Bridge opened the door and strove to pull Billy through; but the latter hesitated just an instant, for he saw that it would be impossible to close and bar the door, provided it had a bar, before Flannagan would be against it with his great shoulders.
The policeman was still struggling to disentangle his revolver from the lining of his pocket. He was bellowing like a bull—yelling at Billy that he was under arrest. Men at the tables were on their feet. Those at the bar had turned around as Flannagan started to run across the floor. Now some of them were moving in the direction of the detective and his prey, but whether from curiosity or with sinister intentions it is difficult to say.
One thing, however, is certain—if all the love that was felt for policemen in general by the men in that room could have been combined in a single individual it still scarcely would have constituted a grand passion.
Flannagan felt rather than saw that others were closing in on him, and then, fortunately for himself, he thought, he managed to draw his weapon. It was just as Billy was fading through the doorway into the room beyond. He saw the revolver gleam in the policeman's hand and then it became evident why Billy had clung so tenaciously to his schooner of beer. Left-handed and hurriedly he threw it; but even Flannagan must have been constrained to admit that it was a good shot. It struck the detective directly in the midst of his features, gave him a nasty cut on the cheek as it broke and filled his eyes full of beer—and beer never was intended as an eye wash.
Spluttering and cursing, Flannagan came to a sudden stop, and when he had wiped the beer from his eyes he found that Billy Byrne had passed through the doorway and closed the door after him.
The room in which Billy and Bridge found themselves was a small one in the center of which was a large round table at which were gathered a half-dozen men at poker. Above the table swung a single arc lamp, casting a garish light upon the players beneath.
Billy looked quickly about for another exit, only to find that besides the doorway through which he had entered there was but a single aperture in the four walls-a small window, heavily barred. The place was a veritable trap.
At their hurried entrance the men had ceased their play, and one or two had risen in profane questioning and protest. Billy ignored them. He was standing with his shoulder against the door trying to secure it against the detective without; but there was neither bolt nor bar.
Flannagan hurtling against the opposite side exerted his noblest efforts to force an entrance to the room; but Billy Byrne's great weight held firm as Gibraltar. His mind revolved various wild plans of escape; but none bade fair to offer the slightest foothold to hope.
The men at the table were clamoring for an explanation of the interruption. Two of them were approaching Billy with the avowed intention of "turning him out," when he turned his head suddenly toward them.
"Can de beef, you poor boobs," he cried. "Dere's a bunch o' dicks out dere—de joint's been pinched."
Instantly pandemonium ensued. Cards, chips, and money were swept as by magic from the board. A dozen dog-eared and filthy magazines and newspapers were snatched from a hiding place beneath the table, and in the fraction of a second the room was transformed from a gambling place to an innocent reading-room.
Billy grinned broadly. Flannagan had ceased his efforts to break down the door, and was endeavoring to persuade Billy that he might as well come out quietly and submit to arrest. Byrne had drawn his revolver again. Now he motioned to Bridge to come to his side.
"Follow me," he whispered. "Don't move 'til I move—then move sudden." Then, turning to the door again, "You big stiff," he cried, "you couldn't take a crip to a hospital, let alone takin' Billy Byrne to the still. Beat it, before I come out an' spread your beezer acrost your map."
If Billy had desired to arouse the ire of Detective Sergeant Flannagan by this little speech he succeeded quite as well as he could have hoped. Flannagan commenced to growl and threaten, and presently again hurled himself against the door.
Instantly Byrne wheeled and fired a single shot into the arc lamp, the shattered carbon rattled to the table with fragments of the globe, and Byrne stepped quickly to one side. The door flew open and Sergeant Flannagan dove headlong into the darkened room. A foot shot out from behind the opened door, and Flannagan, striking it, sprawled upon his face amidst the legs of the literary lights who held dog-eared magazines rightside up or upside down, as they chanced to have picked them up.
Simultaneously Billy Byrne and Bridge dodged through the open doorway, banged the door to behind them, and sped across the barroom toward the street.
As Flannagan shot into their midst the men at the table leaped to their feet and bolted for the doorway; but the detective was up and after them so quickly that only two succeeded in getting out of the room. One of these generously slammed the door in the faces of his fellows, and there they pulled and hauled at each other until Flannagan was among them.
In the pitch darkness he could recognize no one; but to be on the safe side he hit out promiscuously until he had driven them all from the door, then he stood with his back toward it—the inmates of the room his prisoners.
Thus he remained for a moment threatening to shoot at the first sound of movement in the room, and then he opened the door again, and stepping just outside ordered the prisoners to file out one at a time.
As each man passed him Flannagan scrutinized his face, and it was not until they had all emerged and he had reentered the room with a light that he discovered that once again his quarry had eluded him. Detective Sergeant Flannagan was peeved.
The sun smote down upon a dusty road. A heat-haze lay upon the arid land that stretched away upon either hand toward gray-brown hills. A little adobe hut, backed by a few squalid outbuildings, stood out, a screaming high-light in its coat of whitewash, against a background that was garish with light.
Two men plodded along the road. Their coats were off, the brims of their tattered hats were pulled down over eyes closed to mere slits against sun and dust.
One of the men, glancing up at the distant hut, broke into verse:
Yet then the sun was shining down, a-blazing on the little town, A mile or so 'way down the track a-dancing in the sun. But somehow, as I waited there, there came a shiver in the air, "The birds are flying south," he said. "The winter has begun."
His companion looked up at him who quoted.
"There ain't no track," he said, "an' that 'dobe shack don't look much like a town; but otherwise his Knibbs has got our number all right, all right. We are the birds a-flyin' south, and Flannagan was the shiver in the air. Flannagan is a reg'lar frost. Gee! but I betcha dat guy's sore."
"Why is it, Billy," asked Bridge, after a moment's silence, "that upon occasion you speak king's English after the manner of the boulevard, and again after that of the back alley? Sometimes you say 'that' and 'dat' in the same sentence. Your conversational clashes are numerous. Surely something or someone has cramped your original style."
"I was born and brought up on 'dat,'" explained Billy. "SHE taught me the other line of talk. Sometimes I forget. I had about twenty years of the other and only one of hers, and twenty to one is a long shot—more apt to lose than win."
"'She,' I take it, is PENELOPE," mused Bridge, half to himself. "She must have been a fine girl."
"'Fine' isn't the right word," Billy corrected him. "If a thing's fine there may be something finer, and then something else finest. She was better than finest. She—she was—why, Bridge, I'd have to be a walking dictionary to tell you what she was."
Bridge made no reply, and the two trudged on toward the whitewashed hut in silence for several minutes. Then Bridge broke it:
And you, my sweet Penelope, out there somewhere you wait for me With buds of roses in your hair and kisses on your mouth.
Billy sighed and shook his head.
"There ain't no such luck for me," he said. "She's married to another gink now."
They came at last to the hut, upon the shady side of which they found a Mexican squatting puffing upon a cigarette, while upon the doorstep sat a woman, evidently his wife, busily engaged in the preparation of some manner of foodstuff contained in a large, shallow vessel. About them played a couple of half-naked children. A baby sprawled upon a blanket just within the doorway.
The man looked up, suspiciously, as the two approached. Bridge saluted him in fairly understandable Spanish, asking for food, and telling the man that they had money with which to pay for a little—not much, just a little.
The Mexican slowly unfolded himself and arose, motioning the strangers to follow him into the interior of the hut. The woman, at a word from her lord and master, followed them, and at his further dictation brought them frijoles and tortillas.
The price he asked was nominal; but his eyes never left Bridge's hands as the latter brought forth the money and handed it over. He appeared just a trifle disappointed when no more money than the stipulated purchase price was revealed to sight.
"Where you going?" he asked.
"We're looking for work," explained Bridge. "We want to get jobs on one of the American ranches or mines."
"You better go back," warned the Mexican. "I, myself, have nothing against the Americans, senor; but there are many of my countrymen who do not like you. The Americans are all leaving. Some already have been killed by bandits. It is not safe to go farther. Pesita's men are all about here. Even Mexicans are not safe from him. No one knows whether he is for Villa or Carranza. If he finds a Villa ranchero, then Pesita cries Viva Carranza! and his men kill and rob. If, on the other hand, a neighbor of the last victim hears of it in time, and later Pesita comes to him, he assures Pesita that he is for Carranza, whereupon Pesita cries Viva Villa! and falls upon the poor unfortunate, who is lucky if he escapes with his life. But Americans! Ah, Pesita asks them no questions. He hates them all, and kills them all, whenever he can lay his hands upon them. He has sworn to rid Mexico of the gringos."
"Wot's the Dago talkin' about?" asked Billy.
Bridge gave his companion a brief synopsis of the Mexican's conversation.
"Only the gentleman is not an Italian, Billy," he concluded. "He's a Mexican."
"Who said he was an Eyetalian?" demanded Byrne.
As the two Americans and the Mexican conversed within the hut there approached across the dusty flat, from the direction of the nearer hills, a party of five horsemen.
They rode rapidly, coming toward the hut from the side which had neither door nor window, so that those within had no warning of their coming. They were swarthy, ragged ruffians, fully armed, and with an equipment which suggested that they might be a part of a quasi-military organization.
Close behind the hut four of them dismounted while the fifth, remaining in his saddle, held the bridle reins of the horses of his companions. The latter crept stealthily around the outside of the building, toward the door—their carbines ready in their hands.
It was one of the little children who first discovered the presence of the newcomers. With a piercing scream she bolted into the interior and ran to cling to her mother's skirts.
Billy, Bridge, and the Mexican wheeled toward the doorway simultaneously to learn the cause of the girl's fright, and as they did so found themselves covered by four carbines in the hands of as many men.
As his eyes fell upon the faces of the intruders the countenance of the Mexican fell, while his wife dropped to the floor and embraced his knees, weeping.
"Wotinell?" ejaculated Billy Byrne. "What's doin'?"
"We seem to have been made prisoners," suggested Bridge; "but whether by Villistas or Carranzistas I do not know."
Their host understood his words and turned toward the two Americans.
"These are Pesita's men," he said.
"Yes," spoke up one of the bandits, "we are Pesita's men, and Pesita will be delighted, Miguel, to greet you, especially when he sees the sort of company you have been keeping. You know how much Pesita loves the gringos!"
"But this man does not even know us," spoke up Bridge. "We stopped here to get a meal. He never saw us before. We are on our way to the El Orobo Rancho in search of work. We have no money and have broken no laws. Let us go our way in peace. You can gain nothing by detaining us, and as for Miguel here—that is what you called him, I believe—I think from what he said to us that he loves a gringo about as much as your revered chief seems to."
Miguel looked his appreciation of Bridge's defense of him; but it was evident that he did not expect it to bear fruit. Nor did it. The brigand spokesman only grinned sardonically.
"You may tell all this to Pesita himself, senor," he said. "Now come—get a move on—beat it!" The fellow had once worked in El Paso and took great pride in his "higher English" education.
As he started to herd them from the hut Billy demurred. He turned toward Bridge.
"Most of this talk gets by me," he said. "I ain't jerry to all the Dago jabber yet, though I've copped off a little of it in the past two weeks. Put me wise to the gink's lay."
"Elementary, Watson, elementary," replied Bridge. "We are captured by bandits, and they are going to take us to their delightful chief who will doubtless have us shot at sunrise."
"Bandits?" snapped Billy, with a sneer. "Youse don't call dese little runts bandits?"
"Baby bandits, Billy, baby bandits," replied Bridge.
"An' you're goin' to stan' fer lettin' 'em pull off this rough stuff without handin' 'em a come-back?" demanded Byrne.
"We seem to be up against just that very thing," said Bridge. "There are four carbines quite ready for us. It would mean sudden death to resist now. Later we may find an opportunity—I think we'd better act simple and wait." He spoke in a quick, low whisper, for the spokesman of the brigands evidently understood a little English and was on the alert for any trickery.
Billy shrugged, and when their captors again urged them forward he went quietly; but the expression on his face might have perturbed the Mexicans had they known Billy Byrne of Grand Avenue better—he was smiling happily.
Miguel had two ponies in his corral. These the brigands appropriated, placing Billy upon one and Miguel and Bridge upon the other. Billy's great weight rendered it inadvisable to double him up with another rider.
As they were mounting Billy leaned toward Bridge and whispered:
"I'll get these guys, pal—watch me," he said.
"I am with thee, William!—horse, foot, and artillery," laughed Bridge.
"Which reminds me," said Billy, "that I have an ace-in-the-hole—the boobs never frisked me."
"And I am reminded," returned Bridge, as the horses started off to the yank of hackamore ropes in the hands of the brigands who were leading them, "of a touching little thing of Service's:
Just think! Some night the stars will gleam Upon a cold gray stone, And trace a name with silver beam, And lo! 'twill be your own."
"You're a cheerful guy," was Billy's only comment.
CHAPTER VII. IN PESITA'S CAMP
PESITA was a short, stocky man with a large, dark mustache. He attired himself after his own ideas of what should constitute the uniform of a general—ideas more or less influenced and modified by the chance and caprice of fortune.
At the moment that Billy, Bridge, and Miguel were dragged into his presence his torso was enwrapped in a once resplendent coat covered with yards of gold braid. Upon his shoulders were brass epaulets such as are connected only in one's mind with the ancient chorus ladies of the light operas of fifteen or twenty years ago. Upon his legs were some rusty and ragged overalls. His feet were bare.
He scowled ferociously at the prisoners while his lieutenant narrated the thrilling facts of their capture—thrilling by embellishment.
"You are Americanos?" he asked of Bridge and Billy.
Both agreed that they were. Then Pesita turned toward Miguel.
"Where is Villa?" he asked.
"How should I know, my general?" parried Miguel. "Who am I—a poor man with a tiny rancho—to know of the movements of the great ones of the earth? I did not even know where was the great General Pesita until now I am brought into his gracious presence, to throw myself at his feet and implore that I be permitted to serve him in even the meanest of capacities."
Pesita appeared not to hear what Miguel had said. He turned his shoulder toward the man, and addressed Billy in broken English.
"You were on your way to El Orobo Rancho, eh? Are you acquainted there?" he asked.
Billy replied that they were not—merely looking for employment upon an American-owned ranch or in an American mine.
"Why did you leave your own country?" asked Pesita. "What do you want here in Mexico?"
"Well, ol' top," replied Billy, "you see de birds was flyin' south an' winter was in de air, an a fat-head dick from Chi was on me trail—so I ducks."
"Ducks?" queried Pesita, mystified. "Ah, the ducks—they fly south, I see."
"Naw, you poor simp—I blows," explained Billy.
"Ah, yes," agreed Pesita, not wishing to admit any ignorance of plain American even before a despised gringo. "But the large-faced dick—what might that be? I have spend much time in the States, but I do not know that."
"I said 'fat-head dick'—dat's a fly cop," Billy elucidated.
"It is he then that is the bird." Pesita beamed at this evidence of his own sagacity. "He fly."
"Flannagan ain't no bird—Flannagan's a dub."
Bridge came to the rescue.
"My erudite friend means," he explained, "that the police chased him out of the United States of America."
Pesita raised his eyebrows. All was now clear to him.
"But why did he not say so?" he asked.
"He tried to," said Bridge. "He did his best."
"Quit yer kiddin'," admonished Billy.
A bright fight suddenly burst upon Pesita. He turned upon Bridge.
"Your friend is not then an American?" he asked. "I guessed it. That is why I could not understand him. He speaks the language of the gringo less well even than I. From what country is he?"
Billy Byrne would have asserted with some show of asperity that he was nothing if not American; but Bridge was quick to see a possible loophole for escape for his friend in Pesita's belief that Billy was no gringo, and warned the latter to silence by a quick motion of his head.
"He's from 'Gran' Avenoo,'" he said. "It is not exactly in Germany; but there are a great many Germans there. My friend is a native, so he don't speak German or English either—they have a language of their own in 'Gran' Avenoo'."
"I see," said Pesita—"a German colony. I like the Germans—they furnish me with much ammunition and rifles. They are my very good friends. Take Miguel and the gringo away"—this to the soldiers who had brought the prisoners to him—"I will speak further with this man from Granavenoo."
When the others had passed out of hearing Pesita addressed Billy.
"I am sorry, senor," he said, "that you have been put to so much inconvenience. My men could not know that you were not a gringo; but I can make it all right. I will make it all right. You are a big man. The gringos have chased you from their country as they chased me. I hate them. You hate them. But enough of them. You have no business in Mexico except to seek work. I give you work. You are big. You are strong. You are like a bull. You stay with me, senor, and I make you captain. I need men what can talk some English and look like gringo. You do fine. We make much money—you and I. We make it all time while we fight to liberate my poor Mexico. When Mexico liberate we fight some more to liberate her again. The Germans they give me much money to liberate Mexico, and—there are other ways of getting much money when one is riding around through rich country with soldiers liberating his poor, bleeding country. Sabe?"
"Yep, I guess I savvy," said Billy, "an' it listens all right to me's far's you've gone. My pal in on it?"
"You make my frien' a captain, too?"
Pesita held up his hands and rolled his eyes in holy horror. Take a gringo into his band? It was unthinkable.
"He shot," he cried. "I swear to kill all gringo. I become savior of my country. I rid her of all Americanos."
"Nix on the captain stuff fer me, then," said Billy, firmly. "That guy's a right one. If any big stiff thinks he can croak little ol' Bridge while Billy Byrne's aroun' he's got anudder t'ink comin'. Why, me an' him's just like brudders."
"You like this gringo?" asked Pesita.
"You bet," cried Billy.
Pesita thought for several minutes. In his mind was a scheme which required the help of just such an individual as this stranger—someone who was utterly unknown in the surrounding country and whose presence in a town could not by any stretch of the imagination be connected in any way with the bandit, Pesita.
"I tell you," he said. "I let your friend go. I send him under safe escort to El Orobo Rancho. Maybe he help us there after a while. If you stay I let him go. Otherwise I shoot you both with Miguel."
"Wot you got it in for Mig fer?" asked Billy. "He's a harmless sort o' guy."
"He Villista. Villista with gringos run Mexico—gringos and the church. Just like Huerta would have done it if they'd given him a chance, only Huerta more for church than for gringos."
"Aw, let the poor boob go," urged Billy, "an' I'll come along wit you. Why he's got a wife an' kids—you wouldn't want to leave them without no one to look after them in this God-forsaken country!"
Pesita grinned indulgently.
"Very well, Senor Captain," he said, bowing low. "I let Miguel and your honorable friend go. I send safe escort with them."
"Bully fer you, ol' pot!" exclaimed Billy, and Pesita smiled delightedly in the belief that some complimentary title had been applied to him in the language of "Granavenoo." "I'll go an' tell 'em," said Billy.
"Yes," said Pesita, "and say to them that they will start early in the morning."
As Billy turned and walked in the direction that the soldiers had led Bridge and Miguel, Pesita beckoned to a soldier who leaned upon his gun at a short distance from his "general"—a barefooted, slovenly attempt at a headquarters orderly.
"Send Captain Rozales to me," directed Pesita.
The soldier shuffled away to where a little circle of men in wide-brimmed, metal-encrusted hats squatted in the shade of a tree, chatting, laughing, and rolling cigarettes. He saluted one of these and delivered his message, whereupon the tall, gaunt Captain Rozales arose and came over to Pesita.
"The big one who was brought in today is not a gringo," said Pesita, by way of opening the conversation. "He is from Granavenoo. He can be of great service to us, for he is very friendly with the Germans—yet he looks like a gringo and could pass for one. We can utilize him. Also he is very large and appears to be equally strong. He should make a good fighter and we have none too many. I have made him a captain."
Rozales grinned. Already among Pesita's following of a hundred men there were fifteen captains.
"Where is Granavenoo?" asked Rozales.
"You mean to say, my dear captain," exclaimed Pesita, "that a man of your education does not know where Granavenoo is? I am surprised. Why, it is a German colony."
"Yes, of course. I recall it well now. For the moment it had slipped my mind. My grandfather who was a great traveler was there many times. I have heard him speak of it often."
"But I did not summon you that we might discuss European geography," interrupted Pesita. "I sent for you to tell you that the stranger would not consent to serve me unless I liberated his friend, the gringo, and that sneaking spy of a Miguel. I was forced to yield, for we can use the stranger. So I have promised, my dear captain, that I shall send them upon their road with a safe escort in the morning, and you shall command the guard. Upon your life respect my promise, Rozales; but if some of Villa's cutthroats should fall upon you, and in the battle, while you were trying to defend the gringo and Miguel, both should be slain by the bullets of the Villistas—ah, but it would be deplorable, Rozales, but it would not be your fault. Who, indeed, could blame you who had fought well and risked your men and yourself in the performance of your sacred duty? Rozales, should such a thing occur what could I do in token of my great pleasure other than make you a colonel?"