Chapter XIII. An Interesting Conversation
 

I could hardly believe the evidence of my senses when I saw Mr. Aaron Woodward coming up the road with John Stumpy beside him. It would have astonished me to have seen the merchant alone, but to see him in company with the very man I was looking for was more than I had thought possible.

Yet I reflected that the tramp-- or whatever the man was-- had evinced a determination to secure an interview with Mr. Woodward before quitting Darbyville. There was important business to be transacted between them. Mr. John Stumpy intended to have his say, whatever that might mean.

What was to be done? It would never do for me to be seen. Nothing short of arrest would follow. I must get out of the way as quickly as possible.

During the time I had been eating, the sky had become overcast as if a shower was imminent. Taking advantage of this fact I rose quickly and reached for my hat.

"Guess we're going to have a thunder shower," I remarked. "Hope it holds off. I don't want to get wet."

"Then you'll have to hurry," rejoined the woman as she looked out of the door. "Looks as if it would be here in less than quarter of an hour."

"Then I'm off. Good day."

"Good day. Come again."

I slipped out of the door, and passing behind a hedge, made my way to the road. As I did so, Mr. Woodward and Stumpy turned from the highway and walked directly up the gravel path that led to the house!

I was dumfounded by this movement. What did they mean by going to the very place I had just vacated? Was it possible they had seen me?

I earnestly hoped not; for if so, it would spoil a little plan that had just come to me, which was to follow them, see what they were up to, and, if possible, overhear whatever might be said.

I was soon convinced that neither of the men was aware of my presence. They were talking earnestly and stepped up on the porch just as ordinary visitors would have done. In a moment the woman let them in and the door closed behind them.

My curiosity was aroused to its highest pitch, and at the risk of being discovered by any one who might chance to be passing by I walked cautiously back along the hedge until I reached a clump of rose bushes that grew directly under one of the dining-room windows.

The window was open, and by a little manoeuvring I easily managed to see and hear what was going on within.

"You came for the rent, I suppose, Mr. Woodward," the woman was saying. "Joel was going to bring it up to-night. He would have brought it over this morning, only he thought it was going to rain and he had some hay he wanted to get in."

"Yes, I did come for the rent, Mrs. Decker," replied the merchant. "It's due several days now."

"I have it here-- thirty dollars. Here is the receipt book."

There was the rustle of bills and the scratching of a pen.

"Here you are, Mrs. Decker."

"Thank you, sir. Now we'll be worry free for another month."

"So you are. Nothing like being prompt."

"My husband was going to speak to you about the roof. It leaks dreadfully."

"Pooh! That can't be. Why, it was patched only two years ago."

"You are wrong, Mr. Woodward. It is four years, and then but very little was done to it."

"It cost near twelve dollars," growled the merchant. "You can't expect me to be fixing up the house all the time."

"It leaks very badly."

"Then your husband will have to attend to it. I can't spend any more money this year."

"I don't know what we'll do. I wish you would just step outside and look up at the shingles. Nearly all of them are ready to fall off."

I was alarmed by Mrs. Decker's request. Suppose the trio should come out? I would surely be discovered. But my fears were groundless, as the next words of Mr. Woodward proved.

"I can't go out now, madam, not now. I haven't time. I have a little business to transact with this man, and then I must return to Darbyville."

"I'm sorry--" began the woman.

"So am I; but it cannot be helped. Can I use this room for a while?"

By the look upon Mrs. Decker's face it was plain to see she wanted to say, "No, you can't," but she hardly dared to speak the words, so she gave an icy assent and withdrew.

The merchant followed her to the door and saw that it was closed tightly behind her. Then he strode across the room and faced John Stumpy.

"Wall, sir, now we'll have an accounting," he began in an authoritative voice.

"So we will, Woody," returned John Stumpy, in no wise abashed by the other's manner.

The merchant winced at the use of a nickname, but after an instant's hesitation passed it over.

"What do you mean by coming to Darbyville, sir, when I have repeatedly written you to stay away?"

"Oh, come, Woody, don't get on your high horse," was Stumpy's response, as he swung back in the rocker he occupied. "You know I never could stand your high-toned ways."

"I flatter myself I am a trifle above common people," returned Mr. Woodward, and it was plain to see where Duncan got his arrogant manner.

"Oh, pshaw! don't make me tired," yawned Stumpy. "Come, let's to business."

"I am at business. Why did you come here?"

"You know well enough. Didn't I write to you?"

"Yes, and got my answer. We've squared up accounts, sir."

"Don't 'sir' me,-- it don't go down," cried Stumpy, angrily. "We haven't squared up, not by a jugful,-- not till you hand over some more cash."

"I've handed over enough now."

"No, you hain't. Do you think I'm going to do all your work for nothing?"

"You were well paid."

"It's only you as thinks so; I don't."

"How much more do you want?"

"A thousand dollars."

The largeness of the demand fairly took away my breath. As for Mr. Aaron Woodward, he was beside himself.

"A thousand dollars!" he said. "Why, you're crazy, sir."

"No, I ain't; I mean just what I say."

"You expect me to pay you a thousand dollars?"

"Of course I do. I wouldn't ask it if I didn't."

"See here, Fer--"

"Sh!-- John Stumpy, if you please."

"That's so, I forgot. But see here, a thousand dollars! Why, I've already paid you that."

"So you have. Now I want another thousand and then we'll cry quits."

Mr. Aaron Woodward grew white with rage. "I never heard of such an outrageous demand," he cried. "I'll never pay it."

"Oh, yes, you will," rejoined the other, coolly. "Aaron Woodward never yet acted rashly."

"Suppose I refuse to pay?"

"Better not; I'm a bad man when I am aroused."

"I don't fear you. You can do nothing to me."

"Oh, yes, I can. I can tell ugly stories about Mr. Aaron Woodward; stories concerning his doings when he was collector for Holland & Mack."

"And who would believe you?" sneered the merchant. "You, a common tramp--"

"Tramp, am I--" interrupted John Stumpy, with a scowl. "If I am, who made me so?"

"Your own self and the bottle. Do you think you can hurt me? Nonsense!"

"I can try."

"And who will believe you, I repeat? A common tramp-- whom the police are now hunting for, because of a robbery that occurred only last night."

" 'Tain't so!"

"It is. You broke into the Widow Canby's house and stole over two hundred dollars."

In spite of the dirt on his face, John Stumpy grew pale.

"Who can prove it?"

"Several people. Carson Strong's son, for one."

Stumpy sprang to his feet. Then almost as suddenly sat down.

"Didn't know he had a son," he said, as carelessly as he could.

"Yes, you did," returned the merchant, flatly. "I think, Fer-- Stumpy, I know a little more about you than you do about me."

Bitter hatred spread itself over the tramp's face.

"Oh, ho, you do, do you? Well, we'll see. 'Them laughs best as laughs last.' If you won't pay, I'm off."

He rose to his feet and reached for his hat, Mr. Woodward intercepted him.

"Where are you going?"

"That's my business. I want you to know I didn't come on all the way from Chicago for nothing."

"Are you hard up?"

"Yes, I am. I want money, and I'm going to have it."

"How about the two hundred dollars you stole last night?"

Stumpy hesitated.

"Well, if you want to know the truth, I lost the money," he said.