Chapter XIV. The Price of Silence
 

For a moment I was staggered by John Stumpy's announcement. Was it possible he was telling the truth? If so, the chances of recovering the Widow Canby's money would assume a different shape. To arrest him would prove a moral satisfaction, but it would not restore the stolen dollars.

Occupying the position I did, I was more interested in restoring the stolen money than I was in having the tramp incarcerated.

Nothing would have given me greater satisfaction than to have met the Widow Canby at the depot with the two hundred odd dollars in my pocket. It would have silenced the public tongue and made my breaking jail of no consequence.

But perhaps John Stumpy was telling a falsehood. He was not above such a thing, and would not hesitate if he thought anything could be gained thereby. That Mr. Aaron Woodward also guessed such to be a fact was proven by the words that followed Stumpy's statement.

"Lost the money?" he ejaculated. "Do you expect me to believe you, sir?"

"It's true."

"Nonsense, sir. Jack Fer--"

"Sh!"

"John Stumpy isn't the one to lose over two hundred dollars!"

"Just what I always said myself, partner, and--"

"Don't 'partner ' me, sir!"

"Well, wasn't we all partners in the good times gone by?"

"No, sir!"

"I reckon we were. Howsomever, let it pass. Well, as I was saying, I reckoned I'd never lose any money, leasewise a small pile, but that's what I have done, and that's why I want you to come down."

And John Stumpy leaned back in the rocker in a defiant fashion.

The merchant eyed him sharply in silence for a moment.

"Where did you lose the money?" he asked at length.

"How do I know? If I did, don't you suppose I'd go back and pick it up?"

"I thought perhaps you were afraid of discovery."

"Humph! I'm not skeered of any such constables as they have in Darbyville."

"But you must have some idea where you dropped it," went on Mr. Woodward, and I was astonished to see how coolly this man, who always pretended to be so straightforward, could inquire about stolen money.

"Not the least," responded John Stumpy. "There was two hundred and sixty dollars in all. I took out ten and left the rest in the pocketbook it was in. I've got the ten dollars, and that's all. And that's why you've got to come down," he went on deliberately. "I'm off for Chicago to-night, and I'm not going back empty handed."

"You think I ought to pay you for your own carelessness," returned Mr. Woodward, coolly.

"Not a bit of it. You owe me every cent I ask."

"I don't owe you a penny."

"You owe me a thousand dollars, and for the last time let me tell you, you've got to pay or take the consequences." And John Stumpy brought his fist down on the table with a bang.

"Hold on; don't make so much noise," cried Mr. Aaron Woodward in alarm. "There is no use of rousing the household."

"I don't care. Either you'll come down or I'll rouse the whole of Darbyville," cried the tramp, vehemently.

"I haven't any money."

"You can't tell me that."

"It's true. Times are getting worse every day."

"Didn't the woman who lives here just pay you?"

"Yes; thirty dollars--"

"And didn't you put the bills in with a big roll in your vest pocket?" went on Stumpy, triumphantly.

The merchant bit his lip.

"That money is to pay a bill that falls due to-morrow," he replied.

"Well, my 'bill' falls due to-day, and it's got to be met. So come; no more beating about the bush. We've talked long enough. Now to business. Do you intend to pay or not?"

The merchant hesitated. Evidently he was afraid to oppose the other too strongly.

"Well, I don't want to let you go without anything," he began. "I'll let you have twenty-five dollars--"

John Stumpy jumped up in a passion. "That settles it. I'm done with you. To-night I'll send a letter to Chris Holtzmann, 897 Sherman Street, Chicago, and tell him a few things he wants to know, and--"

"You dare!" almost shrieked Mr. Woodward. "Write a single word to him and I'll-- I'll--"

"So! ho! You're afraid of him, are you?"

"No, I'm not, but what's the use of letting him know anything?"

"Humph! Do you suppose I'd tell him without pay? Not much! I can easily get him to fork over fifty or a hundred dollars. And he'll make you pay it back, ten times over."

Mr. Aaron Woodward sank back in a chair without a word. Evidently he was completely baffled, and knew not which way to turn.

As for myself, I was very much in the dark as to what all this was about. I was certain the past events spoken of pertained to my father's affairs, but failed to "make connections."

One thing, however, I did do, and that was to make a note of Mr. Chris Holtzmann's address. He was the man Stumpy had written to just previous to the robbery, and he was perhaps one of the persons concerned in my father's downfall.

"See here," said the merchant at last. "It's too late for us to quarrel. What good would an exposure to Holtzmann do?"

"Never mind. If you won't come to time, I shall do as I please," growled Stumpy.

"But a thousand dollars! I haven't got it in cash."

"You can easily get it."

"Not so easily as you think. Tell you what I will do. I'll give you a hundred. But you must give up all evidence you have against me."

Stumpy gave a short, contemptuous laugh. "You must think me as green as grass," he sneered. "I'm not giving up any evidence. I'm holding on to all I've got and gathering more."

"You have Nicholas Weaver's statement," went on Mr. Woodward, with interest.

"So I have. Nick told the truth in it, too."

"I would like to see it"

"Of course you would. So would some other people,-- Carson Strong's boy, for instance."

"Sh!-- not so loud."

"Well, then, don't bring the subject up."

"Have you the statement with you?"

"Maybe I haven't; maybe I have."

"Perhaps it was taken from you," went on Mr. Woodward, curiously.

"What do you know about that?" Stumpy again jumped to his feet. "You've been talking to that Strong boy," he cried.

"Supposing I have?"

"Well, it didn't do you no good. Say, how much does the young cub know?"

"He knows too much for the good of either of us," responded the merchant.

"Sorry he wasn't found in the ruins of that tool house," growled the tramp, savagely.

This was certainly a fine assertion for me to hear. Yet it was no more than I would expect from John Stumpy. He was a villain through and through.

"You meant to burn him up, did you?" asked Mr. Woodward.

"And if I had, Mr. Aaron Woodward would never have shed a tear," laughed John Stumpy.

"Let me see the statement."

John Stumpy hesitated. "Hand over the money first, and maybe I will."

"The hundred dollars?"

"No, a thousand."

"Do you suppose I carry so much money with me?"

"Give me what you have in that roll, and I'll take your word for the rest."

The merchant gave something that sounded very much like a groan.

"Well, I suppose if you insist on it, I must," he said. "I'll give you what I have, but I won't promise you any more."

"Hand it over," was Stumpy's laconic reply. He probably thought half a loaf better than no bread, at all.

With a heavy sigh Mr. Woodward drew the roll of bills from his pocket and began to count them over. I was eager to catch sight of them. I stood on tiptoe and peered into the window. It was an interesting scene; the sour look upon the merchant's face; the look of greed in the tramp's eye. In a moment the counting was finished.

"A hundred and seventy dollars," said Mr. Aaron Woodward. "Here you are." And he held them out. Stumpy almost snatched them from his hand.

"There, now that's settled," he said. "Now about-- What was that?"

A noise had disturbed him. While absorbed in what the two were doing I had given an involuntary cough.

"Somebody listening," he declared as he thrust the money into his pocket.

"We ought to be more careful."

"Only some one coughing in the next room," returned Mr. Woodward. "Don't get scared."

"I ain't scared, but I don't want other folks to know my business. Reckon you don't either."

"No, indeed. It's bad enough for me to be seen in your company," returned Mr. Aaron Woodward, with just a trace of his former lofty manner.

"No insinuations, please," was the ready reply. "My hands ain't any dirtier than yours."

"Well, well, let's stop quarrelling. Let me see the statement."

"Will you promise to hand it back if I do?"

"Why not let me have it?"

"Never mind why. Will you give it back?"

"If you insist on it, you shall have it back," was Mr. Woodward's final reply, seeing that he could gain nothing by parleying.

Stumpy drew forth the envelope. I anticipated what was coming.

"Here it is," he said, and handed it over, as he supposed.

"The envelope is empty," said Mr. Woodward.

Stumpy looked dumfounded.