Chapter XV. An Odd Statement
 

Before Mr. Woodward made the announcement just recorded he had walked close up to the window, probably to get into the light, for the sky was now darkening rapidly, portending the near breaking out of the storm I have mentioned.

In doing this the merchant's back was turned upon his companion, and for an instant Stumpy had been unable to see what the other was doing.

When therefore Mr. Woodward declared the envelope to be empty every action of the tramp indicated that he did not believe the statement.

"Empty?" he cried hoarsely.

"Yes, empty," replied the merchant; "and you knew it," he added.

"No such thing. The statement was inside. Woody, you're trying to play a sharp game, but it won't work."

"What do you mean, sir?"

"You're trying to rob me."

"Nonsense. I say the envelope was empty."

"And I say it wasn't. Come, hand over my property."

"I tell you, Fer-- Stumpy, I haven't it."

"I don't care what you say. You can't play any such game off on me," rejoined John Stumpy, with increasing anger.

"I'm only speaking the truth."

"You ain't. Hand it over, or I'll--"

John Stumpy caught the merchant by the coat collar.

"What would you do?" cried Mr. Woodward in alarm, and it was plain to see he was a coward at heart.

"I'll choke the life out of you; that's what I'll do. Hand over the statement."

"I haven't it, upon my honor."

"Your honor? Bah! What does that amount to?"

John Stumpy suddenly shifted his hand from its grasp on the collar to the merchant's throat. For a moment I thought Mr. Woodward was in danger of being choked to death.

"Stop! Stop! Se-- search me if you-- you want to," he gasped.

But John Stumpy's passion seemed to have got the better of his reason. He did not relax his hold in the least.

A short struggle ensued. The two backed up against the table, and presently a chair was upset. Of course all this made considerable noise. Yet neither of the men heeded it.

Presently the door from the other room swung open, and the two had hardly time to separate before a tall, lank farmer entered.

"Hello, what's up?" he asked in a loud, drawling tone.

For an instant neither spoke, evidently not knowing what to say.

"We were-- were-- ahem-- trying to-- to catch a rat," replied Mr. Woodward, with an effort.

"A rat?"

"Exactly, sir. Had a terrible time with him, Mr. Decker."

The farmer looked surprised. "So I supposed by the row that was going on," he said. "Curious. I knew there were rats down to the barn, but I didn't suppose they came up to the house. What became of him?"

"Slipped out of the door just now," put in John Stumpy. "There he goes!" he added, pointing out into the hall.

Mr. Decker made a spring out of the room.

"I must ketch him, by gopher!" he cried. "There's enough eat up here now without having the vermin taking a hand in."

Mr. Woodward closed the door after the man.

"Now see to what your actions have brought us," he exclaimed. "If it hadn't been for my quick wit we'd been in a pretty mess."

"Not my fault," growled John Stumpy. "Why don't you give up the statement?"

I could not help but feel amused at his persistency. His demands upon the merchant were about on a footing with those Mr. Woodward had made upon me.

"If you'll only listen to reason," began the merchant, "I will prove--"

The rest of his remark was drowned out in a clap of thunder. Somewhat startled, I looked up at the sky.

The black clouds in the south had rolled up rapidly, until now the entire horizon was covered. The first burst of thunder was succeeded directly by several others, and then large drops of rain began to fall.

The wind blew the drops directly into the window. I crouched down out of sight, and the next moment Mr. Woodward said:--

"It's raining in the window. We'd better close it up."

Of course directly the window was closed I could hear no longer. I remained in my position for half a minute or more, and then as the rain began to pour down rapidly I made a break for better shelter.

I sought the barn. It was a low, rambling structure, with great wide doors. No one seemed to be around, and I rushed in without ceremony. I was pretty fairly soaked, but as it was warm I did not mind the ducking. I shook out my hat and coat and then sat down to think matters over.

What I had heard had not given me much satisfaction. To be sure, it had proved beyond a doubt that Mr. Aaron Woodward was a thorough scoundrel, but of this I had been already satisfied in my own mind.

What was I to do? I had asked myself that question several times, and now I asked it again.

If only I could get John Stumpy arrested, perhaps it would be possible to force him to make a confession. But how was this to be done?

While I sat on the edge of a feed box, a form darkened the doorway, and Farmer Decker appeared.

"Hello!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"

"I took the liberty to come in out of the rain," I replied. "Have you any objections to my remaining until the shower is over?"

"No, guess not. It's a mighty heavy one. Where're you from? Newville?"

"No, sir, Darbyville."

"Yes? Had quite a robbery down there, I understand."

"Is that so?"

"Yes, a chap named Strong robbed an old woman of nearly five hundred dollars. Do you know him or the woman?"

"I know the woman quite well," was my reply, and I hoped he would not question me further.

"They've got him in jail, I believe. The fellow and his sister tried to make out that a tramp had taken the money, but I understand no one would listen to the story."

"No?"

"No. It seems this Strong boy's father is in jail now for stealing, so it ain't strange the boy's a thief."

"But maybe he isn't guilty," I put in, by way of a mild protest.

"Maybe. Of course it's rather tough on him if he isn't. But you can't tell nowadays; boys is so all-fired high toned, and want to play big fiddle."

"Some boys are, but not all of them."

"Some of them. Now there's our landlord, who is in the house now, he's got a son as extravagant as can be, and if it wasn't for Mr. Woodward keeping him in funds I don't know what that boy might not do. He-- whoa, there, Billy, whoa!"

The last remark was addressed to a horse standing in one of the stalls. A clap of thunder had set the animal to prancing.

"Your horse feels rather uneasy," I remarked, glad of a chance to change the subject.

"Allers acts that way when there's a storm going on. Too bad, too, for I want to hitch him up and take Mr. Woodward and another man that's with him over to Darbyville."

As Mr. Decker spoke he led the horse from the stall and backed him up between the shafts of the carriage that stood near the rear of the barn.

While he was hitching up I set myself to thinking. While I was perfectly willing that Mr. Woodward should return to Darbyville, I did not wish to allow John Stumpy out of my sight. Once away, and I might not be able to lay hands on him.

Had I been sure that Kate had succeeded in finding the lost statement, I would not have cared, but the chances in her favor were slim, and I did not wish to run any risks.

"Are you going to drive around to the house for them?" I asked as the farmer finished the job.

"Guess I'll have to. It will be a beastly drive. Sorry I can't offer you a seat-- it would be better than walking."

"I think I'll wait till it clears off," I returned. "I'm not on business, and--"

"Say, Decker, how long is it going to take you to hitch up?" interrupted a voice from the doorway, and the next instant Mr. Woodward strode into the barn, followed by John Stumpy.

I did not have time to conceal myself. I tried to step behind a partition, but before I could do so the merchant's eye was on me.

"Roger Strong!" he exclaimed.

"Yes, sir," I replied, as boldly as I could.

"How did you get here?" he demanded.

"Walked, just as you did."

"Thought you were in jail."

"So do most people."

"Who is this chap?" asked the farmer, staring at me with open eyes.

"It's the boy who was arrested for that robbery last night," explained the merchant.

"Shoo-- you don't say? And I was talking to him about that very thing. You rascal, you!"

"How did you get out?" put in John Stumpy.

"None of your business," I replied briskly. "If you'd had your way I'd been burnt up in the tool house last night."

"No such thing," was the tramp's reply. "Never saw you before."

"You're the fellow who stole the Widow Canby's money."

"You must be crazy, young fellow. I don't know anything about the Widow Canby or her money."

"I can prove it. My sister can prove it, too."

"Then your sister must be as crazy as yourself."

"Stop there! You're the thief and you know it."

"I know nothing of the kind."

"Your story is nonsensical, Strong," broke in Mr. Woodward. "Gentlemen like Mr. Stumpy here do not break into people's houses and commit robberies."

"Gentlemen! He's nothing but a tramp, and you know it."

"Tramp? How dare you?" cried Stumpy, in suddenly assumed dignity, put on for the farmer's benefit. "I am a ranchero from Texas and an honest man. I am visiting Mr. Woodward, and know nothing more of the robbery excepting having heard that it occurred-- ahem!" And John Stumpy drew himself up.

Under other circumstances I would have laughed at his effrontery. But the situation was too serious to indulge in any humor.

"Being placed under arrest has turned your head, Strong," said the merchant. "You seem to be quite out of your mind."

"When was the robbery committed?" put in John Stumpy, suddenly.

"You know well enough," I cried.

"I heard it was about two o'clock in the morning," vouchsafed Farmer Decker.

"Then I can easily prove an alibi," said the tramp, triumphantly. "I can prove I was with my esteemed friend Mr. Woodward at that hour. Isn't it so, Aaron?"

The merchant hesitated. I fairly held my breath to catch his answer. Would he commit deliberate perjury?

"Quite true," he replied slowly. "Mr. Stumpy was with me last night. We sat up in the library, smoking, and playing cards until after midnight, and then I showed him to bed. He could not possibly have committed the crime of which Strong speaks."

"Then the boy must be the guilty one hisself," said the farmer. "And so young, too. Who would a-thought it! What shall we do with him, Mr. Woodward?"

"You had better help me take him back to Darbyville jail," responded the merchant.