Chapter XXI. A Midnight Adventure
 

Mr. John Stumpy had evidently been watching my proceedings closely, for when I turned to him he was quite startled. However, it did not take him long to recover, and then, bracing up, he hurried away without a word.

He was now neatly dressed and had had his face shaved. I conjectured that Mr. Woodward had advised this change in order to more fully carry out the deception in relation to the tramp's real character.

"There's that Stumpy," I whispered to Captain Enos, as I pointed my finger at the man. "He has been watching us."

"How do you know?" asked my uncle.

"Because he was just looking over my shoulder," I replied. "Shall I speak to him? I'd like to know what he intends to do next."

"It won't do any good. It ain't likely he'd tell you anything, and if he did, it wouldn't be the truth."

"Maybe it might."

"Well, do as you think best, Roger, only don't be too long-- the widow and Kate are waiting, you know."

Pushing through the crowd, I tapped Stumpy on the shoulder. He looked around in assumed surprise.

"Hullo!" he exclaimed sharply. "What do you want?"

"Nothing much," I returned. "I just saw you were greatly interested in what I was doing."

"Why, I didn't see you before."

"You were just looking over my shoulder."

"You're mistaken, young man, just as you are in several other things."

"I'm not mistaken in several other things."

"What do you intend to do?" he asked curiously.

"That's my business."

"Where have you been?"

"That is my business also."

"Strong, you're a fool," he whispered. "Do you think you can hurt men like Mr. Woodward and myself?"

"I can bring you to justice."

"Bah! I suppose you think you can do wonders by going to Chicago."

"How do you know I am going to Chicago?" I questioned quickly.

Stumpy's face fell, as he realized the slip he had made.

"Never mind. But you won't gain anything," he went on. "Better stay home and save your money."

And to avoid further talk he pushed his way through the crowd and was lost to sight.

A moment later I joined the others in the carriage. While driving home I related the conversation recorded above.

"It's too bad he found out you were going to Chicago," said my uncle. "He may try to stop you."

"I'll keep my eyes open," I replied.

The remainder of the day was spent in active work around the widow's place. Not only did I labor all the afternoon, but far into the evening as well, to show that I did not intend to shirk my duty even though I was going away. Besides, Mrs. Canby had treated me so well that I was almost willing to work my fingers to the bone to serve her.

The following day was Sunday. Kate and I were in the habit of attending church and Sunday-school over in Darbyville, but we shrank from doing so now. But Uncle Enos and I went to church, and despite the many curious eyes levelled at me, I managed to give attention to an excellent sermon. I noticed that the Woodward pew was empty, but then this was of common occurrence and excited no comment.

On Sunday evening my handbag stood in my room packed, ready for my departure. Dick Blair came over to see me and brought strange and sad news.

Duncan Woodward and Pultzer, his intimate crony, had gotten into a row in a pool room down in Newville and were both under arrest. Mr. Woodward and Mr. Pultzer had gone off to get their sons out of jail. Dick did not know how the row had started, but had heard that the young men had been drinking heavily.

I was much shocked at the news, and so were the others. If affairs kept on like this, Mr. Aaron Woodward would certainly have his hands full.

I retired early so as to be on hand the next day. Sleep was out of the question. I had never been a hundred miles away from Darbyville, and the prospect of leaving filled me with excitement.

I was up long before it was necessary, but found Kate ahead of me.

"You're going to have a good, hot breakfast before you go," she said. "Sit right down. It's all ready."

Presently, as I was eating, my uncle and Mrs. Canby joined me. They were full of advice as to what to do and what to avoid, and I listened to all they had to say attentively.

But all things must come to an end, and at length breakfast was over. My Uncle Enos and Kate drove me to Newville, and waited till the train rolled in.

"Good-by, Roger," said Kate. "Please, please, now do keep out of trouble."

"I will, Kate," I returned, and kissed her. Then I shook hands with my uncle.

"Keep a clear weather eye and a strong hand at the wheel, Roger, my boy," he said, "and you'll make port all safe."

"I'll try, Uncle Enos."

A moment more and I was on the cars. Then with an "All aboard" the conductor gave the signal, and the train moved off.

I passed into the car and took a vacant seat near the centre. I had hardly sat down before a well-dressed stranger took the seat beside me.

"Hot day," said he, after he had arranged his bag on the floor beside my own.

"Yes, it is," I replied, "and dry, too."

"Meanest part of the country I've struck yet," he went on. "Don't have any such climate as this out West."

"I should think that would depend on where you come from," I returned, with a short laugh.

"I hail from Chicago. It's hot there, but we get plenty of breeze from the lakes."

I looked at the man with some attention. He came from the city I intended to visit, and perhaps he might give me some information.

He was a burly man of middle age, and, as I have said, well dressed, though a trifle loud. His hair was black, as was also his mustache, which he continually kept smoothing down with one hand. I did not like his looks particularly, nor his tone of voice. They reminded me strongly of some one, but whom I could not remember.

"You come from Chicago," I said. "I am going there."

"Is that so? Then we can travel together. I like to have some one going along, don't you?"

I felt like saying that that would depend on who the some one was, but thinking this would hardly be polite, I returned:--

"I don't know. I've never travelled before."

"No? Well, it's fun at first, but you soon get tired of it. My name is Allen Price; what is yours?"

"Roger Strong."

"Glad to meet you." He extended his hand. "You're rather young to be travelling alone-- that is, going a distance. Do you smoke? We'll go into the smoker and take it easy. I have some prime cigars."

"Thank you, I don't smoke."

"That's too bad. Nothing like a good cigar to quiet a man's nerves when he's riding. So you're going to Chicago? On a visit?"

"No, sir; on business."

"Yes? Rather young for business-- excuse me for saying so."

"It is a personal business."

"Oh, I see. Going to claim a dead uncle's property or something like that, I suppose. Ha! ha! well, I wish you luck."

Mr. Allen Price rattled on in this fashion for some time, and at length I grew interested in the man in spite of myself. I was positive I had seen him before, but where I could not tell. I asked him if he had ever been to Darbyville.

"Never heard of the place," he replied. "Only been in Jersey a month, and that time was spent principally in Jersey City and Camden. I'm in the pottery business. Our principal office is in Chicago."

"Do you know much about that city?"

"Lived there all my life."

I was on the point of asking him about Holtzmann, but on second thought decided to remain silent.

On and on sped the train, making but few stops. There was a dining-car attached but I was travelling on a cheap scale, and made my dinner and supper from the generous lunch the widow had provided.

Mr. Price went to the dining-car and also the smoker. He returned about nine o'clock in the evening, just as I was falling into a light doze.

"Thought I'd get a sleeper," he explained. "But they are all full, so I'll have to snooze beside you here."

His breath smelt strongly of liquor, but I had no right to object, and he dropped heavily into the seat.

Presently I went sound asleep. How long I slept I do not know. When I awoke it was with a sharp, stinging sensation in the head. A pungent odor filled my nose, the scent coming from a handkerchief some one had thrown over my face.

With a gasp I pulled the handkerchief aside and sat up. Beside me sat Mr. Allen Price with my handbag on his lap. He had a number of keys in his hand and was trying to unlock the bag.