Chapter XXVIII. A Deal for a Thousand Dollars
 

I was thunderstruck by the announcement that Mr. Aaron Woodward was waiting to come in. Had it been John Stumpy who was announced, I would not have been so much surprised. But Aaron Woodward! The chase after me was indeed getting hot.

Evidently the merchant was not satisfied to leave affairs in Chicago entirely in his confederate's hands. Either he did not trust Stumpy or else the matter was of too much importance.

I did not give these thoughts close attention at the time, but revolved them in my mind later. Just now I was trying to resolve what was best to do. Would it be advisable for me to remain or had I better get out?

To retire precipitately might not be "good form," but it might save me a deal of trouble. I had had one "round" with the merchant in his mansion in Darbyville, and I was not particularly anxious for another encounter. I was but a boy, and between the two men they might carry "too many guns" for me.

I looked around for some immediate means of escape. As I have said, the office was located on the side street. Directly in front of the desk was a large window, opened to let in the fresh morning air. For me to think was to act. In less than a minute I was seated on the desk with my legs dangling over the window sill.

"Aaron Woodward!" repeated Chris Holtzmann, in evident surprise.

"Yes, sir, and he says he must see you at once."

"Did you hear that?" called out Holtzmann to me.

"Yes, I did," I returned as coolly as I could.

"Did you expect him?"

"No."

"Humph!"

Holtzmann made a movement as if to step into view, and I prepared to vanish from the scene. But he changed his mind and walked from the office.

I was in a quandary. To remain would place me in great peril, yet I was anxious to know the result of the meeting between the two men. They were the prime movers in my father's downfall, and nothing must be left undone to bring them to justice.

I resolved to remain, even if it were at the peril of my life. I was not an over-brave boy, but the thought of my father languishing in prison because of these men's misdeeds, nerved me to stay.

The closet door was still open, and that gave me a sudden idea.

As I jumped from the desk another idea struck me, and without any hesitation I scattered the papers on the floor and upset the ink-well.

Then I squeezed myself into the closet, crouching down into one corner, behind several canes and umbrellas.

I was not an instant too soon, for hardly had I settled myself than the door opened, and Chris Holtzmann reentered, followed by Mr. Aaron Woodward.

Both men were highly excited, and both uttered an exclamation when they saw the room was empty.

"He's gone!" cried Holtzmann.

"Gone?" repeated the merchant. "Get out, Holtzmann! He was never here."

"I say he was, less than two minutes ago."

"Well, where is he now?"

"I don't know. Ha! I see it! He has jumped through the windows. See how he has upset the ink and scattered the papers. It's as clear as day."

"Can you see anything of him outside?"

Chris Holtzmann leaned out of the window.

"No; he's up and around the corner long ago."

"We must catch the rascal," went on Mr. Woodward, in a high voice. "He knows too much; he will ruin us both."

"Ruin us both?" sneered the proprietor of the Palace of Pleasure. "I don't see how he can ruin me."

"You're in it just as deep as I am-- just as deep."

"Not a bit of it," returned Holtzmann, with spirit. "You are the only one who profited by the whole transaction, and you are the one to take the blame."

"See here, Chris, you're not going back on me in this way," exclaimed the merchant, in a tone of reproach.

"I'm not going back on you at all, Woody. But you can't use me as you used John Stumpy. It won't go down."

"Now don't get excited, Chris."

"I'm not excited. But I know a thing or two just as well as you do. If there is any exposure to take place, you must stand the brunt of it. You were a fool to let the boy get ahead of you."

"I didn't; it was Stumpy. He let the boy get hold of Nick Weaver's statement, and that started the thing. Then the boy stole some of my papers that were in my desk, and how much information he has now I don't know."

"All your own fault," responded Holtzmann, coolly. "Why don't you destroy all the evidence on hand?"

"Do you do that?" asked Mr. Woodward, furiously.

"I do when I think it isn't going to do me any more good," replied Holtzmann, evasively.

"Have you destroyed all the evidence in this matter?"

Holtzmann closed one eye. "I'm not so green as you take me to be," he replied impressively. "All my evidence against you is locked up in my safe."

"You intend to use it against me?" said the merchant.

"Only if it becomes necessary."

"And yet you pretend to be a friend of mine."

"I was until you cheated me out of my fair share of the spoils. But I am satisfied, and willing to let the whole matter rest."

"What will you take for the papers you hold?"

"Wouldn't sell them at any price. I'm not running my head into any trap."

"It will be all right."

"Maybe it will, but I'll run no risk," He paused a moment. "I'll tell you what I will do. Give me a thousand dollars and I'll let you see me burn them up.

I was intensely surprised at this proposition, more so, I believe, than was Mr. Woodward.

"A thousand dollars!" he exclaimed. "Chris, you're crazy."

"No, indeed. I know a thing or two. What do you suppose the Strongs would pay for them?"

"You don't mean to say you would play me false?" ejaculated the merchant, hoarsely.

"I mean to say I'd do anything to save myself if you got us into a hole. As far as I can see, you have allowed this boy to get the best of you at every turn."

"Humph! You needn't talk. You let him walk right into your confidence the first thing."

"Only when he told me all about your affairs."

"Well, let that drop. Can't you let me have the papers cheaper?"

"I said I wouldn't let you have the papers at all. I'll burn them up."

"Will you let me see them?"

Chris Holtzmann's brow contracted.

"What for?"

"Oh, I only want to make sure of what you've got.

"Will you pay the price?"

"Make them cheaper."

"No."

"I'll take them."

"You mean have them burnt up."

"Yes. But I must examine them first."

"I'm willing. And I must have my check before they go into the fire."

"You are very suspicious, Chris, very suspicious."

"No more so than you, Woody. I wasn't born yesterday."

"Well, let's have the papers and I'll write out the check. But it must be understood that you give no more information to the boy."

"Give him information!" cried Holtzmann. "Let him show his face here again and I'll break every bone in his body," he added grimly.

This was certainly an interesting bit of news. I made up my mind that to be seen would render matters decidedly warm for me.

But I was even more interested over the fact that the two men intended to burn up part of the evidence that might clear my father's name. Such a thing must not happen. I must use every means in my power to prevent it.

Yet what was to be done? If the documents were produced at once, how could I save them from destruction?

A bold dash for them seemed the only way. Once snatched from Holtzmann's or Aaron Woodward's hands, and escape through the window or the door would be difficult, but not impossible.

Yet while I was revolving these thoughts over in my mind the same thing evidently suggested itself to the proprietor of the Palace of Pleasure.

"Wait till I lock the door," he said. "We don't want to be interrupted."

"No indeed," returned Mr. Woodward; "interruptions don't pay."

"And I'll close the window, too," went on Holtzmann; "it's cool enough without having it open."

"So it is."

So the window and the door were both closed and fastened. I was chagrined, but could do nothing.

A moment later I heard Chris Holtzmann at his safe, and then the rattle of something on his desk.

"The papers are in this tin box," he said. "I placed them there over six months ago."

He opened the box, and I heard a rustling of documents.

"Why-- why-- what does this mean!" he ejaculated. "They are not here!"

"What!" cried Mr. Aaron Woodward, aghast.

"The papers are not here!" Holtzmann hurried over to his safe and began a hasty search. "As sure as you're born, Woody, they have been stolen!"

"It's that boy," exclaimed the merchant. "He's a wizard of a sly one. He has stolen them, and we are lost!"