Chapter IV. The Tramp Again
 

I am sure that all will admit that the prospect before me was not a particularly bright one. I was bound hand and foot and left without food or water.

Yet as I lay upon the hard floor of the tool house I was not so much concerned about myself as I was about matters at Widow Canby's house. It would be a hardship to pass the night where I was, to say nothing of how I might be treated when Duncan Woodward and his followers returned. But in the meantime, how would Kate fare?

I knew that my sister would be greatly alarmed at my continued absence. She fully expected me to be home long before this. As near as I could judge it was now an hour or so after noon, and she would have dinner kept warm on the kitchen stove, expecting every minute to see me drive up the lane.

Then again I was worried over the fact that the widow had left the house and her money in my charge. To be sure, the latter was locked up in her private secretary; but I felt it to be as much in my care as if it had been placed in my shirt bosom or the bottom of my trunk.

I concluded that it was my duty, then, to free myself as quickly as possible from the bonds which the members of the Model Club had placed upon me. But this idea was more easily conceived than carried out.

In vain I tugged at the clothes line that held my arms and hands fast to my body. Duncan and the others had done their work well, and the only result of my efforts was to make the cord cut so deep into my flesh that several times I was ready to cry out from pain.

In my attempts I tried to rise to my feet, but found it an impossibility, and only succeeded in bumping my head severely against the wall.

There was no use in calling for help, and though I halloed several times I soon gave it up. I was fully three-quarters of a mile from any house and half that distance from the road, and who would be likely to hear me so far off?

The afternoon dragged slowly along, and finally the sun went down and the evening shadows crept up. By this time I was quite hungry and tremendously thirsty. But with nothing at hand to satisfy the one or allay the other I resolutely put all thoughts of both out of my head.

In the old tool house there had been left several empty barrels, behind which was a quantity of shavings that I found far more comfortable to rest upon than the bare floor.

As the evening wore on I wondered if I would be able to sleep. There was no use worrying about matters, as it would do no good, so I was inclined to treat the affair philosophically and make the best of it.

An hour passed, and I was just dropping into a light doze when a noise outside attracted my attention. I listened intently and heard a man's footsteps.

I was inclined to call out, and, in fact, was on the point of so doing, when the door of the tool house opened and in the dim light I recognized the form of the tramp moulder who earlier in the day had so impudently asked me for help.

I was not greatly surprised to see him, for, as mentioned before, the old tool house was frequently used by men of his stamp. He had as much right there as I had, and though I was chagrined to see him enter I was in no position to protest.

On the contrary, I deemed it advisable to keep quiet. If he did not see me, so much the better. If he did, who could tell what indignities he might visit upon me?

So I crouched down behind the empty barrels, hardly daring to breathe. The man stumbled into the building, leaving the door wide open.

By his manner I was certain that he had been drinking heavily, and his rambling soliloquy proved it.

"The same old shebang," he mumbled to himself, as he swayed around in the middle of the floor, "the same old shebang where Aaron Woodward and I parted company four years ago. He's took care of his money, and I've gone to the dogs," and he gave a yawn and sat down on top of a barrel.

I was thoroughly surprised at his words. Was it possible that this seedy-looking individual had once been intimate with Duncan Woodward's father? It hardly seemed reasonable. I made a rapid calculation and concluded that the meeting must have had something to do with the proposed railroad in which I knew Mr. Woodward had held an interest. Perhaps this tramp had once been a prosperous contractor.

"Great times them were. Plenty of money and nothing to do," continued the man. "Wonder if any one in Darbyville would recognize-- hold up, Stumpy, you mustn't repeat that name too often or you'll be mentioning it in public when it ain't no interest for you to do it. Stumpy, John Stumpy, is good enough for the likes of you."

And with great deliberation Mr. John Stumpy brought forth a short clay pipe which he proceeded to fill and light with evident satisfaction.

During the brief period of lighting up I caught a good glance at his face, and fancied that I saw beneath the surface of dirt and dissipation a look of shrewdness and intelligence. Evidently he was one of the unfortunates who allowed drink to make off with their brains.

Mr. John Stumpy puffed on in silence for several minutes. I wondered what he intended to do, and was not prepared for the surprises that were to follow.

"Times are changed and no mistake," he went on. "Here I am, down at the bottom, Nick Weaver dead, Woodward a rich man, and Carson Strong in jail. Humph! but times do change!"

Carson Strong! My heart gave a bound. This man was speaking of my father. What did it mean? What did the tramp know of the events of the past? As I lay behind the barrels, I earnestly hoped he would go on with his talk. I had heard just enough to arouse my curiosity.

I was certain that I had never, until that day, seen the man. What, then, could he have in common with my father?

Instinctively I connected the man with the cause of my father's imprisonment-- I will not say downfall, because I firmly believed him innocent. Why I should do so I cannot to this day explain, but from the instant he mentioned my parent's name the man was firmly fixed in my memory.

In a few moments Mr. John Stumpy had puffed his pipe out, leaving the place filled with a heavy and vile smoke which gave me all I could do to keep from coughing. Then he slowly knocked the ashes from the bowl and restored the pipe to his pocket.

"Now I reckon I'm in pretty good trim to go ahead," he muttered as he arose. "No use of talking; there ain't anything like a good puff to steady a man's nerves. Was a time when I didn't need it, but them times are gone, and the least little job on hand upsets me. Wonder how much that old woman left behind."

I nearly uttered an ejaculation of astonishment. Was this man speaking of Mrs. Canby? What was the job that he contemplated?

Clearly there could be but one answer to that question. He knew the widow had gone away, and in her absence he contemplated robbing her house. Perhaps he had overheard her make mention of the money locked up in her desk, and the temptation to obtain possession of it was too strong to resist.

"I'll have to get rid of that boy and the dog, I suppose," he went on. "If it wasn't for the noise I'd shoot the dog; but it won't do to arouse the neighborhood. As for the lad, I reckon the sight of a pistol will scare him to death."

I was not so sure of that, and I grated my teeth at the thought of my present helplessness. Had I been free, I am sure I could have escaped easily, and perhaps have had the tramp arrested.

It was an alarming prospect. Kate was the only occupant of the house, and the nearest neighbor lived a full five hundred feet away. If attacked in the middle of the night, what would my sister do?

For a moment I felt like exposing myself, but then I reflected that such a course would not liberate me, and he would know that he had nothing to fear from me at the house, whereas, if I kept quiet, he might, by some lucky incident, be kept at bay.

So I lay still, wondering when he would start on his criminal quest.

"Now, one more drink and then I'll be off," he continued, and, producing a bottle, he took a deep draught. "Ha! That's the stuff to brace a man's nerves! But you mustn't drink too much, John Stumpy, or you'll be no good at all. If you'd only let liquor alone you might be as rich as Aaron Woodward, remember that." He gave something like a sigh. "Oh, well; let it pass. I'll get the tools and be on the way. The money in my pocket, I'll take the first train in the morning for the West." He paused a moment. "But no; I won't go until I've seen Woodward. He owes me a little on the old score, and I'll not go until he has settled up."

There was an interval of silence, during which Stumpy must have been feeling around in his pockets for a match; for a moment later there were several slight scratches, and then a tiny flame lit up the interior of the tool house.

"Let's see, where did I leave them tools? Ah, yes; I remember now. Behind those barrels."

And Stumpy moved over to where I was in hiding.