Chapter V. Following John Stumpy
 

I expected to be discovered. I could not see how it could possibly be avoided. John Stumpy was but a few feet away. In a second more he would be in full sight of me.

What the outcome of the discovery would be I could not imagine. I was at the man's mercy, and I was inclined to think that, our interview of the morning would not tend to soften his feelings toward me.

But at that instant a small, yet extremely lucky incident occurred. A draught of wind came in at the partly open door and blew out the match, leaving the place in darkness.

"Confound the luck!" ejaculated John Stumpy, in high irritation. "There goes the light, and it's the last match I've got, too."

This bit of information was gratifying to me, and, without making any noise, I rolled back into the corner as far as possible.

"Well, I'll have to find them tools in the dark, that's all." He groped around for several seconds, during which I held my breath. "Ah, here they are, just as I left 'em last night. Reckon no one visits this shanty, and maybe it will be a good place to bring the booty, especially if I happen to be closely pushed."

I sincerely hoped that he would be closely pushed, and in fact so closely pushed that he would have no booty to bring. But if he did succeed in his nefarious plans, I was glad that I would know where to look for him.

No sooner had the man found the bag of tools,-- which was nothing more nor less than a burglar's kit,-- than he quitted the place, and I was left to my own reflections.

My thoughts alarmed me. Beyond a doubt John Stumpy intended to rob the Widow Canby's house. The only one at home was Kate, and I groaned as I thought of the alarm and terror that she might be called upon to suffer. As it was, I was sure she was worried about my continued absence. In my anguish I strove with all my might to burst asunder the bonds that held me. At the end of five minutes' struggle I remained as securely tied as ever.

What was to be done? It was a puzzling, but pertinent question. By hook or by crook I must get free. At great risk of hurting my head I rolled to the door of the tool house, which Stumpy had left wide open. Outside, the stars were shining brightly, and in the southwest the pale crescent of the new moon was falling behind the tree-tops, casting ghostly shadows that would have made a timid person shiver. But as the reader may by this time know, I was not of a timid nature, and I gave the shadows scant attention until a sudden movement among the trees attracted my notice. It was the figure of some person coming rapidly toward me.

At first I judged it must be Stumpy returning, and I was on the point of rolling back to my hiding-place when I saw that the newcomer was a boy.

When he reached the edge of the clearing he paused, and approached slowly.

"Roger Strong!" he called out. I instantly recognized the voice of Dick Blair, one of the youngest members of the Models, who, during my capture, had had little to say or do. He was the son of a wealthy farmer who lived but a short distance down the road from the Widow Canby's place.

I had always considered Dick a pretty good chap, and had been disagreeably surprised to see him in company with Duncan Woodward's crowd. How Duncan had ever taken up with him I could not imagine, except it might have been on account of the money Dick's father allowed him to have.

"Roger Strong!" he repeated. "Are you still here?"

I could, not imagine what had brought him to this place at such an hour of the night. Yet I answered at once.

"Yes, I am, Dick Blair."

"I thought maybe you had managed to get away," he continued, as he came closer.

"No; you fellows did your work pretty well," I replied as lightly as I could, for I did not want to show the white feather.

"Precious little I had to do with it," he went on, as he struck a match and lit a lantern that he carried.

"You were with the crowd."

"I know it; but I wouldn't have been if I'd known what they were up to. I hope you will not think too badly of me, Roger."

"I thought it was strange you would go into anything of this kind, Dick. What brings you back to-night?"

"I am ashamed of the whole thing," he answered earnestly, "and I came to release you-- that is, on certain conditions."

My heart gave a bound. "What conditions, Dick?"

"I want you to promise that you won't tell who set you free," he explained. "If Dunc or the rest heard of it, they would never forgive me."

"What of it, Dick? Their opinion isn't worth anything."

"I know it-- now. But they could tell mighty mean stories about me if they wanted to." And Dick Blair turned away and shuffled his foot on the ground to hide his shame.

"Don't mind them, Dick. If they start any bad report about you, do as I'm doing with the stain on our name-- live it down."

"I'll try it. But you'll promise, won't you?"

"If you wish it, yes."

"All right; I know I can trust you," said Dick. Producing his pocket knife, he quickly cut the cords that bound me. Somewhat stiff from the position in which I had been forced to remain, I rose slowly to my feet.

"I don't know whether to thank you or not for what you've done for me, Dick," I began. "But I appreciate your actions."

"I don't deserve any thanks. It was a mean trick, and I guess legally I was as guilty as any one. Just keep quiet about it and don't think too hard of me."

"I'll do both," I responded quickly.

"It's a mighty lonely place to spend the night in," he went on. "I'm no coward, but I wouldn't care to do it, all alone."

"I haven't been alone."

"No." And Dick looked intensely surprised. "Who has been here?"

I hesitated. Should I tell him?

"A tramp," I began.

"Why didn't he untie you?"

"He didn't see me."

"Oh, I suppose you hid away. What did he want, I wonder?"

"He was after some tools."

"Tools! There are none here, any more."

"But there were."

"What kind of tools?"

I hesitated again. Should I tell Dick the secret? Perhaps he might give me some timely assistance.

"Will you promise to keep silent if I tell?"

"Why, what do you mean, Roger?"

"It is very important."

"All right. Fire away."

"He came after some burglar's tools."

Dick stepped back in astonishment. "You surely don't mean it!" he gasped "Who was he going to rob?"

"The widow's house. He knows she is away and has left considerable money in her desk."

And in a rapid manner I told Dick of what I had overheard, omitting the mentioning of my father's and Mr. Woodward's names. Of course he was tremendously excited. What healthy country boy would not be?

"What are you going to do about it?" he questioned.

"Now I'm free I'm going to catch the fellow," I returned decidedly. "He shall not rob Mrs. Canby's house if I can help it."

"Aren't you afraid?"

"I intend to be cautious."

"He may have a pistol."

"The widow left one in the house. Maybe I can secure it. Then we'll be on an equal footing."

"I've got a pistol, Roger."

"You!"

"Yes, the Models all carry them. Dunc always insisted that it was the proper thing."

As Dick spoke, he produced a highly polished nickel-plated five-shooter.

"It looks like a good one," I said, after examining it. "Is it loaded?"

"Oh, yes; and I've got a box of cartridges in my pocket besides."

"Lend it to me, Dick."

"If you don't mind I'll-- I'll go along with you, Roger," he returned. "You won't find me such a terrible coward."

"All right. But we must hurry. That fellow has got a good start, and he may even now be in the house."

"Hardly. He'll want to take a look around first."

Nevertheless, we lost no time in getting away from the tool house. We walked side by side, I with the pistol in the pocket of my jacket, and Dick with the lantern held aloft, that we might see to make rapid progress over the unaccustomed road.

It was a good walk to the widow's, and once Dick stumbled down in a heap, while the lantern rolled several yards away. But he picked himself up without grumbling and went along faster than ever.

"If I'm not mistaken, I saw that tramp down at the depot this morning," said he, as we drew near to the main road. "He was hanging around, and I thought he looked like a suspicious character."

"Did you see him yesterday?"

"No."

"Did you ever hear of him before?"

"I guess not. He was near the baggage room when I saw him. Then Mr. Woodward came up to see about a trunk, and the tramp made right off."

I was interested. John Stumpy had intimately that he intended to have an interview with Duncan Woodward's father, and if this was so, why had he not taken advantage of the opportunity thus offered?

I could arrive at but one conclusion. The tramp wished their meeting to be a strictly private one. He did not care to be seen in Mr. Woodward's presence, or else the wealthy merchant would not tolerate such a thing.

If the meeting was to be of a private nature, it would no doubt be of importance. Had my father's name not been mentioned I would not have cared; but as it was, I was deeply interested.

Perhaps it would be better to merely scare the fellow off. If he was captured, all chance of finding out his secrets might be lost.

By this time the reader may be aware that I thought John Stumpy's secrets important. Such was a fact. Try as hard as I was able, I could not but imagine that they concerned my father and his alleged downfall.

In five minutes Dick and I came within sight of Widow Canby's house. There was a light burning in the kitchen and another in the dining-room.

"Everything seems to be all right," said Dick, as we stood near a corner of the front fence. "I guess the fellow hasn't put in an appearance yet."

"I don't know. See I the side porch door is open. We generally keep it closed, and Kate would certainly have it shut if she was alone."

"What do you intend to do? Go into the house?"

"Guess we had better. I'd like to know where that fellow is," I replied. "Likely as not he is prowling about here somewhere. If we can only catch sight of him, we can-- Hark!"

As I uttered the last word, a shrill cry reached our ears. It was Kate's voice; and with my heart jumping wildly I made a dash for the house, with Dick Blair following me.