Chapter VI. A Strange Envelope
 

I was sure that my sister's cry could mean but one thing-- that the tramp had made a raid on the house. I was thoroughly alarmed, and ran with all possible speed in the direction of the dining-room, from whence the sound proceeded.

As I tore across the lawn, regardless of the bed of flowers which was Mrs. Canby's pride, Kate's cry was repeated, this time in a more intense tone. An instant later I dashed across the porch and into the room through the door that, as I have said, stood wide open.

I found my sister standing in the middle of the floor, holding in her hand a heavy umbrella with which she had evidently been defending herself. She was pale, and trembled from head to foot.

"What is it, Kate?" I exclaimed. "Where is the fellow?"

"Oh, Roger!" she gasped. "I'm so glad you've come. A tramp was here-- he robbed-- robbed the desk-- the window--"

She pointed to the open window on the opposite side of the room. Then her breast heaved, the umbrella slipped from her grasp, and she sank into a chair.

"Are you hurt?" I cried anxiously.

"No, no-- but the money-- it is gone! What will Mrs. Canby say?"

And overcome with the dreadful thought, my sister fainted dead away.

As for myself I felt sick at heart. John Stumpy had been there-- the widow's money had been stolen. What could be done?

Meanwhile, Dick Blair had come in. His common sense told him what had happened, and he set to work to restore my sister to consciousness.

"Will you stay here with Kate?" I asked.

"Certainly," he returned promptly. "But where are you going? After that tramp?"

"Yes."

"Be careful, for he may be a desperate character."

"I'm not afraid of him. I'm going to get that money back or know the reason why," was my determined reply; and I meant every word I said.

To my mind it was absolutely necessary that I recover the stolen property. It would have been bad enough to have had it taken when the Widow Canby was at home, but it had been stolen when left in my charge, and that was enough to make me turn Darbyville district up side down before letting the matter drop.

Besides, there was still another important factor in the case. I knew well enough that if the money was not recovered, there would be plenty of people mean enough to intimate that I had had something to do with its disappearance. The Strong honor was considered low by many, and they would not hesitate to declare that I was only following in my father's footsteps.

To a person already suffering under an unjust accusation such an intimation is doubly stinging, and when I told Dick that I was not afraid of Mr. John Stumpy, I meant that I would rather face the robber now than the Darbyville people later on.

"I want to take the pistol," I added.

"All right. There is the box of extra cartridges. Do you want the lantern?"

"Yes; I may want to use it before I return. I'll blow it out now."

Our conversation had lasted but a few seconds, and an instant after I was on my way, the lantern on my left arm and the pistol in my right hand.

"Take good care of Kate," I called back as I passed out.

"I will," replied Dick. "Don't stay away too long, if you don't find the fellow."

I passed around to the other side of the garden, where an open gateway led to the pear orchard. I felt pretty certain that John Stumpy had pursued this course, and I entered the orchard on a run.

The thief, I reckoned, was not over five minutes ahead of me. To be sure, he could easily hide, but it was not likely that he would care to remain in the neighborhood, unless it was really necessary for him to see Mr. Aaron Woodward.

When I got well into the orchard, where it was darker than in the garden, I listened intently, hoping that I might hear some sound that would guide me.

But all was silent. Occasionally a night bird fluttered through the trees and a frog gave a dismal croak, but otherwise not a sound broke the stillness.

I continued on my way toward the road, and reaching the fence, paused again.

Had the thief jumped over? If so, which way had he gone, up, down, or into the woods beyond? It was a perplexing question. Perhaps if I had been in a story book I might have found some clew to direct me. But I was not that kind of a hero. I was only an everyday boy, and consequently no clew presented itself.

I stood by the fence for several minutes, my eyes and ears on the alert to catch anything worthy of notice. I judged it was near midnight, and hardly had I thought of the matter before the distant town bells tolled the hour of twelve.

As the echo of the last stroke died away, two figures came slowly up the road. As they drew nearer, I recognized Moran and Pultzer, the two Models members who had assisted at my capture.

I was astonished at their appearance. What on earth could they be doing out at this time of night?

As they drew near I thought for many reasons that it would not be advisable to show myself, and I stepped behind a tree.

"I don't care what you say," said Pultzer, "Dunc was half scared to death when we came away."

"I guess he didn't think what a serious matter it was when he asked us to go into it," returned Moran. "It's the worst affair I ever got into."

"Ditto myself," responded Pultzer.

"And if we get out without being caught, you'll never find me in another such," continued the other earnestly.

"I wonder what Dunc's father will say when he hears of it?"

"And all the rest of the Darbyville people? Of course they've got to lay it to some one."

I surmised that they must be speaking of what they had done to me. I never dreamed that they were discussing a subject much more serious.

"I'm glad Dick Blair wasn't along to-night," went on Moran. "Dick is not to be trusted any more. He kicked awfully at the idea of tying up Strong this noon."

I was gratified to hear this bit of news. I liked Dick in many respects, and now I was almost ready to look upon him as a friend.

"Strong didn't give in quite as much as Dunc thought he would. Hang it, if I didn't admire his grit."

"So did I. Wonder how he's getting along in the old tool house. We must release him first thing in the morning."

"No need of doing that, gentlemen," I put in, stepping out from behind the tree. "I am--"

But it would have been useless for me to say more, as no one would have heard me.

At the first sound of my voice both of the Models had started in alarm, and then, led by Pultzer, they dashed up the road as fast as their feet could carry them.

At first I was amazed at their actions, and then, as the ridiculousness of the situation presented itself, I smiled. "A guilty conscience needeth no accuser," it is said, and this truth was verified to the letter.

Yet I was sorry that I had not had a chance to speak to them. I wanted to question them in regard to the thief. Perhaps they had seen him, and if so, I did not want to miss my chance of getting upon his track.

Jumping over the fence, I walked slowly down the road, but not in hopes of meeting John Stumpy. If he was anywhere near, the approach of the two boys had certainly driven him into hiding.

Suddenly I thought of the tool house. The tramp had spoken of returning to the place. He evidently knew the road. I determined to go to the spot and make a search at once.

It was no easy matter to find my way back to the tool house, and at the risk of being seen I lit the lantern.

As I walked along I wondered how my sister and Dick were faring. No doubt Kate had been much surprised to see who was with her on her recovery, and I sincerely hoped that the shock Stumpy had given her would not have any evil effects. She was a sensitive girl, and such happenings were calculated to try her nerves severely.

At length I came within sight of the clearing. Here I hesitated for an instant, and then, pistol in hand, approached the tool house boldly.

The door was still open, and I entered, only to find the place empty.

With a sigh I realized that my journey thither was a useless one. Nothing remained but to go back to the road, and I was about to leave again when the rays of the lantern fell upon a white object lying on the floor.

I picked it up. It was a common square envelope. Thinking it contained a letter I turned it over to read the address. Judge of my astonishment when I read the following:--

Dying Statement of Nicholas Weaver Concerning the Forgeries for which Carson Strong Was Sent to State's Prison.