Chapter VII. A War of Words
 

No words of mine can express the feeling that came over me as I read the superscription written on the envelope I had picked up in the old tool house.

Was it possible that this envelope contained the solution of the mystery that had taken away our good name and sent my father to prison? The very thought made me tremble.

The packet was not a thick one. In fact, it was so thin that for an instant I imagined the envelope was empty. But a hasty examination proved my fears groundless.

In nervous excitement I put the lantern down on the top of a barrel, and then drew from the envelope the single shoot of foolscap that it contained. A glance showed me that the pages were closely written in a cramped hand extremely difficult to read.

For the moment I forgot everything else-- forgot that the Widow Canby's house had been robbed and that I was on the track of the robber-- and drawing close to the feeble light the lantern afforded, strove with straining eyes and palpitating heart to decipher the contents of the written pages.

"I, Nicholas Weaver, being on the point of death from pneumonia, do make this my last statement, which I hereby swear is true in every particular."

This was the beginning of the document which I hoped would in some way free my father's character from the stain that now rested on it.

Exactly who Nicholas Weaver was I did not know, though it ran in my mind that I had heard this name mentioned by my father during the trial.

Beyond the opening paragraph I have quoted the handwriting was almost illegible, and in the dim light it was only here and there that I could pick out such words as "bank," "assumed," "risk," "name," and so forth, which gave but an inkling of the real contents of the precious document.

"It's too bad," was my thought. "I'd give all I possess to be able to read this right off, word for word."

Hardly had the reflection crossed my mind when a noise outside startled me. I had just time enough to thrust the paper into my pocket when the door was swung open and the tramp appeared.

He was evidently as much surprised as I was, for he stopped short in amazement, while the short pipe he carried between his lips fell unnoticed to the floor.

I rightly conjectured he had not noticed the light of the lantern and fully believed the tool house tenantless.

"You here!" he cried.

"It looks like it, doesn't it?" was all I could find to reply, and as I spoke my hand sought the pistol I carried.

"What brought you here?" he demanded roughly.

"I came after you," I returned as coolly as I could; and by this time I had the pistol where it could be brought into instant use.

"What do you want of me?"

"I want you to hand over the money you stole awhile ago."

"What are you talking about? I never stole any money."

"You did. You broke into the Widow Canby's house less than an hour ago. Come, hand over that money."

The fellow gave a coarse laugh. "Ha! ha! do you think I'm to be bluffed by a boy? Get home with you, before I hammer you for calling me a thief."

"That's just what you are, and I don't intend to go until you hand over the money, John Stumpy," I returned decidedly.

"Ha! you know my name?"

I bit my lip. I was sorry for the slip I had made. But I put on a bold front. "I know what you are called," I replied.

"What I am called?"

"Yes."

"What do you mean? Come, out with it."

"I will when I please. In the meantime hand over that money."

"You talk like a fool!" he cried.

"Never mind. You'll find I won't act like one."

"What do you know about me?" he went on curiously, believing, no doubt, that he was perfectly safe from attack.

"I know more than you think. I know you are a burglar, and may be worse."

"I'll kill you!" he cried, rushing forward.

"Stand where you are!" I returned, pulling out the pistol. "Don't stir a step."

He did not see the weapon until he was fairly upon me. The glint of the nickeled steel made him shiver.

"Don't shoot!" he cried in sudden terror, that showed he was a coward at heart. "Don't-- don't shoot."

"I won't if you do as I tell you."

"Do what?"

"Give up the widow's money."

"See here, young fellow, you've made a mistake. I never was near the widow's house, 'cepting this morning."

"I know better. You just broke open her desk and stole over two hundred dollars."

"It's a mistake. Put down the pistol and I'll tell you all about it."

"I'm not such a fool, Mr. John Stumpy, or whatever your name is," was my decided reply.

The tone of my voice disconcerted the man, for he paused as if not knowing what to say next.

"Say, young feller, do you want to make some money?" he asked suddenly, after a short pause.

The change in his manner surprised me.

"How?" I asked, although I knew about what was coming.

"I've got nearly three hundred dollars in cash with me. I'll give you fifty of it if you'll go home and say you couldn't find me."

"Thank you; I'm not doing business that way," I rejoined coldly.

"Fifty dollars ain't to be sneezed at," he went on insinuatingly.

"I wouldn't care if you offered me fifty thousand," I cried sharply. "I'm no thief."

"Humph; don't you suppose I know who you are?" he went on. "You're the son of a thief. Do you hear that?-- the son of a thief! What right have you got to set yourself up to be any better than your father was afore you?"

"Take care!" I cried, my blood fairly boiling as I spoke. He saw his mistake.

"I didn't mean no harm, partner. But what's the use of being high toned when it don't pay?"

"It always pays to be honest," I said firmly.

"There are those who don't think so any more than I," he replied.

"My father never was a thief. They may say all they please, I will always think him innocent."

"Humph!"

"If it hadn't been for men like you and Nicholas Weaver, my father would never be in prison."

The words were out before I knew it. They were most injudicious ones.

"What do you mean?" gasped the man. "What do you know about Nick Weaver?"

"More than you imagine. When he died he made a confession--"

"It's false. Nick Weaver wasn't in his right mind when he died, anyhow."

"Perhaps he was."

"What you--" began the man. Then he paused and began a rapid search in his pockets. "You've got that paper," he cried hoarsely. "Give it up," and as he spoke, John Stumpy took a threatening step toward me.

"Stand back!" and I raised the pistol.

I was trembling in every limb, but I actually believe I would have fired it if he had rushed upon me.

"I won't. Give up that paper."

"Never. I'll die first."

And die I would. His earnestness convinced me of the letter's worth. If it contained that which could clear my father's name, only death would be the means of parting me from it.

"Give it up, I say! Do you think I'm to be defeated by a boy?"

"Stand back!"

I raised the pistol on a level with his head. As I did so, he made a dash forward and caught up a stick which was lying near.

"I'll fix you!" he roared, and swinging the billet over his head, he brought it down with all his force on my arm, causing the pistol to fly from my hand into a corner beyond.

"Now we'll see who's master here," he cried exultingly. "You're a smart boy, but you don't know everything!" Rushing over to the corner, he secured the pistol and aimed it at me. "Now, we'll settle this matter according to my notions," he went on triumphantly.