Chapter VII. Officers of the Law.
 

As Auntie Sue was closing the door of her guest's room carefully behind her, Judy came from the kitchen in great excitement, and the knocking at the front door of the house was repeated.

"Hit's the Sheriff, ma'm," whispered Judy. "I was just a-comin' ter tell you. I seed 'em from the kitchen-winder. He's got two other men with him. Their hosses is tied ter the fence in front. What in hell will we do, now? They are after him in there, sure 's death!"

Auntie Sue's face was white, and her lips trembled,--but only for a moment.

"Go back into the kitchen, Judy, and stay there," she commanded, in a whisper; and went to open the front door as calmly as if nothing unusual had happened.

Sheriff Knox was a big man, with a bluff, kindly manner, and a voice that made nothing of closed doors. He returned Auntie Sue's greeting heartily, and, with one of his companions,--a quiet, business-looking gentleman,--accepted her cordial invitation to come in. The third man of the party remained near the saddle-horses at the gate.

"Well, Auntie Sue," said the Sheriff, settling his ponderous bulk in one of the old lady's rocking-chairs, which certainly was not built to carry such a weight, "how are you? I haven't seen you in a coon's age. I'll swear, though, you ain't a minute older than you was when you first begun teachin' the little Elbow Rock school up there on the hill, are you?"

"I don't know, Sheriff," Auntie Sue returned, with a nervous little laugh. "I sometimes think that I am a few days older. I have watched a good many sunsets since then, you know."

The big officer's laughter almost shook the log walls of the house. To his quiet companion, who had taken a chair near the window, he said: "I'll have to tell you, Ross, that Auntie Sue owns every sunset in these Ozark Mountains. What was it you paid for them?" He turned again to their smiling hostess. "Oh, yes; fifty cents an acre for the land and fourteen dollars and a half for the sunsets. You'll have to be blamed careful not to trespass on the sunsets in this neighborhood, Ross." Again, his hearty laugh roared out, while his chair threatened to collapse with the quaking of his massive body.

The gentleman seated at the window laughed quietly, in sympathy.

"You'll be all right, though, Ross," the Sheriff continued, "as long as you're with me. Auntie Sue and me have been friends for about twenty year, now. I always stop to see her whenever I'm passing through the Elbow Rock neighborhood, if I ain't in too big a hurry. Stayed with her a week, once, five years ago, when we was after that Lewis gang. She knows I'd jail any man on earth that would even touch one of her sunsets."

Then, as if the jesting allusion to his office reminded him of his professional duties, he added: "I plumb forgot, Auntie Sue, this gentleman is Mr. Ross. He is one of William J. Burns's crack detectives. Don't be scared, though, he ain't after you."

Auntie Sue, while joining in the laughter, and acknowledging the introduction, regarded the business-looking gentleman by the window with intense interest.

"I think," she said, slowly,--and the sweetness of her low, cultured voice was very marked in contrast to the Sheriff's thundering tones,--"I think, sir, that this is the first time in my life that I ever saw a real detective. I have read about them, of course."

Mr. Ross was captivated by the charm of this beautiful old gentlewoman, who regarded him with such child-like interest, and who spoke with such sweet frankness and dignity. Smilingly, he returned:

"I fear, madam, that you would find me very disappointing. No one that I ever knew in my profession could hope to live up to the reputation given us by the story-books. No secret service man living can remotely approximate the deeds performed by the detectives of fiction. We are very, very human, I can assure you."

"I am sure that you, at least, must be very kind," returned Auntie Sue, gently. And the cheeks of the experienced officer flushed like the cheeks of a schoolboy.

"Mr. Ross, Auntie Sue," said the Sheriff, "is, as I was telling you, one of William J. Burns's big men."

Auntie Sue gave her attention to her big friend: "Yes?"

The Sheriff continued: "Now, the Burns people, you see, protect the banks all over the country."

"Yes?" came, again, in a tone so low and gentle that the monosyllable was scarcely heard.

The officer's loud voice went on: "And Mr. Ross, here, works most of his time on these bank cases. Just now, he is trailing a fellow that got away with a lot of money from the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank, of Chicago, about a month ago;--that is, the man disappeared about a month ago. He had been stealing along from the bank for about a year,--worked, for them, you see."

"The Empire Consolidated Savings Bank!" Auntie Sue spoke the words in a voice that was little more than a whisper. It was to the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank that she had sent the money which she had received from her brother in Buenos Aires; and Homer T. Ward, the president of that bank, was one of her old pupils. Why, her stranger guest, in the other room there, was that very moment wearing one of the bank president's nightshirts.

"And do you"--Auntie Sue addressed the detective--"do you know the man's name, Mr. Ross?"

"Oh, yes," returned the officer, "his name is Brian Kent."

Some source of strength, deep-hidden in her gentle nature, enabled Auntie Sue to control her emotions, though her voice broke a little as she slowly repeated the man's name, "Brian Kent. And do I understand, sir, that you have traced the man to this--neighborhood?"

The detective was too skilled not to notice Auntie Sue's manner and the break in her voice; but he never dreamed that this old gentlewoman's agitation was caused by a deeper interest than a quite natural fear that a dangerous criminal might be lurking in the immediate vicinity.

"Not exactly, Mrs.--ah--"

"Miss Wakefield,"--she supplied her name with a smile.

With a courteous bow, the detective continued: "We do not know for sure that the man is in this neighborhood, Miss Wakefield. There is really no cause for you to be alarmed. Even if he should call at your house, here, you need not be frightened, for I assure you the man is not at all a dangerous character."

"I am glad," said Auntie Sue; and she laughed a little with a relief more genuine than her callers knew.

Detective Ross continued as if anxious to finish his unpleasant duty: "It is too bad for us to be disturbing you with this business, Miss Wakefield, and I hope you will forgive us; but, the case is like this: We traced our man to the little town of Borden, some forty miles up the river from here. He disappeared from the hotel one night, leaving his suit-case and, apparently, everything he had with him, and not a soul that we can find has seen him since. Of course, everybody says 'suicide.' He had been drinking heavily and acting rather queer the two or three days he was at the hotel,--it seems. But I am not willing, yet, to accept the suicide idea as final, because it would be too easy for him to give things that appearance in order to throw us off; and I can't get away from the fact that a John-boat that was tied to the bank near the hotel managed to break loose and drift off down the river that same night. Working on my theory, we are following down the river, trying to get trace of either the boat or the man. So far, we haven't heard of either, which rather strengthens me in my belief that the boat and the man went away together. He is probably traveling nights, and lying up under the willows in daylight. But he will be compelled to show himself somewhere, soon, in order to get something to eat, for he couldn't have taken much with him, trying, as he was, to create the impression that he had committed suicide. You have a wonderful view of the river here, Miss Wakefield."

"Yes, sir; it is beautiful from the porch."

"You spend a good deal of time on the porch, do you?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you would be quite likely to notice any boat passing, wouldn't you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Could you see a boat at night,--in the moonlight, I mean?"

"I could if it were well out in the middle of the stream, away from the shadow of the trees, along the bank."

"Have you seen any boats pass lately, Miss Wakefield?"

"No, sir; I haven't seen a boat on the river for a month, at least."

"Dead certain about it, are you, Auntie Sue?" asked the Sheriff.

"Yes, sir; I am very sure," she returned. "Judy and I were talking about it yesterday."

"Who is Judy?" asked the detective.

The Sheriff answered, "Just a girl that lives with Auntie Sue."

And Auntie Sue added: "I know Judy has seen no boats passing, because, as I say, we were talking about it."

"I see," said the detective. "And may I ask, Miss Wakefield, if any one--any stranger, I mean--has called at the house lately, or if you have seen any one in the vicinity?"

The gentle old lady hesitated.

The officers thought she was searching her memory to be sure before she answered.

Then Auntie Sue said, deliberately: "No, sir; we have not seen a stranger in this vicinity for several weeks. The last one was a mule-buyer, who stopped to ask if he was on the right road to Tom Warden's; and that must have been fully six weeks ago."

The detective looked at Sheriff Knox.

"Well," said the big officer, "I reckon we might as well push along."

The two men arose.

"Oh, but surely you will stay for dinner," said Auntie Sue, while her dear heart was faint with fear lest they accept, and thus bring about who could say what disastrous consequences through their meeting with Judy.

"Not this time, Auntie Sue," returned the Sheriff. "Mr. Ross is anxious to get on down the river as fast as he can. He's got men on watch at White's Crossing, and if our man ain't passed there, or if we don't strike his trail somewhere before we get there, we will jump back on the railroad, and get some boy to bring the horses through later."

"I see," returned Auntie Sue. And to the detective she added, smiling: "I am sure it must be very difficult for any one to escape you, Mr. Ross. I have read such wonderful things about Mr. Burns and the work of his organization; and now that I have met you,--a real live detective,--I shall be very careful, indeed, about what I do in the future. I shouldn't want to have you on my track, I assure you."

The two men laughed heartily, and the detective, as he extended his hand in farewell, returned: "I count it a great privilege to have met you, Miss Wakefield; and if you will promise to do one thing for me, I'll agree to be very lenient with you if I am ever assigned to a case in which you are to be brought to justice."

"I promise," returned the old lady, quickly. "I really wouldn't dare to refuse under the circumstances, would I? What do you want me to do, Mr. Ross?"

"If this man Brian Kent should happen to appear in this vicinity, will you get a message as quickly as possible, at any cost, to Sheriff Knox?"

"Why, of course," agreed Auntie Sue. "But you have not yet told me what the man looks like, Mr. Ross."

"He is really a fine looking chap," the detective answered. "Thirty years old--fully six feet tall--rather slender, but well built--weighs about one hundred fifty--a splendid head--smooth shaven--reddish hair--dark blue eyes--and a high, broad forehead. He is of Irish extraction--is cultured--very courteous in his manner and speech--dresses well--and knows a lot about books and authors and such things."

"I would surely know him from that description," said Auntie Sue, thinking of the wretched creature who had fallen, sobbing, at her feet so short a time before. "But, you do not make him seem like a criminal at all. It is strange that a man such as you describe should be a fugitive from the law, is it not?"

"We come in contact with many strange things in our business, Miss Wakefield," the Burns operative answered--a little sadly, Auntie Sue thought. "Life itself is so strange and complex, though you in your quiet retreat, here, can scarcely find it so."

"Indeed, I find life very wonderful, Mr. Ross, even here in my little house by the river," she answered, slowly.

Sheriff Knox held out a newspaper to Auntie Sue: "Just happened to remember that I had it in my pocket," he said. "It gives a pretty full account of this fellow Kent's case. You will notice there is a big reward offered for his capture. If you can catch him for us, you'll make enough money to keep you mighty nigh all the rest of your life." And the officer's great laugh boomed out at the thought of the old school-teacher as a thief-catcher.

"By the way, Sheriff," said Auntie Sue, as they were finally saying good-bye at the door, "you didn't happen to ask at Thompsonville for my mail, did you, as you came through?" Her voice was trembling, now, with eagerness and anxiety.

"I'm plumb sorry, Auntie Sue, but I didn't. You see, we were so busy on this job, I clean forgot about stopping here; and, besides, we might have caught our man before we got this far, you see."

"Of course," returned Auntie Sue, "I should have thought of that; but I have been rather anxious about an important letter that seems to have been delayed. Some of the neighbors will probably be going to the office to-day, though. Good-bye! You know you are always welcome, Sheriff; and you, too, Mr. Ross, if you should ever happen to be in this part of the country again."

"A wonderful old woman, Ross," commented Sheriff Knox as they were riding away. And the quiet, business-looking detective, whose life had been spent in combating crime and deception, answered, as he waved farewell to Auntie Sue, who watched them from the door of the little log house by the river, "A very wonderful woman, indeed,--the loveliest old lady I have ever met,--and the most remarkable."