A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
At something after seven o'clock that night Willy Cameron and Pink Denslow reached that point on the Mayville Road which had been designated by the storekeeper, Cusick. They left the car there, hidden in a grove, and struck off across country to the west. Willy Cameron had been thoughtful for some time, and as they climbed a low hill, going with extreme caution, he said:
"I'm still skeptical about Cusick, Pink. Do you think he's straight?"
"One of the best men we've got," Pink replied, confidently. "He's put us on to several things."
"He's foreign born, isn't he?"
"That's his value. They don't suspect him for a minute."
"But - what does he get out of it?"
"Good citizen," said Pink, with promptness. "You've got to remember, Cameron, that a lot of these fellows are better Americans than we are. They're like religious converts, stronger than the ones born in the fold. They're Americans because they want to be. Anyhow, you ought to be strong for him, Cameron. He said to tell you, but no one else."
"I'll tell you how strong I am for him later," Willy Cameron said, grimly. "Just at this minute I'm waiting to be shown."
They advanced with infinite caution, for the evening was still light. Going slowly, it was well after eight and fairly dark before they came within sight of the farm buildings in the valley below. Long unpainted, they were barely discernable in the shadows of the hills. The land around had been carefully cleared, and both men were dismayed at the difficulty of access without being seen.
"Doesn't look very good, does it?" Pink observed. "I will say this, for seclusion and keeping away unwanted visitors, it has it all over any dug-out I ever saw in France."
"Listen!" Willy Cameron said, tensely.
They stood on the alert, but only the evening sounds of country and forest rewarded them.
"What was it?" Pink inquired, after perhaps two minutes of waiting.
"Plain scare on my part, probably. I don't so much mind this little excursion, Pink, as I hate the idea that a certain gentleman named Cusick may have a chance to come to our funerals and laugh himself to death."
When real darkness had fallen, they had reached the lower fringe of the woods. Pink had the fault of the city dweller, however, of being unable to step lightly in the dark, and their progress had been less silent than it should have been. In spite of his handicap, Willy Cameron made his way with the instinctive knowledge of the country bred boy, treading like a cat.
"Pretty poor," Pink said in a discouraged whisper, after a twig had burst under his foot with a report like the shot of a pistol. "You travel like a spook, while I - "
"Listen, Pink. I'm going in alone to look around. Stop muttering and listen to me. It's poor strategy not to have a reserve somewhere, isn't it?"
"I'm a poor prune at the best," Pink said stubbornly, "but I am not going to let you go into that place alone. You can rave all you want."
"Very well. Then we'll both stay here. You are about as quiet as a horse going through a corn patch."
After some moments Pink spoke again.
"If you insist on stealing the whole show," he said, sulkily, "what am I to do? Run to town for help, if you need it?"
"I'm not going to round up the outfit, if there is one. I haven't lost my mind. I'll see what is going on, or about to go on. Then I'll come back."
"Better meet at the machine," he decided, after a glance at the sky. "In half an hour you won't be able to see your hand in front of you. Wait here for a half-hour or so, and then start back, and for heaven's sake don't shoot at anything you see moving. As a matter of fact, I might as well have your revolver. I won't need it, but it may avoid any accidental shooting by a youth I both love and admire!"
"If I hear any shooting, I'll come in," Pink said, still sulky.
"Come in and welcome," said Willy Cameron, and Pink knew he was smiling.
He took the revolver and slipped away into the darkness, leaving Pink both melancholy and disturbed. Unaccustomed to night in the woods, he found his nerves twitching at every sound. In the war there had been a definite enemy, definitely placed. Even when he had gone into that vile strip between the trenches, there had been a general direction for the inimical. Here -
He moved carefully, and stood with his back against a tree.
Not a sound came from the farm buildings. Willy Cameron's progress, too, was noiseless. With no way to tell the lapse of time, and gauging it by his war experience, when an hour had apparently passed by, he knew that Cameron had been gone about ten minutes.
Time dragged on. A cow, unmilked, lowed plaintively once or twice. A September night breeze set the dying leaves on the trees to rustling, and stirred the dried ones about his feet. Pink's mind, gradually reassured, turned to other things. He thought of Lily Cardew, for one. Like Willy Cameron, he knew he would always love her, but unlike Willy, the first pain of her loss was gone. He was glad that time was over. He was glad that she was at home again, safe from those - Some one was moving near him, passing within twenty feet. Whoever it was was stepping cautiously but blunderingly. It was not Cameron, then. He was a footfall only, not even an outline. Before Pink could decide on a line of action, the sound was lost.
Every sense acute, he waited. He had decided that if the incident were repeated, he would make an effort to get the fellow from behind, but there was no return. The wind had died again, and there was no longer even the rustling of the leaves to break the utter stillness.
Suddenly he saw a red flash near the barn, and an instant later heard the report of a pistol. Came immediately after that a brief fusillade of shots, a pause, then two or three scattering ones.
With the first shot Pink started running. He was vaguely conscious of other steps near him, running also, but he could see nothing. His whole mind was set on finding Willy Cameron. Alone he had not a chance, but two of them together could put up a fight. He pelted along, stumbling, recovering, stumbling again.
Another shot was fired. They hadn't got him yet, or they wouldn't be shooting. He raised his voice in a great call.
"Cameron! Here! Cameron!"
He ran into a low fence then, and it threw him. He had hardly got to his knees before the other running figure had hurled itself on him, and struck him with the butt of a revolver. He dropped flat and lay still.
* * * * *
For weeks Woslosky had known of the growing strength of the Vigilance Committee, and that it was arming steadily.
It threatened absolutely the success of his plans. Even the election of Akers and the changes he would make in the city police; even the ruse of other strikes and machine-made riotings to call away the state troops, - none of these, or all of them, would be effectual against an organized body of citizens, duly called to the emergency.
And such an organization was already effected. Within a week, when the first card reached his hands, it had grown to respectable proportions. Woslosky went to Doyle, and they made their counter-moves quickly. No more violence. A seemingly real but deceptive orderliness. They were dealing with inflammatory material, however, and now and then it got out of hand. Unlike Doyle the calculating, who made each move slowly and watched its results with infinite zest, the Pole chafed under delay.
"We can't hold them much longer," he complained, bitterly. "This thing of holding them off until after the election - and until Akers takes office - it's got too many ifs in it."
"It was haste lost Seattle," said Doyle, as unmoved as Woslosky was excited.
Woslosky did not like Louis Akers. What was more important, he distrusted him. When he heard of his engagement to Lily Cardew he warned Doyle about him.
"He's in this thing for what he can get out of it," he said. "He'll go as far as he can, with safety, to be accepted by the Cardews."
"Exactly," was Doyle's dry comment, "with safety, you said. Well, he knows you and he knows me, and he'll he straight because he's afraid not to be."
"When there's a woman in it!" said the Pole, skeptically.
But Doyle only smiled. He had known many women and loved none of them, and he was temperamentally unable to understand the type of man who saw the world through a woman's eyes and in them.
So Woslosky was compelled to watch the growth of Willy Cameron's organization, and to hold in check the violent passions he had himself roused, and to wait, gnawing his nails with inaction and his heart with rage. But these certain things he discovered:
That the organization's growth was coincident with a new interest in local politics, as though some vital force had wakened the plain people to a sense of responsibility.
That a drug clerk named Cameron was the founder and moving spirit of the league, and that he was, using Hendricks' candidacy as a means, rousing the city to a burning patriotic activity that Mr. Woslosky regarded as extremely pernicious.
And that this same Willy Cameron had apparently a knowledge of certain plans, which was rather worse than pernicious. Mr. Woslosky's name for it was damnable.
For instance, there were the lists of the various city stores and their estimated contents, missing from Mr. Woslosky's own inconspicuous trunk in a storage house. On that had been based the plan for feeding the revolution, by the simple expedient of exchanging by organized pillage the contents of the city stores for food stuffs from the farmers in outlying districts.
Revolution, according to Mr. Woslosky, could only be starved out. He had no anxiety as to troops which would be sent against them, because he had a cynical belief that a man's country was less to him than various other things, including his stomach. He believed that all armies were riddled with sedition and fundamentally opposed to law.
Copies of other important matters, too, were missing. Lists of officials for the revolutionary city government and of deputies to take the places of the disbanded police, plans for manning, by the radicals, the city light, water and power plants; a schedule of public eating houses to take the place of the restaurants.
Woslosky began to find this drug clerk with the ridiculous given name getting on his nerves. He considered him a dangerous enemy to progress, that particular form of progress which Mr. Woslosky advocated, and he suspected him of a lack of ethics regarding trunks in storage. Mr. Woslosky had the old-world idea that the best government was a despotism tempered by assassination. He thought considerably about Willy Cameron.
But the plan concerning the farm house was, in the end, devised by Louis Akers. Woslosky was skeptical. It was true that Cameron might stick his head into the lion's jaws, but precautions had been known to be taken at such times to prevent their closing. However, the Pole was desperate.
He took six picked men with him that afternoon to the farm, and made a strategic survey of the situation. The house was closed and locked, but he was not concerned with the house. Cusick had told Denslow the meetings were held late at night in the barn, and to the barn Woslosky repaired, sawed-off shotgun under his coat and cigarette in mouth, and inspected it with his evil smile. Two men, young and reckless, might easily plan to conceal themselves under the hay in the loft, and -
Woslosky put down his gun and went down into the cow barn below, whistling softly to himself. He began to enjoy the prospect. He gathered some eggs from the feed boxes, carrying them in his hat, and breaking the lock of the kitchen door he and his outfit looted the closet there and had an early supper, being careful to extinguish the fire afterwards.
Not until dusk was falling did he post his men, three outside among the outbuildings, one as a sentry near the woods, and two in the barn itself. He himself took up his station inside the barn door, sitting on the floor with his gun across his knees. Looking out from there, he saw the sharp flash of a hastily extinguished match, and snarled with anger. He had forbidden smoking.
"I've got to go out," he said cautiously. "Don't you fools shoot me when I come back."
He slipped out into what was by that time complete blackness.
Some five minutes later he came back, still noiselessly, and treading like a cat. He could only locate the barn door by feeling for it, and above the light scraping of his fingers he could hear, inside, cautious footsteps over the board floor. He scowled again. Damn this country quiet, anyhow! But he had found the doorway, and was feeling his way through when he found himself caught and violently thrown. The fall and the surprise stunned him. He lay still for an infuriated helpless second, with a knee on his chest and both arms tightly held, to hear one of his own men above him saying:
"Got him, all right. Woslosky, you've got the rope, haven't you?"
"You fool!" snarled Woslosky from the floor, "let me up. You've half killed me. Didn't I tell you I was going out?"
He scrambled to his feet, and to an astounded silence.
"But you came in a couple of minutes ago. Somebody came in. You heard him, Cusick, didn't you?"
Woslosky whirled and closed and fastened the barn doors, and almost with the same movement drew a searchlight and flashed it over the place. It was apparently empty.
The Pole burst into blasphemous anger, punctuated with sharp questions. Both men had heard the cautious entrance they had taken for his own, both men had remained silent and unsuspicious, and both were positive whoever had come in had not gone out again.
He stationed one man at the door, and commenced a merciless search. The summer's hay filled one end, but it was closely packed below and offered no refuge. Armed with the shotgun, and with the flash in his pocket, Woslosky climbed the ladder to the loft, going softly. He listened at the top, and then searched it with the light, holding it far to the left for a possible bullet. The loft was empty. He climbed into it and walked over it, gun in one hand and flash in the other, searching for some buried figure. But there was nothing. The loft was fragrant with the newly dried hay, sweet and empty. Woslosky descended the ladder again, the flash extinguished, and stood again on the barn floor, considering. Cusick was a man without imagination, and he had sworn that some one had come in. Then -
Suddenly there was a whirr of wings outside and above, excited flutterings first, and then a general flight of the pigeons who roosted on the roof. Woslosky listened and slowly smiled.
"We've got him, boys," he said, without excitement. "Outside, and call the others. He's on the roof."
Cusick whistled shrilly, and as the Pole ran out he met the others coming pell-mell toward him. He flung a guard of all five of them around the barn, and himself walked off a hundred feet or so and gazed upward. The very outline of the ridge pole was indistinguishable, and he swore softly. In the hope of drawing an answering flash he fired, but without result. The explosion echoed and reechoed, died away.
He called to Cusick, and had him try the same experiment, following the line of the gutter as nearly as possible in the darkness, on that side, and emptying his revolver. Still silence.
Woslosky began to doubt. The pigeons might have seen his flashlight, might have heard his own stealthy movements. He was intensely irritated. The shooting, if the alarm had been false, had ruined everything. He saw, as in a vision, Doyle's sneering face when he told him. Beside him Cusick was reloading his revolver in the darkness.
Then, out of the night, came a call from the direction of the woods, and unintelligible at that distance.
"What's that?" Cusick said hoarsely.
Woslosky made no reply. He was listening. Some one was approaching, now running, now stopping as though confused. Woslosky held his gun ready, and waited. Then, from a distance, he heard his name called.
He stepped inside the door of the barn and showed the light for a moment. Soon after the sentry floundered in, breathless and excited.
"I got one of them," he gasped. "Hit him with my gun. He's lying back by the stone fence."
"Did you call out, or did he?"
"He did. That's how I knew it wasn't one of our fellows. He called Cameron, so he's the other one."
Woslosky drew a deep breath. Then it was Cameron on the roof. It was Cameron they wanted.
"He'll sleep for an hour or two, if he ever wakes up," Pink's assailant boasted. But Woslosky was taking no chances that night. He sent two men after Pink, and began to pace the floor thoughtfully. If he could have waited for daylight it would have been simple enough, but he did not know how much time he had. He did not underestimate young Cameron's intelligence, and it had occurred to him that that young Scot might cannily have provided against his failure to return. Then, too, the state constabulary had an uncomfortable habit of riding lonely back roads at night, and shots could be heard a long distance off.
He had never surveyed the barn roof closely, but he knew that it was steeply pitched. Cameron, then, was probably braced somewhere in the gutter. The departure of the two men had left him short-handed, and he waited impatiently for their return. With a ladder, provided it could be quietly placed, a man could shoot from a corner along two sides of the roof. With two ladders, at diagonal corners, they could get him. But a careful search discovered no ladders on the place.
He went out, and standing close against the wall for protection, called up.
"We know you're there, Cameron," he said. "If you come down we won't hurt you. If you don't, we'll get you, and you know it."
But he received no reply.
Soon after that the two men carried in Pink Denslow, and laid him on the floor of the barn. Then Woslosky tried again, more reckless this time with anger. He stood out somewhat from the wall and called:
"One more chance, Cameron, or we'll put a bullet through your friend here. Come down, or we'll - "
Something struck him heavily and he fell, with a bullet in the shoulder. He struggled to his feet and gained the shelter of the wall, his face twisted with pain.
"All right," he said, "if that's the way you feel about it!"
He regained the barn and had his arm supported in an extemporized sling. Then he ordered Pink to be tied, and fighting down his pain considered the situation. Cameron was on the roof, and armed. Even if he had no extra shells he still had five shots in reserve, and he would not waste any of them. Whoever tried to scale the walls would be done in at once; whoever attempted to follow him to the roof by way of the loft would be shot instantly. And his own condition demanded haste; the bullet, striking from above, had broken his arm. Every movement was torture.
He thought of setting fire to the barn. Then Cameron would have the choice of two things, to surrender or to be killed. He might get some of them first, however. Well, that was a part of the game.
He delivered a final ultimatum from the shelter of the doorway.
"I've just thought of something, Cameron," he called. "We're going to fire the barn. Your young friend is here, tied, and we'll leave him here. Do you get that? Either throw down that gun of yours, and come down, or I'm inclined to think you'll be up against it. I'll give you a minute or so to think it over."
At half-past eleven o'clock that night the first of four automobiles drove into Friendship. It was driven by a hatless young man in a raincoat over a suit of silk pajamas, and it contained four County detectives and the city Chief of Police. Behind it, but well outdistanced, came the other cars, some of them driven by leading citizens in a state of considerable deshabille.
At a cross street in Friendship the lead car drew up, and flashlights were turned on a road map in the rear of the car. There was some argument over the proper road, and a member of the state constabulary, riding up to investigate, showed a strong inclination to place them under arrest.
It took a moment to put him right.
"Wish I could go along," he said, wistfully. "The place you want is back there. I can't leave the town, but I'll steer you out. You'll probably run into some of our fellows back there."
He rode on ahead, his big black horse restive in the light from the lamps behind him. At the end of a lane he stopped.
"Straight ahead up there," he said. "You'll find - "
He broke off and stared ahead to where a dull red glare, reflected on the low hanging clouds, had appeared over the crest of the hill.
"Something doing up there," he called suddenly. "Let's go."
He jerked his revolver free, dug his heels into the flanks of his horse, and was off on a dead run. Half way up the hill the car passed him, the black going hard, and its rider's face, under the rim of his uniform hat, a stern profile. His reins lay loose on the animal's neck, and he was examining his gun.
The road mounted to a summit, and dipped again. They were in a long valley, and the burning barn was clearly outlined at the far end of it. One side was already flaming, and tongues of fire leaped out through the roof. The men in the car were standing now, doors open, ready to leap, while the car lurched and swayed over the uneven road. Behind them they heard the clatter of the oncoming horse.
As they drew nearer they could see three watching figures against the burning building, and as they turned into the lane which led to the barnyard a shot rang out and one of the figures dropped and lay still. There was a cry of warning from somewhere, and before the detectives could leap from the car, the group had scattered, running wildly. The state policeman threw his horse back on its hunches, and fired without apparently taking aim at one of the running shadows. The man threw up his arms and fell. The state policeman galloped toward him, dismounted and bent over him.
Firing as they ran, detectives leaped out of the car and gave chase, and so it was that the young gentleman in bedroom slippers and pajamas, standing in his car and shielding his eyes against the glare, saw a curious thing.
First of all, the roof blazed up brightly, and he perceived a human figure, hanging by its hands from the eaves and preparing to drop. The young gentleman in pajamas was feeling rather out of things by that time, so he made a hasty exit from his car toward the barn, losing a slipper as he did so, and yelling in a slightly hysterical manner. It thus happened that he and the dropping figure reached the same spot at almost the same moment, one result of which was that the young gentleman in pajamas found himself struck a violent blow with a doubled-up fist, and at the same moment his bare right foot was tramped on with extreme thoroughness.
The young gentleman in pajamas reeled back dizzily and gave tongue, while standing on one foot. The person he addressed was the state constable, and his instructions were to get the fugitive and kill him. But the fugitive here did a very. strange thing. Through the handkerchief which it was now seen he wore tied over his mouth, he told the running policeman to go to perdition, and then with seeming suicidal intent rushed into the burning barn. From it he emerged a moment later, dragging a figure bound hand and foot, blackened with smoke, and with its clothing smoldering in a dozen places; a figure which alternately coughed and swore in a strangled whisper, but which found breath for a loud whoop almost immediately after, on its being immersed, as it promptly was, in a nearby horse-trough.
Very soon after that the other cars arrived. They drew up and men emerged from them, variously clothed and even more variously armed, but all they saw was the ruined embers of the barn, and in the glow five figures. Of the five one lay, face up to the sky, as though the prostrate body followed with its eyes the unkillable traitor soul of one Cusick, lately storekeeper at Friendship. Woslosky, wounded for the second time, lay on an automobile rug on the ground, conscious but sullenly silent. On the driving seat of an automobile sat a young gentleman with an overcoat over a pair of silk pajamas, carefully inspecting the toes of his right foot by the light of a match, while another young gentleman with a white handkerchief around his head was sitting on the running board of the same car, dripping water and rather dazedly staring at the ruins.
And beside him stood a gaunt figure, blackened of face, minus eyebrows and charred of hair, and considerably torn as to clothing. A figure which seemed disinclined to talk, and which gave its explanations in short, staccato sentences. Having done which, it relapsed into uncompromising silence again.
Some time later the detectives returned. They had made no further captures, for the refugees had known the country, and once outside the light from the burning barn search was useless. The Chief of Police approached Willy Cameron and stood before him, eyeing him severely.
"The next time you try to raid an anarchist meeting, Cameron," he said, "you'd better honor me with your confidence. You've probably learned a lesson from all this."
Willy Cameron glanced at him, and for the first time that night, smiled.
"I have," he said; "I'll never trust a pigeon again." The Chief thought him slightly unhinged by the night's experience.