by Ellis Parker Butler
Philo Gubb, with three rolls of wall-paper under his arm and a pail of mixed paste in one hand, walked along Cherry Street near the brick-yard.
On this occasion Mr. Gubb was in a reasonably contented frame of mind, for he had just received his share of the reward for capturing the dynamiters and had this very morning paid the full amount to Mr. Medderbrook, leaving but eleven thousand six hundred and fifty dollars still to be paid that gentleman for the Utterly Hopeless Gold-Mine Stock, and upon the further payment of seventy-five cents–half its cost–Mr. Medderbrook gave him a telegram he had received from Syrilla. The telegram was as follows:–
Rapidly shrinking. Have given up all soups, including tomato soup, chicken soup, mulligatawny, mock turtle, green pea, vegetable, gumbo, lentil, consomme, bouillon and clam broth. Now weigh only nine hundred and fifty pounds. Wire at once whether clam chowder is a soup or a food. Fond remembrances to Gubby.
Mr. Gubb was thinking of this telegram as he walked toward his work. Just ahead of him a short lane led, between Mrs. Smith’s house and the Cherry Street Methodist Chapel, to the brick-yard. Mrs. Smith’s chicken coop stood on the fence line between her property and the brick-yard!
Philo Gubb had passed Mrs. Smith’s front gate when Mrs. Smith waddled to her fence and hailed him.
“Oh, Mr. Gubb!” she panted. “You got to excuse me for speakin’ to you when I don’t know you. Mrs. Miffin says you’re a detective.”
“Deteckating is my aim and my profession,” said Mr. Gubb.
“Well,” said Mrs. Smith, “I want to ask a word of you about crime. I’ve had a chicken stole.”
“Chicken-stealing is a crime if ever there was one,” said Philo Gubb seriously. “What was the chicken worth?”
“Forty cents,” said Mrs. Smith.
“Well,” said Philo Gubb, “it wouldn’t hardly pay me.”
“It ain’t much,” admitted Mrs. Smith.
“No. You’re right, it ain’t,” said Philo Gubb. “Was this a rooster or a hen?”
“It was a hen,” said Mrs. Smith.
“Well,” said Mr. Gubb, “if you was to offer a reward of a hundred dollars for the capture of the thief–”
“Oh, my land!” exclaimed Mrs. Smith. “It would be cheaper for me to pay somebody five dollars to come and steal the rest of the chickens. It seems to me, that you ought to make the thief pay. I ain’t the one that did the crime, am I? It’s only right that a thief should pay for the time and trouble he puts you to, ain’t it?”
“I never before looked at it that way,” said Mr. Gubb thoughtfully, “but it stands to reason.”
“Of course it does!” said Mrs. Smith. “You catch that thief and you can offer yourself a million dollars reward if you want to. That’s none of my business.”
“Well,” said Philo Gubb, picking up his paste-pail, “I guess if there ain’t any important murders or things turn up by seven to-night, I’ll start in to work for that reward. I guess I can’t ask more than five dollars reward.”
At seven the evening was still light, and Philo Gubb, to cover his intentions and avert suspicion in case his interview with Mrs. Smith had been observed by the thief, put a false beard in his pocket and a revolver beside it and left his office in the Opera House Block cautiously. He slipped into the alley and glided down it, keeping close to the stables. A detective must be cautious.
The abandoned brick-kilns offered admirable seclusion. A brick-kiln is built entirely, or almost so, of the brick that are to be burned, and the kilns are torn down and carted away as the brick are sold. The over-structure of the kilns was a mere roof of half-inch planks laid on timbers that were upheld by poles.
A ladder leaning against one of the poles gave access to the roof. In the darkness it was impossible for Philo Gubb to find a finger-print of the culprit on the kilns, although he looked for one. He did not even find the usual and highly helpful button, torn from its place in the criminal’s eagerness to depart. He found only an old horseshoe and a broken tobacco pipe. As there were evidences that the pipe had been abandoned on that spot several years earlier, neither of these was a very valuable clue.
Mr. Gubb next gave his attention to the chicken coop. It was preeminently a hand-made chicken coop of the rough-and-ready variety.
Philo Gubb entered the chicken-house and looked around, lighting his dark lantern and throwing its rays here and there that he might see better. The house was so low of roof that he had to stoop to avoid the roosts, and the tails of the chickens brushed his hat. It needed brushing, so this did no harm. The hens and the two roosters complained gently of this interruption of their beauty sleep, and moved along the roosts, and Mr. Gubb went outside again. It was quite evident that the thief had had no great hardships to undergo in robbing that roost. All he had to do was to enter the chicken-house, choose a chicken, and walk away with it.
Why had he not taken ten chickens? Mr. Gubb, as he put the keg hoop over the end board of the gate, studied this.
The theory that Mr. Gubb adopted was that the thief, coming for a raid on the coop, had been surprised to find it so poorly guarded. It had been so easy to enter the coop and steal the chicken that he had decided it would be folly to take eight or ten chickens and thus arouse instant suspicion and reprisal. Instead of this he had taken but one, trusting that the loss of one would be unnoticed or laid to rats or cats or weasels. Thus he would be able to return again and again as fowl meat was needed or desired, and the chickens would be like money in the bank–a fund on which to draw. This theory was so sound that Mr. Gubb believed it would require nothing more than patience to capture the criminal. The thief would come back for more chickens!
Philo Gubb looked around for an advantageous position in which to await the coming of the thief, and be unseen himself, and the loose board roof of the brick-kiln met his eye. No position could be better. He climbed the ladder inside the kiln, pushed one of the boards aside enough to permit him to squeeze through onto the roof, and creeping carefully over the loose boards, reached the edge of the roof. Here he stretched himself out flat on the boards, and waited.
Nothing–absolutely nothing–happened! The mosquitoes, numerous indeed because of the nearness of the pond, buzzed around his head and stung him on the neck and hands, but he did not dare slap at them lest he betray his hiding-place. Hour followed hour and no chicken thief appeared. And when the first rays of the sun lighted the east he climbed down and stalked stiffly away to a short hour of sleep.
The next night the Correspondence School detective wasted no time in preliminary observations of the lay of the land. He kept out of sight until the sun had set and dusk covered the land with shade, and then he went at once to the roof of the brick-kiln. This time he was disguised in a red mustache, a pair of flowing white side-whiskers, and a woolen cap. And he wore two revolvers–large ones–in a belt about his waist.
It was still too early for brisk business in chicken-stealing when Philo Gubb climbed to the roof of the kiln and spread himself out there, and he felt that he had time for a few minutes’ sleep.
He was tremendously sleepy. Sleep fairly pushed his eyelids down over his eyes, and he put his crooked arm under his head and, after thinking fondly of Syrilla for a few minutes, went to sleep so suddenly that it was like falling off a cliff into dreamland. He dreamed, uneasily, of having been captured by an array of forty chicken thieves, of having been led in triumph before the Supreme Court of the United States, and of having been condemned as a Detective Trust on the charge of acting in restraint of trade–as injuring the Chicken Stealers’ Association’s business–and required to dissolve himself.
The dream was agonizing as he tried one dissolvent after another without success. Turpentine merely dissolved his skin; alcohol had no effect whatever. He imagined himself in a long room in which stood vast rows of vats bearing different labels, and in and out of these he climbed, trying to obey the order of the court, but nothing seemed capable of dissolving him, and he suddenly discovered that he was made of rubber. He seemed to remember that rubber was soluble in benzine, and he started on a tour of the vats, trying to find a benzine vat.
He walked many miles. Sometimes he arose in the air, with ease and grace, and flew a few miles. Finally he found the vat of benzine, immersed himself in it, and began to dissolve calmly and with a blessed sense of having done his duty.
It was then that Philo Gubb entered the dreamless sleep of the utterly weary, and, about the same time, two men slunk under the roof of the brick-kiln and after looking carefully around took seats on the fallen bricks, resting their backs against the partly demolished kiln. They arranged the bricks as comfortably as possible before seating themselves, and when they were seated, one of them drew a whiskey bottle from his pocket and, after taking a good swig, offered it to his partner.
“Nope!” said he. “I’m going to steer clear of that stuff until I know where I’m at, and you’re a fool for not doing the same, Wixy. First thing you know you’ll be soused, and if you are, and anything turns up, what’ll I do? I got all I can do to take care of you sober.”
“Ah, turn up! What’s goin’ to turn up ‘way out here?” asked Wixy. “They ain’t nobody follerin’ us anyway. That’s just a notion you got. Your nerves has gone back on you, Sandlot.”
“My nerve is all right, and don’t you worry about that,” said Sandlot. “I’ve got plenty of nerve so I don’t have to brace it up with booze, and you ain’t. That’s what’s the matter with you. You saw that feller as well as I did. Didn’t you see him at Bureau?”
“That feller with the white whiskers?”
“Yes, him. And didn’t you see him again at Derlingport? Well, what was he follerin’ us that way for when he told us at Joliet he was goin’ East?”
“A tramp has as good a right to change his mind as what we have,” said Wixy. “Didn’t we tell him we was goin’ East ourselves? Maybe he ain’t lookin’ for steady company any more than we be. Maybe he come this way to get away from us, like we did to get away from–say!–Sandlot,” he said almost pleadingly, “you don’t really think old White-Whiskers was a-trailin’ us, do you? You ain’t got a notion he’s a detective?”
“How do I know what he is?” asked Sandlot. “All I know is that when I see a feller like that once, and then again, and he looks like he was tryin’ to keep hid from us, I want to shake him off. I know that. And I know I’m goin’ to shake him off. And I know that if you get all boozed up, and full of liquor, and can’t walk, and that feller shows up, I’m a-goin’ to quit you and look out for myself. When a feller steals something, or does any little harmless thing like that, it’s different. He can afford to stick to a pal, even if he gets nabbed. But when it’s a case of–”
“Now, don’t use that word!” said Wixy angrily. “It wasn’t no more murder than nothing. Was we going to let Chicago Chicken bash our heads in just because we stood up for our rights? Him wantin’ a full half just because he put us onto the job! He’d ought to been killed for askin’ such a thing.”
“Well, he was, wasn’t he?” asked Sandlot. “You killed him all right. It was you swung on him with the rock, Wixy, remember that!”
“Tryin’ to put it off on me, ain’t you!” said Wixy angrily. “Well, you can’t do it. If I hang, you hang. Maybe I did take a rock to him, but you had him strangled to death before I ever hit him.”
“What’s the use gabbin’ about it?” said Sandlot. “He’s dead, and we made our get-away, and all we got to do is to keep got away. There ain’t anybody ever goin’ to find him, not where we sunk him in that deep water.”
“Ain’t I been sayin’ that right along?” asked Wixy. “Ain’t I been tellin’ you you was a fool to be scared of an old feller like White-Whiskers? Cuttin’ across country this way when we might as well be forty miles more down the Rock Island, travelin’ along as nice as you please in a box car.”
“Now, look here!” said Sandlot menacingly. “I ain’t goin’ to take no abuse from you, drunk or sober. If you don’t like my way, you go back to the railroad and leave me go my own way. I’m goin’ on across country until I come to another railroad, I am. And if I come to a river, and I run across a boat, I’m goin’ to take that boat and float a ways. When I says nobody is goin’ to know anything about what we did to the Chicken, over there in Chicago, I mean it. Nobody is. But didn’t Sal know all three of us was goin’ out on that job that night? And when the Chicken don’t come back, ain’t she goin’ to guess something happened to the Chicken?”
“She’s goin’ to think he made a rich haul, like he did, and that he up and quit her,” said Wixy. “That’s what she’ll think.”
“And what if she does?” said Sandlot. “She and him has been boardin’ with Mother Smith, ain’t they? Ain’t Mother Smith been handin’ the Chicken money when he needed it, because he said he was workin’ up this job with us? I bet the Chicken owed Mother Smith a hundred dollars, and when he don’t come back, then what? Sal will say she ain’t got no money because the Chicken quit her, and Mother Smith will–”
“Well, what?” asked Wixy.
“She’ll send word to every crook in the country to spot the Chicken, and you know it. And when word comes back that there ain’t no trace of him–”
“You’ve lost your nerve, that’s what ails you,” said Wixy scornfully.
“No, I ain’t,” Sandlot insisted. “I’ve heard plenty of fellers tell how Mother Smith keeps tabs on anybody that tries to do her out of ten cents even. Why, maybe the Chicken promised to come back that night and pay up. I bet he did! And I bet he _was_ sour on Sal. And I bet Mother Smith knew it all the time, and that when he didn’t come back that night she sent out word to spot him or us. I bet you!”
“You’ve lost your nerve!” said Wixy drunkenly. “You never did have no nerve. You’re so scared you’re seein’ ghosts.”
“All right!” said Sandlot, rising. “I’ll see ghosts, then. But I’ll see them by myself. You can go–”
“Goo’-bye!” said Wixy carelessly, and finished the last drop in his bottle. “Goo’-bye, ol’ Sandlot! Goo’-bye!”
Sandlot hesitated a moment and then arose and, after a parting glance at Wixy, struck out across the drying floor of the brick-yard, and was lost in the darkness. Wixy blinked and balanced the empty bottle in his hand.
“He’s afraid!” he boasted to himself. “He’s coward. ‘Fraid of dark. ‘Fraid of ghosts. Los’ his nerve. I ain’ ‘fraid.”
He arose to his feet unsteadily.
“Sandlot’s coward!” he said, and threw down the empty bottle with a motion of disgust at the cowardice of Sandlot. The bottle burst with a jangling of glass.
On the loose board roof Philo Gubb raised his head suddenly. For an instant he imagined he was a disembodied spirit, his body having been dissolved in benzine, but as he became wider awake he was conscious of a noise beneath him. Wixy was shifting twenty or thirty bricks that had fallen from the kiln upon a truss of straw, used the last winter to cover new-moulded bricks to protect them from the frost against their drying. He was preparing a bed. He muttered to himself as he worked, and Philo Gubb, placing his eye to a crack between the boards of the roof, tried to observe him. The darkness was so absolute he could see nothing whatever.
He heard Wixy stretch out on the straw, and in a minute more he heard the heavy breathing of a sleeper. Wixy was not letting any cowardice disturb his repose, at all events, and Philo Gubb considered how he could best get himself off the roof.
The sleeping man was immediately beneath him; the ladder was a full ten yards away; every motion made the loose boards complain. Looking down, Mr. Gubb saw that the top of the kiln reached within a few feet of where he lay, and that the partially removed sides had left a series of giant steps.
Mr. Gubb loosened his pistols in his belt. Now that he had the chicken thief so near, he meant to capture him. With the utmost care he slid one of the boards of the roof aside and put his long legs into the opening thus made, feeling for the kiln until he touched it, and when he had a firm footing on it he lowered the upper part of his body through the roof.
Five feet away a cross-timber reached from one pillar of the roof to another, and just below that was one of the steps of the kiln. Philo Gubb lighted his dark lantern, and casting its ray, saw this cross-piece. If he could jump and reach it he could drop to the lower step and avoid the danger of bringing the side of the kiln down with him. He slipped the lantern into his pocket, reached out his hands, and jumped into the dark.
For an instant his fingers grappled with the cross-piece; he struggled to gain a firmer hold; and then he dropped straight upon the sleeping Wixy. He alighted fair and square on the murderer’s stomach, and the air went out of Wixy in a sudden _whoof_!
Philo Gubb, in the unreasoning excitement of the moment, grappled with Wixy, but the unresistance of the man told that he was unconscious, and the Correspondence School detective released him and stood up. He uncovered the lens of his dark lantern and turned the ray on Wixy.
The murderer lay flat on his back, his eyes closed and his mouth open. Mr. Gubb put his hand on Wixy’s heart. It still beat! The man was not dead!
With the dark lantern in one hand and a rusty tin can in the other, Mr. Gubb hurried to the pond and returned with the can full of water, but even in this crisis he did not act thoughtlessly. He set the dark lantern on a shelf of the kiln, so that its rays might illuminate Wixy and himself alike, drew one of his pistols and pointed it full at Wixy’s head, and holding it so, he dashed the can of water in the face of the unconscious man. Wixy moved uneasily. He emitted a long sigh and opened his eyes.
“I got you!” said Philo Gubb sternly. “There ain’t no use to make a move, because I’m a deteckative, and if you do I’ll shoot this pistol at you. If you’re able so to do, just put up your hands.”
Wixy blinked in the strong light of the lantern. He groaned and placed one of his hands on his stomach.
“Put ’em up!” said Philo Gubb, and with another groan Wixy raised his hands. He was still flat on his back. He looked as if he were doing some sort of health exercise. In a minute the hands fell to the ground.
“I guess you’d better set up,” said Philo Gubb. “You ain’t goin’ to be able to hold up your hands if you lay down that way.”
As he helped Wixy to a sitting position, he kept his pistol against the fellow’s head.
“Now, then,” said Philo Gubb, when he had arranged his captive to suit his taste, “what you got to say?”
“I got to say I never done what you think I done, whatever it is,” said Wixy. “I don’t know what it is, but I never done it. Some other feller done it.”
“That don’t bother me none,” said Philo Gubb. “If you didn’t do it, I don’t know who did. Just about the best thing you can do is to account for the chicken and pay my expenses of getting you, and the quicker you do it the better off you’ll be.”
Pale as Wixy was, he turned still paler when Philo Gubb mentioned the chicken.
“I never killed the Chicken!” he almost shouted. “I never did it!”
“I don’t care whether you killed the chicken or not,” said Philo Gubb calmly. “The chicken is gone, and I reckon that’s the end of the chicken. But Mrs. Smith has got to be paid.”
“Did she send you?” asked Wixy, trembling. “Did Mother Smith put you onto me?”
“She did so,” said the Correspondence School detective. “And you can pay up or go to jail. How’d you like that?”
Wixy studied the tall detective.
“Look here,” he said. “S’pose I give you fifty and we call it square.” He meant fifty dollars.
“Maybe that would satisfy Mrs. Smith,” said Philo Gubb, thinking of fifty cents, “but it don’t satisfy me. My time’s valuable and it’s got to be paid for. Ten times fifty ain’t a bit too much, and if it had took longer to catch you I’d have asked more. If you want to give that much, all right. And if you don’t, all right too.”
Wixy studied the face of Philo Gubb carefully. There was no sign of mercy in the bird-like face of the paper-hanger detective. Indeed, his face was severe. It was relentless in its sternness. Five dollars was little enough to ask for two nights of first-class Correspondence School detective work. Rather than take less he would lead the chicken thief to jail. And Wixy, with his third, and half of the Chicken’s third, of the proceeds of the criminal job that had led to the death of the Chicken, knowing the relentlessness of Mother Smith, that female Fagin of Chicago, considered that he would be doing well to purchase his freedom for five hundred dollars.
“All right, pal,” he said suddenly. “You’re on. It’s a bet. Here you are.”
He slipped his hand into his pocket and drew out a great roll of money. With the muzzle of Philo Gubb’s pistol hovering just out of reach before him, he counted out five crisp one hundred dollar bills. He held them out with a sickly grin. Philo Gubb took them and looked at them, puzzled.
“What’s this for?” he asked, and Wixy suddenly blazed forth in anger.
“Now, don’t come any of that!” he cried. “A bargain is a bargain. Don’t you come a-pretendin’ you didn’t say you’d take five hundred, and try to get more out of me! I won’t give you no more–I won’t! You can jug me, if you want to. You can’t prove nothin’ on me, and you know it. Have you found the body of the Chicken? Well, you got to have the corpus what-you-call-it, ain’t you? Huh? Ain’t five hundred enough? I bet the Chicken never cost Mother Smith more than a hundred and fifty–”
“I was only thinkin’–” began Philo Gubb.
“Don’t think, then,” said Wixy.
“Five hundred dollars seemed too–” Philo began again.
“It’s all you’ll get, if I hang for it,” said Wixy firmly. “You can give Mother Smith what you want, and keep what you want. That’s all you’ll get.”
Philo Gubb could not understand it. He tried to, but he could not understand it at all. And then suddenly a great light dawned in his brain. There was something this chicken thief knew that he and Mrs. Smith did not know. The stolen chicken must have been of some rare and much-sought strain. So it was all right. The thief was paying what the chicken was worth, and not what Mrs. Smith thought it was worth in her ignorance. He slipped the money into his pocket.
“All right,” he said. “I’m satisfied if you are. The chicken was a fancy bird, ain’t it so?”
“The Chicken was a tough old rooster, that’s what he was,” said Wixy, staggering to his feet.
“I thought he was a hen,” said Philo Gubb. “Mrs. Smith said he was a hen.”
Wixy laughed a sickly laugh.
“That ain’t much of a joke. That’s why everybody called him Chicken, because his first name was Hen.”
Philo Gubb’s mouth fell open. He was convinced now that he had to do with an insane man. Wixy moved toward the open drying-floor.
“Well, so ‘long, pard,” he said to Philo Gubb. “Give my regards to Mother Smith. And say,” he added, “if you see Sal, don’t let her know what happened to the Chicken. Don’t say anybody made away with the Chicken, see? Tell Sal the Chicken flew the coop himself, see?”
“Who is Sal?” asked Philo Gubb.
“You ask Mother Smith,” said Wixy. “She’ll tell you.” And he went out into the dark. Philo Gubb heard him shuffle across the drying-floor, and when the sound had died away in the distance he put up his revolver.
“Five hundred dollars!” he said, and he routed Mrs. Smith out of bed. He did not tell her the amount of reward he had made the chicken thief pay. He asked her what the most expensive chicken in the world might be worth, and she reluctantly accepted ten dollars as being far too much. Then he asked her who Sal was.
“Sal?” queried Mrs. Smith.
“The chicken thief declared the statement that you would know,” said Mr. Gubb. “He said to tell her–”
“Well, Mr. Gubb,” said Mrs. Smith tartly, “I don’t know any Sal, and if I did I wouldn’t carry messages to her for a chicken thief, and it is past midnight, and the draught on my bare feet is giving me my death of cold, and if you think this is a pink tea for me to stand around and hold fool conversation at, I don’t!”
And she slammed the door.