- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER XVII. TOM WELLS WITHHOLDS "THE NEWS."
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TOM WELLS WITHHOLDS "THE NEWS."
BEECHWOOD, as has been already set forth, was the last house at the northern end of Main Street, or "Broadway," as it was sometimes called, of late, by those who foresaw, in the pretty town, the nucleus for a future city. The large house faced the west, with spacious gardens and a paddock at the back; and, beyond these, a dense grove, part of a belt of timber which ran northward for miles, and bounded Pomfret on the east, curving away from the centre of the town, as if to make room for it; closing in upon it again at the south end, and half surrounding that, by no means the most aristocratic, portion of the town.
It was at the south end that Jonas Wiggins was domiciled. There was a rambling path in the edge of this belt of wood, beginning some distance below the Wiggins' house, and skirting the town, until it ended at a tiny foot-bridge crossing a flowing brook, which wound curiously in and out through the woods and across the town, making eccentric curves here and there, and requiring more than one pretty rustic bridge, before it left the streets and outlying meadows to ramble westward.
This bridge, at the end of the wood path, spanned "the creek,"—it was seldom called by any other name. Not far from the foot of the Beechwood premises, and when Jonas Wiggins turned his steps townward, after his interview with Brenda Deering, he scaled the fence, just below the park, and crossed the meadow between the creek and the highway.
The sun was yet warm, although his hours were numbered, and the usual evening pleasure-seekers were beginning to dot the road here and there; this being the much used outlet to the charming country drives and wooded roads to the northward.
"Confound 'em!" muttered Jonas, as he caught the first sprinkling of dust from a swiftly passing phaeton, "everybody's turnin' out on this 'ere road of course! An' I ain't noways anxious to have folks | | 106 wonderin' what I'm doin' round these parts. I'm goin' to take the roundaboutest way."
Half-way across the meadow he turned and looked back, attracted by the sound of swift wheels from the northward.
"Jiminy!" he ejaculated, "there she goes! I'd like ter know what fur. It's past bankin' hours, an'—but—mebbe I kin find out; a rig like that ain't agoin' to hide in Pomfret."
He pursued his way, slowly reviewing his late interview. It had not been altogether to his liking. And he began to wonder how he could have been so rebuffed, so cowed, and so easily sent away at last, but little wiser or more secure of his purpose than when he came.
"Confound the woman!" he broke out again. "Ye never kin tell where to take 'em! There's Jane now!" And then anew thought caused him to halt and lean against a tree while he pondered the question: "How should he settle with Jane? And would it be safe to go home to her with that little pill box and its contents still in his possession?"
So pre-occupied was he with this new train of thought, quite as perplexing as the last and of nearer moment, that he had resumed his progress, and reached the little bridge over the creek, before he had observed that the small buttress at the opposite end was occupied, and by no less a personage than his some time rival sportsman, Tom Wells.
Wells sat with his long legs dangling above the little stream, which was very quiet just here, and deeper than in some parts, and, just below him, formed a little pool, where the minnows darted thick, and easily visible. His gun leaned against the rail of the bridge, and his coat hung across it. As Wiggins stepped upon the bridge he looked up quickly.
"Wal, I swan!" he drawled;" you must a stepped mighty soft, I sh'd say! What kind a boots are ye wearin'?"
Wiggins stopped and leaned over the rail. "Same kind as usual," he retorted. "Ketchin' any whales?"
Wells lifted his little net filled with squirming minnows. "Best sort of bait, you bet," he declared cheerfully. "I ain't hot after fishin' much this time o' year, generally speakin', but Jim Green says there's good fishin' up in the north branch, and I'm goin' ter try it a little to-night. Goin' ter be a light moon, ye know." And Wells slid off his perch, made a jump for the bank, emptied his bait in a battered tin can, and threw his coat across his shoulder.
Jonas picked up the gun and looked at it critically. They had bantered each other for a trade more than once.
"I kind o' wanted ter see ye this afternoon, earlier," Tom said carelessly, "ter talk with ye 'bout that rifle of yours; but I ain't time now, that is—unless you're goin' my way."
"Which way's your'n?"
"North'ard. I'm goin' to grub with Jim and Aunt Sally, and I'd better be on the way. Where ye bound?"
"Oh! Wal, you took a kind of a roundabout way, seems to me." Jonas put down the gun, and an ugly flush overspread his face | | 107 He had come directly across from the corner of the meadow nearest the park, and Beechwood was fairly within sight from the bridge.
"I've been doin' a little arrand up to Beechwood," he said," an' I thought I'd come this way hum. It's tarnal dusty an' hot, an' then I'm always lookin' out for signs of game, ye know. There's a nest of coon 'bout half-way 'tween here and the bend."
"So!" Wells took up his gun. "Wal I hope ye'll git'em. If I warn't in fer fish jest now, and Jim awaitin' for me, I'd be tempted to take my gun along an' help ye try fer 'em; as it is—so long, Jonas." And he turned his face to the north, and was soon out of sight behind a bend of the creek with its shrouding underbrush.
For a moment Jonas looked after him, then turned, to take the path in the opposite direction.
He had been standing on the bridge, with Wells a little below him, at the creek's edge, where the turf was soft and damp; and as he stepped off, almost upon the very spot where Wells had slung his coat across his arm, he saw something, lying at his feet; it was a small and shabby pocket-flask covered with leather.
Before stooping to pick it up, Jonas turned to look about him. Wells was not in sight, and he caught up the flask and went briskly down the narrow footpath.
"That's one streak o' luck anyhow," he soliloquised, "wonder neither of us didn't see the thing drop; 'pears to be full," shaking it, "and "—unscrewing the top and sniffing its contents—"it's mighty good brandy!" He walked on a few paces, looked about him once more, and regaled himself from Tom's flask.
"There!" he ejaculated, as he stowed it away in a capacious pocket; "that's good,—an' cheap too! Wonder how soon Tom miss it? Oh, no. He ain't no drinkin' man! I recken I've got a pint on yer now. Mr. Tom Wells!"
For some time he went on briskly, then his pace became slower. He stopped, looked about him, and once more refreshed himself from the flask.
"That's good stuff," he muttered; "I only wish it 'ud help me ter study out what ter do 'bout this here button."
And now he paced on slowly, until some inspiration seemed to seize him, and he struck himself smartly upon the hip.
"Lor!" he said to himself, "why didn't I think of that afore! It's the old dodge, an' I'll try the old place. It'll be safer than in my pockets, or anywhere else! It'll be perfectly safe!"
He had made up his mind to bury his treasure in a place he knew well of old. Bury it, just for the night, and bring it forth on the morrow, in time for his visit to Mrs. Deering.
"'Twon't do fer me to hang out to-night," he ruminated; "I'd be all in a fuddle by mornin', sure, if I made a night of it with the boys; an' I want ter be clear-headed ter-morror when I visit my fine lady. Yes, I'll put ye ter bed, my beauty! an' then I'll go home ter Jane, an' let her preach herself hoarser'n a crow. Drat her!"
Tom Wells was too experienced a woodsman to find difficulty in following Jonas Wiggins, at a considerable distance at first, and at closer | | 108 range, when he saw his prey, after taking his second pull from the leathern flask, and turning away from the footpath, go deeper into the woods. He could dodge and drop like an Indian, and he found himself forced to do both more than once, for Jonas became more fox-like as he neared the place of hiding.
But it was done at last, and all traces of his work removed; and then, after another refreshing draught, and a last reconnaissance, Jonas bent his steps homewards.
He was feeling better than at any moment since he had left his nook in the fence corner at the foot of Beechwood Park, and he chuckled gleefully over his prospective encounter with Jane. He had not always come off conqueror in his encounters with his lesser half, but he was sure of his success this time, and he chuckled aloud in anticipation of the battle to come.
Well was it for him that he did not see Tom Wells creeping—creeping—slowly, warily—coming nearer to his hiding-place and his treasure.
"If it was anybody but you, Jonas Wiggins," muttered Wells, as he bent above the discovered hiding-place, "I'd feel too mean to live this minute. But you're a snake in the grass, and I've been set to cut your fangs if I find there's need for it. If what you've put here belongs to you, you'll find it here all right when you come after it. If it belongs to somebody else, well, we'll see, that's all. Here goes."
First, a thick layer of leaves and grass, with some broken branches laid over artfully, as if they might have fallen so from the tree above; then a layer of earth, not deep, but well smoothed down; next, a flat stone, a little more than a foot square, roughly hewed and somewhat uneven; then another layer of earth, packed above and around a small tin box, six inches by ten, as nearly as he could guess, a box with a hinged cover, but with no lock, nor any better fastening than a stout string, which was soon untied.
Inside the box was a handkerchief, soiled and coarse, and rolled up and fastened with another bit of string. Inside of this, the tiny pillbox, and within the box the amethyst button.
Tom Wells was anything but slow-witted, and when he had looked long and silently at the two golden letters so daintily cut, so damaging, so dangerous in their possibilities, he placed the button carefully in his pocket, and, as rapidly as possible, replaced the pill-box—minus the contents—the kerchief, the string, the tin box, the earth, the stone, all as it was before. Then he hastened away in the direction from whence he came, and, midway between the point where Jonas had left the footpath and the bridge where the two had met, he turned into the woods once more. And now all his movements were rapid, as if time was of value. He found a spot which he could readily identify, and wrapping the button in his own handkerchief, and placing this in the middle of his well-filled shot-pouch, he dug a new hiding-place, and left the amethyst button as safely buried, and better concealed, than it had been before.
"It's a delicate pint to settle!" he meditated, as he hastened from the place. "I couldn't leave that thing in Wiggins' hands, knowin' what I do. I couldn't keep it; and I couldn't risk turnin' it over to— | | 109 anyone; riskin' it's bein' the wrong one, as I might. I'd like to know how Jone Wiggins got hold of that button—an' whose initials there are! Mr. Detective, you've got me into more business, and queerer business, than I counted on—an' I guess, until I can understand things a leetle better myself, I'll not trouble you with the news from the backwoods."
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