Dangerous Ground: or, The Rival DetectivesŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
Vernet had made, or intended to make, a sharp home thrust. In searching out the history of the Francoises, he had stumbled upon the fact that they had a son in prison; and the mutterings of Franz, while he lay upon the pallet, coupled with the fact that Franz and Papa wore upon their heads locks of the same fiery hue, had awakened in his mind a strong suspicion.
ďMaybe ye might take a fancy ter think Iím that same feller,Ē suggested Franz, after a momentís silence. ďWhat then?Ē
ďThen,Ē replied Vernet, ďevery moment that you detain me here increases your own danger.Ē
ďHumph!Ē grunted Franz, as he rose and crossing to Mammaís side, began with her a whispered conversation.
Vernet watched them curiously for a moment, and then turned his face toward Papa.
ďLook here, Francoise,Ē he began, somewhat sternly, considering his position; ďIíve been looking for you ever since you left the old place, and Iím disposed to be friendly. Now, I may as well tell you that there is a rumor afloat, to the effect that your son, who was Ďsent upí years ago, has lately broke jail, and that you harbor him. That does not concern me, however. This insolent fellow, if he is or is not your son, may go, so far as I am concerned, and no harm shall come to him or you through me. What I want of you, is a bit of information.Ē
From the moment of his capture, Vernet had believed himself equal to the situation. Even now he scarcely felt that these people would dare to do him bodily injury. As may readily be surmised, his talk of confederates near at hand was all fiction. He had sought out Papa Francoise hoping to win from him something that would criminate Alan Warburton, and to use him as a tool. To arrest Papa might frustrate his own schemes, and, in the double game he was playing, Van Vernet was too wise to call upon the police for assistance or protection.
ďYou want Ė information?Ē queried Papa; ďwhat about?Ē
Vernet hesitated, and then said slowly:
ďI want to know all that you can tell me about the Sailor who killed Josef Siebel.Ē
Papa gasped, stammered, and turned his face toward Franz, who now came forward, saying fiercely:
ďLook here, my fly cop, afore ye ask any more important questions, just answer a few.Ē
ďTake care, jail bird!Ē cried Vernet, enraged at his persistent interference, ďor I may give the police a chance to ask you a question too many!Ē
ďYeíve got to git out of my clutches first,Ē hissed Franz Francoise, ďand yer chances fer that are slim!Ē
As the young ruffian bent close to him, Vernet, for the first time, fully realized his danger. But his cry for help was smothered by the hands of his captor, and in another moment he was gagged by the expeditious fingers of the old woman, and his head and face closely muffled in a dirty cloth from the nearest pallet.
ďThere,Ē said Mamma, rising from her knees with a grin of triumph, ďweíve got him fast. Open the door, old man, heís going into the closet for Ė Ē
ďFor a little while,Ē put in Franz, significantly.
Into a rear room, across this, and into the dark hole, which Mamma had dignified by the name of closet, they carried their luckless prisoner, bound beyond hope of self-deliverance, gagged almost to suffocation, his eyes blinded to any ray of light, his ears muffled to any sound that might penetrate his dungeon.
FRANZ FRANCOISEíS GENERALSHIP
When the three had returned to the outer room, Papa turned anxiously toward his hopeful son.
ďFranz, my boy,Ē he began, in a quavering voice, ďif there should be cops outside Ė Ē
ďYeíre the same whininí old coward, ainít ye?Ē commented Franz, as he favored his father with a contemptuous glance.
ďIíve seen a good many bad eggs, but blow me if I ever seed one like ye! Why, in the name oí blazes, air ye more afraid of a cop than youíd be oí the hangman?Ē
The mention of this last-named public benefactor, caused Papa to shiver violently, and Mamma bent upon him a look of scorn.
ďDonít be an idiot, Francoise,Ē she said, sharply. ďWeíve got somethiní to do besides shakiní aní shiveriní?Ē
ďTime enough ter shiver when the hangman gits ye,Ē added Franz, reassuringly. ďBut ye neednít fret about cops Ė I ainít no baby; there ainít no backers outside.Ē
ďBut, Franzy,†Ė Ē began Papa.
ďShet up; Iím runniní this. If thereíd a-been any help outside, we wouldnít a-had it so easy, you old fool! That cove in there ainít no coward; heíd a taken the chances with us, and blowed his horn when we first tackled him, if thereíd been help handy.Ē
ďAh, what a brain the boy has got!Ē murmured Mamma, with rapturous pride.
ďLook a-here,Ē said Franz, after a momentís consideration, ďIím satisfied that there ainít no cops about; but to set yer mind at rest, old un, so that you kin use it ter help git to the bottom of this business, Iíll go and take a look around, and Iíll be back in jest five minutes.Ē And he made a quick stride toward the door.
ďNow, Franzy,†Ė Ē began Mamma, coaxingly.
But he waved her back, saying: ďShut up, old woman; Iím runniní this,Ē and went swiftly out.
When the sound of his retreating footsteps was lost to their ears, Papa and Mamma drew close together, and looked into each othersí faces Ė he anxiously, she with a leer of shrewd significance.
ďOld man,Ē she said, impressively, ďthat boyíll be the makiní of us Ė if we donít let him git us down.Ē
ďHeís got your cunniní aní mine together, and heís got all the grit you lack.Ē
ďBut heíll want to run us. Aní when he knows all we know, heíd put his foot on us if we git in his way.Ē
ďYes,Ē assented the old man, with a cunning wink, ďheís like his ma Ė considerable.Ē
ďOn account oí this here cop business,Ē went on Mamma, ignoring the thrust, ďheíll have to be told a little about that Siebel affair. But about the rest Ė not a word. We kin run the other business without his assistance. Franzyís a fine boy, aní Iím proud of him, but ítwonít do, as I told you afore, to give him too much power. I know the lad.Ē
ďYes,Ē insinuated Papa, with a dry cough, ďI reckon you do.Ē
ďYe kin see by the way he took the lead to-night, that he wonít play no second part. Weíll have to tell him about Siebel Ė Ē
ďAní about Nance.Ē
ďItís the same thing; aní yeíll see what he does when we give him an idea about it.Ē
ďI know what heíll do;Ē with a crafty wink. ďIíll tell him all about Nance.Ē
ďYes,Ē muttered the old woman, ďyeíre good at lyiní, and all the sneakiní dodges.Ē
And she turned upon her heel, and went over to the pallet where Nance, undisturbed by the events transpiring around her, still lay as she had fallen in her drunken stupor.
ďThereís another thing,Ē said Mamma, apparently satisfied with her survey of the unconscious girl, and returning to Papa as she spoke. ďWeíve got to git out of here, of course, as soon as weíve settled that spy in there.Ē
ďWeíd a-had to git out anyhow,Ē muttered Papa, ďon account of that charity minx. Yes, we will; aní we hainít heard from her. Youíll have to visit her agin.Ē
ďI sípose so. Aní when I do Ė that copís cominí has given me an idea Ė Iíll bring her to time.Ē
Mamma leaned toward him, and touched his shoulder with her bony forefinger.
ďJust as that cop íud have brought you to time, if it hadnít been for Franzyís cominí.Ē
Over Papaís wizened face a look of startled intelligence slowly spread itself.
ďOld woman,Ē he ejaculated, ďSatan himself wouldnít a-thought of that! The devil will be proud of ye, someday. But Franzy mustnít see the gal.Ē
ďIíll manage that,Ē said Mamma. ďItís risky, but itís the only way; Iíll manage it.Ē
They had heard no sound, although as they talked they also listened, but while the last words yet lingered on the old womanís lips, the door suddenly opened and Franz entered.
ďThereís no danger,Ē he said, closing the door and securing it carefully. ďYe kin breathe easy, old top; weíre a good deal safer jest now than our Ďdark lanterní in there,Ē and he nodded toward the inner room.
ďThen,Ē put in Mamma, ďwhile weíre safe, weíd better make him safe.Ē
ďDonít git in a hurry, old un; we want a better understandiní afore we tackle his case. Come, old rook, git up here, aní letís take our bearings.Ē
He perched himself upon the rickety table, and Papa and Mamma drew the stools up close and seated themselves thereon.
ďNow then,Ē began Franz, ďwho did yon nipped cove come here to see, you or me, old un? He ípears to know a little about us both.Ē
ďYes,Ē assented Papa, ďso he does.Ē
ďWhat he knows about me, I reckon he told,Ē resumed Franz. ďNow, whatís the killiní affair mentioned?Ē
Papa seemed to ponder a moment, and then lifted his eyes to his sonís face with a look of bland ingenuousness.
ďItís a kind of delicate affair, my boy,Ē he began, in a tone of confidential frankness, ďbut ítwonít do for us to have secrets from each other Ė will it, old woman?Ē
ďNo,Ē said Mamma; ďFranzyís our right hand now. You ort to tell him all about it.Ē
ďOh, git along,Ē burst in Franz. ďGive us the racket, aní cut it mighty short Ė time enough for pertikelers later.Ē
ďQuite right, my boy,Ē said Papa, briskly. ďWell, here it is: I Ė Iím wanted, for a witness, in a Ė a murder case.Ē
ďOh,Ē groaned Franz, in tones of exaggerated grief, ďmy heart is broke!Ē
ďYou neednít laugh, Franzy,Ē remonstrated Papa, aggrieved. ďItís the business I was telliní you about Ė at the other place, you know.Ē
ďWell, see here, old un, my headís been considerable mixed to-night; seems to me ye did tell me a yarn, but tell it agin.Ē
ďWhy, thereís not much of it. We was doing well; I bought rags aní Ė aní things.Ē
ďRags aní things Ė oh, yes!Ē
ďAní we was very comfortable. But one night Ė Ē and Papa turned his eyes toward Mamma, as if expecting her to confirm all that he said Ė ďone night, when there was a number there, a fight broke out. We was in another room, the old woman aní me,†Ė Ē
ďYes,Ē interjected Mamma, ďwe was.Ē
ďAní we ran in, aní tried to stop the fight.Ē
Mamma nodded approvingly.
ďBut we wasnít strong enough. Before we could see who did it, a man was killed. And in a minute we heard the police coming. Before they got there, we had all left, and they found no one but the dead man to arrest. Ever since, theyíve been tryiní to find out who did the killiní.Ē
ďUm!Ē grunted Franz, ďand did you tell me they had arrested somebody?Ē
ďNo, my boy. They caught one fellow, a sailor, but he got away.Ē
ďOh, he got away. How many was there, at the time of the killiní?Ē
ďThere were three in the room, besides the man that was killed, and there was the old woman and me in the next room.Ē
ďYou forgit,Ē interrupts Mamma, ďthere was Nance.Ē
ďOh, yes,Ē rejoined Papa, as if grateful for the correction, ďthere was Nance.Ē
Franz glanced over his shoulder at the sleeping girl, and then asked sharply: ďAnd what was Nance doiní.Ē
ďNance was layiní on a pile oí rags in a corner,Ē broke in Mamma, ďaní I had to drag her out.Ē
Franz gave utterance to something between a grunt and a chuckle.
ďSo you dragged her out, did ye? íTainít exactly in your line neither, doiní that sort oí thing. Ye must a-thought that gal worth saviní.Ē
ďShe ainít worth saviní now,Ē broke in Papa, hastily. ďSheís a stone around our necks.Ē
ďThatís a fact,Ē said Mamma. ďAní itís all in consequence of that white-faced charity trampís meddliní weíve got to get out of here, aní weíll be tracked wherever we go by that drunken galís beiní along.Ē
ďWell, ye ainít obliged ter take her, are ye?Ē queried Franz, as if this part of the subject rather bored him. ďYour keepiní her looks all rot to me. She ainít good for nothiní that I kin see, only to spoil good whiskey.Ē
Papa and Mamma exchanged glances, and then Papa said:
ďJest so, my boy; she spoils good whiskey, but sheís safer so than without it. We kin afford to keep her better than we kin afford to turn her loose.Ē
ďDíye mean ter say,Ē queried Franz, ďthat if that gal knew anything, sheíd know too much?Ē
ďThatís about it, my boy.Ē
Franz gave vent to a low whistle. ďSo,Ē he said; ďaní thatís why ye keep her full oí drugged liquor, eh? Iíll lay a pipe thatís the old womanís scheme. Have I hit the mark, say?Ē
ďYes, my boy.Ē
ďThen what the dickens are ye minciní about? Why donít ye settle the gal afore we pad?Ē
ďEasy, my boy, easy,Ē remonstrates Papa.
ďJust wot I say, Franz,Ē puts in Mamma. ďWhen we leave here, it wonít be safe for us to take her Ė nor for you, either.Ē
ďSafe!Ē cried Franz, springing from the table with excited manner; ďsafe! It íud be ruination! Afore to-morrow we must be out oí this. I ainít goiní to run no chances. If ítwas safe to turn her loose, Iíd say do it. I donít believe in extinguishiní anybody when ítainít necessary; but when ítis, why Ė Ē He finishes the sentence with a significant gesture.
ďBut, Franz Ė Ē begins Mamma, making a feint at remonstrance.
ďYou shet up!Ē he exclaims; ďIím runniní this. The galís been tried aní condemned Ė jest leave her to me, aní pass on to the next pint. Have ye got a hen-roost handy?Ē
ďDíye think weíre in our dotage, Franzy,Ē said Papa plaintively, ďthat ye ask us such a question? Did ye ever know us to be without two perches?Ē
ďWell, is it safe, then?Ē
ďIf we kin git there without beiní tracked, itís safe enough.Ē
ďWell,Ē said Franz, ďwe kin do that ef we git an early start, afore our prisoner is missed. As soon as itís still enough, aní late enough, weíll mizzle.Ē
ďWotís yer plan, Franzy?Ē
ďEasy as a, b, c. You aní the old woman lead the way, ter make sure that there wonít be nobody ter bother me, when I come after with the gal.Ē
ďWith the gal?Ē
ďYes; ye donít want ter leave a dead gal here, do ye? Ye might be wanted agin, fer a witness.Ē
Papa winced and was silent.
ďBut, Franz,†Ė Ē expostulated Mamma.
ďYou shet up! Iím no chicken.Ē And Franz drew his dirk and ran his finger along the keen edge. ďHereís my plan: You two give me the bearings of the new hen-roost, aní then start out, keepiní a little ahead, aní goiní toward the drink. Iíll rouse up the gal aní boost her along, keepiní close enough to ye to have ye on hand, to prove that Iím takiní home my drunken sister if any one asks questions. When we get near the drink, youíll be likely to miss me.Ē
ďAní after a while I may overtake ye, somewhere about hen-roost, alone!Ē
ďOh,Ē said Mamma, ďyouíll finish the job in the drink?Ē
ďIíll finish with the drink but Iíll begin with this.Ē And he poised the naked dagger above Mammaís head with a gesture full of significance.
ďBut the other,Ē said Papa, with nervous eagerness; ďwhat shall we do with him?Ē
ďThe other,Ē replied Franz, slowly putting away his knife, ďwe will leave here.Ē
ďWhat!Ē screamed Mamma.
ďBut Ė Ē objected Papa.
ďAre ye a pack oí fools after all?Ē snarled Franz. ďA dead copíll make us more trouble than a liviní one. Ye kin kill ten ordinary mortals aní be safer than if ye kill one cop. Kill ten men, they detail a squad to hunt ye up mebby. Kill one peeler, aní youíve got the whole police force agin ye. No, sir; we bring him out oí that closet, and leave him ter take his chances. Before morning, weíll be where he canít track us; and somebodyíll let him loose by to-morrow. Heíll have plenty oí time to meditate, and mebby itíll do him good.Ē
There was a look of dissatisfaction in Mammaís eyes; and Papaís assent was feeble. But already this strong-willed ruffian had gained an ascendency over them, and his promptitude in taking Nance so completely off their hands, assured them that it would not be well to cross him.
Nevertheless, as they made their preparations for a midnight flitting, Papa and Mamma, unseen by Franz, exchanged more than one significant glance.
It was past midnight when the muffled figures of Papa and Mamma Francoise emerged stealthily from the tenement house, and took their way toward the river. Now and then they looked anxiously back, and constantly kept watch to the right and left.
A little way behind them, two other figures followed; the man half supporting, half dragging, a reeling, stupefied girl, and urging her along by alternate coaxing and threats.
Franz and Nance, poor Nance, going Ė whither?
Keeping the same path, and always the same brief space between them, the four moved onward until they were almost at the river. Then, in obedience to a low whistle, Papa and Mamma turned, passed the other two, and retraced their steps swiftly and silently.
When they had gone by, Franz Francoise turned and looked after them until their figures had vanished in the darkness.
Then he seized the arm of his companion, and hurried her around the nearest corner and on through the gloom; on till the river was full in sight.
Meanwhile Van Vernet, having been brought out from his closet-prison, lay upon the floor of the inner room at the lately-deserted Francoise abode, still bound, and gagged almost to suffocation, while, to make his isolation yet more impressive, Mamma had tied a dirty rag tightly about his eyes.
Left in doubt as to the fate that awaited him Ė unable to move, to see, or to use his voice,†Ė Van Vernet lay as helplessly ensnared as if he were the veriest dullard and bungler, instead of the shrewdest and most daring member of the force.
They had transferred him from the closet to his present position in profound silence. He knew that they were moving about stealthily Ė he could guess, from the fact that but one door had been opened, and from the short distance they had borne him, that he was in the inner instead of the outer room Ė he had heard them moving about in the next room, and had caught the murmur of their voices as they engaged in what seemed a sharp dispute, carried on in guarded tones Ė then slower movements, sharp whispers, and finally retreating footsteps, and the careful opening and closing of a door.
After this, only silence.
Surrounded by the silence and darkness, Van Vernet could only think. What were their intentions? Where had they gone? Would they come back?
Bound and helpless as he was, and menaced by what form of danger he knew not, his heart still beat regularly, his head was cool, his brain clear.
ďThey dare not kill me,Ē he thought, ďfor they canít bury me handily, and are too far from the river. Theyíd have to leave my body here and decamp, and theyíre too shrewd thus to fasten the crime upon themselves. I wish I knew their plans.Ē
By and by, as the silence continued, he began to struggle; not with his bonds, for he knew that to be useless, but in an effort to propel himself about the room.
Slowly, with cautious feeling of his way, by bringing his head or feet first into contact with the new space to be explored, he made the circuit of the room; rolling from side to side across the dusty floor, bringing himself up sharply against the walls on either side, in the hope of finding anything Ė a hook, a nail, a projecting bit of wood Ė against which he might rub his head, hoping thus to remove the bandage from his eyes, perhaps the gag from his mouth.
But his efforts were without reward. The room was bare. Not a box, not a bit of wood, not a projecting hook or nail; only a few scattering rags which, as he rolled among them, baptized him with a cloud of dust and reminded him, by their offensive odor, of the foul cellar in Papa Francoiseís deserted K Ė street abode.
There was nothing in the room to help him. It was useless to try to liberate himself. And he lay supine once more, cursing the Fate that had led him into such a trap; and cursing more than all the officious, presumptuous meddler, the jail-bird and ruffian, who had thus entrapped him, Van Vernet.
ďIf I escape,Ē he assured himself, ďand I will escape, Iíll hunt that man down! Iíll put him behind the bars again if, to do it, I have to renounce the prospect of a double fortune! But I wonít renounce it,Ē thought this hopeful prisoner. ďWhen I find them again, and I will find them, Iíll first capture this convict son, and then use him to extort the truth from those old pirates Ė the truth concerning their connection with Alan Warburton, aristocrat. And when I have that truth, the high and mighty Warburton will learn what it costs him to send a black servant to dictate to Van Vernet!Ē
Easily conceived, this pretty scheme for the future, but its execution depends upon the liberation of Van Vernet and, just now, that seems an improbable thing.
Moments pass away. They seem like hours to the helpless prisoner; they have fitted themselves into one long hour before the silence is broken.
Then he hears, for all his shut-up faculties seemed to have merged themselves into hearing, a slight, a very slight sound in the outer room. The door has opened, some one is entering. More muffled sounds, and Vernet knows that some one is creeping toward the inner room. Slowly, with the least possible noise, that door also opens. He hears low whispering, and then realizes that two persons approach him. Are they foes or friends? Oh, for the use of his eyes Ė for the power to speak!
Presently hands touch him. Ah, they are about to liberate him; but why so silent?
They are dexterous, swift-moving hands; but his fetters remain, while the swift hands work on.ŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ