The Hole in the Cap
in the CAP
- a murder
story • by
- Author of "The Little Girl," "The Marshes," etc.
- With Illustrations by Worth Brehm
- Author of "The Little Girl," "The Marshes," etc.
THE Maple County Sportsman's Association (composed of Bobby Orde, Bobby's father, and Mr. Kincaid) held its weekly shoots with regularity. Thus Bobby edged slowly but surely toward marksmanship. Little by little, too, as he followed Mr. Kincaid, he learned the habits of game—where it was to be found according to time of day and season of year.
Generally they wandered through the country at will. Shooting was not then as common as it is now, nor the farms as close together. Sometimes, however, they came across signs warning against trespass or hunting. Then, if the cover seemed especially desirable, Mr. Kincaid used sometimes to try to obtain permission from the owner of the land. Once or twice, having overlooked the sign, they were ordered off. The farmers were good-natured, even though firm.
But some four miles to the eastward lay a deep, long swamp, following the windings between hills, where Mr. Kincaid and Bobby had an experience which led to the dramatic incidents recorded in this story. It was late in the afternoon, so Bobby had become tired. Duke made game on the outskirts of a dense thicket, hesitated, then led the way cautiously into the tangle.
"It's pretty thick," Mr. Kincaid advised Bobby. "You'd better sit on the stump there until I come out."
Bobby did so. A moment or so after Mr. Kincaid had disappeared the little boy became aware of a man approaching across the stump-dotted field. He was a short, thickset man, with a broad face almost entirely covered with a beard, a thick nose, and little, inflamed, snapping eyes. He was clad in faded and dingy overalls, and carried a pitchfork.
"Who's that shooting in here?" he shouted at Bobby, as soon as he was within hearing. "What do you mean by hunting here? You must have passed right by the sign."
"Don't you want shooting here? No; we didn't see the sign," replied Bobby.
By this time the man had approached, and Bobby could see his bloodshot little eyes flickering with anger.
"You lying little snipe," he roared, "you must have seen the sign! You couldn't help it. I've a mind to tan your hide good."
"What's this?" asked Mr. Kincaid's quiet voice.
The man whirled about.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" he snarled. "Well, what do you mean by trespassing on my farm?"
"I didn't know it was your farm in the first place, and I didn't know shooting was prohibited in the second place."
"That's too thin. You came right by that sign at the corner. Now just make tracks off this farm about as fast as you can go."
"Certainly," agreed Mr. Kincaid, quite unruffled. "I never shoot on a man's land when he doesn't want me to."
He turned, and at once the man became abusive, just as a dog gains courage as his enemy passes. Bobby listened, his eyes wide with dismay and shock. Never had he heard quite that sort of language. Finally Mr. Kincaid happened to glance down at his small companion. He slipped the shells from his gun and leaned it against a stump.
"About face," he said sharply to the man. "You can't talk that way before this boy. We are going oft your place as straight and as fast as we can. You shoulder your pitchfork and go back to your house.
The man started again on a string of objurgation.
"I mean what I say," said Mr. Kincaid, with deadly emphasis. "About face. If you open your mouth again I shall certainly kill you."
The old man's bent shoulders had straightened, his mild blue eyes flashed fire. So he must have looked to his soldiers before the storming of Molina del Rey. His hands were quite empty of a weapon, and his age was hardly a match for the other's brute strength. Nevertheless the farmer at once turned back, after a parting but milder objurgation.
Mr. Kincaid picked up his gun, tucked it under his arm, and trudged forward. Bobby was trembling violently with excitement and anger.
"Why—why—" he gasped, as yet unable to cast his thoughts into speech.
Mr. Kincaid glanced down. A faint and amused smile flickered under his mustache.
"You aren't going to do that sort of a crank the honor of keeping stirred up, are you?" he asked. "That's Pritchard—the worst crank in Michigan. He's quarreled with everyone. I never did know where his farm was, or I should have taken pains to keep off."
They climbed into the cart, and drove away toward town.
"I believe I'll make a hunter of you, Bobby," pursued Mr. Kincaid after they were going. "It's a good thing to be. Of course there's the fun of it—the 'pats,' the quail, the jacksnipe, the 'cock. But then there's the other part, too."
They had come out on the sandhills over the town. Mr. Kincaid drew up Bucephalus and contemplated it as it lay below them, its roofs half hidden in the mauve and lilac of bared branches, its columns of smoke rising straight up in the frosty air.
"Of course I don't know, Bobby, whether you'll ever be a hunter or not. It all depends on where you live and how—the chance to get out, I mean. But, sonny, you can always be a sportsman, whatever you do. A sportsman does things because he likes them, Bobby; for other reason—not for money, nor to become famous, nor even to win—although all these things may come to him, and it is quite right that he take them and enjoy them. Only he does not do the things for them, but for the pleasure of doing. And a right man does not get pleasure in doing a thing if in any way he takes an unfair advantage. That's being a sportsman. And, after all, that's all I can teach you if we hunt together ten years. Do you think you can remember that?"
"Yes, sir," replied Bobby soberly.
"There's only one other thing," went on Mr. Kincaid, "that is really important, and it isn't necessary if you remember the other things I've told you. It's pretty easy sometimes to do a thing because you see everybody else doing it. Always remember that a true sportsman in every way is about the scarcest thing they make—and the finest. So naturally the common run of people don't live up to it. If you—not the thinking you, nor even the conscience you, but the way-down-deep-in-your-heart you that you can't fool nor trick nor lie to—if that you is satisfied, it's all right." He turned and grinned humorously at his small companion, "I've nothing but a little income and an old horse and two dogs and a few friends, Bobby, I've lived thirty years in that little place there, and a great many excellent people call me a good-for-nothing old loafer. But I've learned the things I'm telling you now, and I'm just conceited and stuck-up enough to think I've made a howling success of it."
"I don't think that," said Bobby, laying his cheek against the man's threadbare sleeve.
"Of course you don't, Bobby," said Mr. Kincaid cheerfully, "and I'll tell you why. It's because you and I speak the same language, although you're a little boy and I'm a big man."
A few days later the Ordes left for Redding, to spend some time with Mr. Orde's parents. On this visit a successful friendship developed between Bobby Orde and Johnny English—so successful that next autumn Johnny English was invited to visit the Ordes at Monrovia. He accepted very promptly, and, as the distance was short, brought with him his cart and his pony, which he had named Bobby Junior. The country around Monrovia was very interesting to them. Riverland, marshland, swampland, shore and meadow all offered themselves in the most diversified forms. The sandy roads wound over the hills, down the ravines, along the corduroys and float bridges. Life was varied. The boys, armed with their Flobert rifle, wandered far afield.
They did not get very much, it is true, but they popped away steadily, and did a grand amount of sneaking and looking. And they managed first and last to see a great deal. In the snipe marshes they knew when the first flight dropped in—and murdered a killdeer as he stood. Out in the sloughs they marked the earliest redheads from the north—and accomplished two mudhens, a ruddy duck, and a dozen blackbirds. In the uplands they knew almost to a feather how many partridges each thicket had bred; to a covey where the quail were—and sometimes, by strategy on their own side and foolishness on the part of the quarry, they caught one sitting and brought it down.
At first some doubt was expressed as to the wisdom of that Flobert rifle. To turn two small boys loose with a deadly weapon seemed to Mrs. Orde a rather strong temptation of Providence. Mr. Kincaid spoke for them. In the end it was decided, though with many misgivings and more admonitions.
"Keep the muzzle pointed up; never get excited; never shoot at anything unless you know what it is, " was Mr. Kincaid's summing up. These three precepts were so constantly impressed that to the boys their practice ended by becoming second nature.
"It's not only dangerous to do otherwise," said Mr. Kincaid, "but it's a sure sign of a greenhorn. A man ought to be deadly ashamed to confess himself such an all-around dub."
Toward the end of the fall, and nearing Thanksgiving, the boys drove Bobby Junior out the old east road. After a time they turned off into a byway, deep with sand. It ended. They hitched the placid Bobby Junior to the top rail of a "snake fence," climbed it, and headed toward a scrub-oak and popple thicket, thrown like a blanket over the long slope of a hill. They walked cautiously, for by experience they had learned that at the very edge, and in the lea of an old burned log, it was possible that a fine big cock partridge might be sunning himself. Both boys trod on eggs, scrutinizing every inch of the ground before them.
"It's too late for 'em," whispered Bobby in discouragement. "There's not enough sun. They've gone in to feed."
But Johnnie seized his arm.
"There," he breathed. "See him! He's sitting in that little scrub oak—just to the left of the stub."
Bobby peered along his friend's arm. After a moment he made out a mottled spot of brown,
"I see him," said he, cocking his rifle. "It's his breast. I wish I could get at his head."
"He'll be gone in a minute!" warned Johnny.
It was Bobby's turn to shoot. He raised his weapon, aimed carefully, and pressed the trigger.
Immediately the thicket broke into a tremendous commotion. A scurrying of leaves, a brief exclamation of pain, a brown cap whirling through the air—and both boys turned and ran, ran as hard as they could up the hill until sheer lack of breath brought them to the ground. They stared at each other with frightened eyes from faces chalky white.
"We've killed somebody!" gasped Johnny.
They clung to each other, trembling with the horror of it, utterly unable to gather their faculties. This was just what so often both had been cautioned against—the shooting with out seeing clearly the object of aim. To the shock of a catastrophe they had to add the sinking remorse over warnings disobeyed.
"What are we going to do?" chattered Johnny at last.
"We got to go down and see——"
"I daren't," confessed Johnny miserably.
"Do you suppose he's dead?"
"They'll probably put us in jail."
"Come on," said Bobby at last.
They arose, very giddy and uncertain on their feet. For the first time they forced themselves to look at the copse lying below them.
"Oh!" breathed Johnny. "Look!"
Below them on the farther edge of the copse, and over a quarter of a mile away, they saw Mr. Kincaid. He was bareheaded. Curly was with him. The man was trying to send the water spaniel into the copse. Curly pretended that he wanted to play, and did not in the least understand what it was all about. He capered joyously around Mr. Kincaid's outstretched arm; he pressed his chest to the earth and uttered short barks; he chased madly around in circles—but he did not enter the copse, which was plainly his master's desire. Finally Mr. Kincaid gave it up, and departed over the brow of the next hill.
And while this little byplay was going on two small boys above him felt the warmth of life flowing back into their frozen souls. The blood returned to their lips, their hearts calmed, all the blessed joy and sunshine and freedom of the world flooded in a return tide of blessed relief.
"Gee!" said Johnny, "I'm never going hunting again. Never any more! Never!"
"You bet I'm going to be careful after this," said Bobby. "My! but I'm glad."
"I wonder why he didn't pick up his cap?" wondered Johnny.
"Perhaps he had it in his hand."
The boys drove home ringing the changes on a thousand new resolutions of caution.
"It's a good lesson to us," said Bobby by way of reminiscent philosophy often heard before,.
They put Bobby Junior into the barn, cleaned the Flobert, changed their hunting clothes, and answered with alacrity the summons to the dining-room. After they were well started with the meal, Mr. Orde came in and sat down. He nodded abstractedly, and had little to say. The boys were too far down in remorse to care to bring up any of the subjects near their hearts. Finally Mrs. Orde remarked this general depression.
"I must say you're a cheerful lot of men folks," said she. "What is it? Business?" She smiled at the boys in raillery at the idea, But she could not cheer them up. As soon as the meal was over, Mr. Orde dismissed the boys.
"Run along now," said he briefly; "I want to talk."
They climbed the stairs to Bobby's room, and sat down glumly on the floor. Reaction was strong, and they had both fallen into aimless doldrums of spirit. Suddenly Bobby sat up straight at attention.
The Orde house was provided with old-fashioned hot-air registers. When the registers happened all to be open, they constituted most excellent speaking tubes. Thus, without intention of deliberate eavesdropping, Bobby and his friend became aware of the following conversation:
"What's the matter, Jack? Anything wrong at the office or on the river?"
Mr. Orde sighed deeply.
"Oh, no. Everything's snug as a bug in a rug, sweetheart," said he, "but I'm bothered a lot. A dreadful thing happened to-day. You know that popple thicket out at Pritchard's place?"
Both boys froze into horrified attention.
"Well, just before dusk Pritchard was found dead near the east end of it."
"Why, how did that happen?" cried Mrs. Orde.
The boys stole a look at each other.
"He had been murdered."
"Murdered!" cried Mrs. Orde sharply.
"Oh!" moaned Bobby in a smothered voice.
"Yes; he was found with a knife wound in his throat."
"How terrible," said Mrs. Orde.
"But that isn't what worries me: Pritchard is no irreparable loss."
"Jack!" cried Mrs. Orde.
"He isn't," insisted Orde stoutly. "But Kincaid was seen by several competent witnesses coming out from that thicket, and, as far as anybody has been able to find out, he is the only human being who was out there to-day. They have him under arrest."
"I never heard of anything so ridiculous!" cried Mrs. Orde indignantly.
"There has been bad blood between them," said Orde, "and everybody knows it. That's the trouble. Prilchard, as usual, has off and on done an awful lot of talking."
"You don't for a moment believe——"
"Certainly not. Arthur Kincaid never would harm a fly in anger. And I rely absolutely on his word."
"You've seen him?"
"Of course. He acknowledges he was out at Pritchard's, but denies all knowledge of the affair. That's the trouble. He offers no explanation of the facts, and the facts are—queer."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, this: the men who saw Kincaid coming out of the thicket say he was bare-headed. When Pritchard's body was found, Kincaid's cap was discovered about fifty feet distant."
"What does he say to that?"
"His story is so ridiculous that I wouldn't blame anybody who did not know Kincaid for not believing it. He says he was playing with his dog, Curly, when Curly grabbed the cap and made off with it. The dog came back without the cap, and Kincaid could not find it. That's all he says, except that he was not in the thicket at all, and certainly not within a quarter mile of the scene of the murder."
"That might be so."
"Of course it's so, if Arthur Kincaid says it is," insisted Orde. "But what do you think of this? The cap had a 22-caliber bullet-hole through the crown; and Pritchard was armed with a 22-caliber rifle."
"What does Mr. Kincaid say to it?"
"That's just the trouble!" cried Orde in despairing tones. "If he'd plead self-defense any jury in Michigan would acquit him without leaving the box. But when we asked him how that bullet-hole got in that cap, he says simply that he doesn't know; it wasn't there when he lost the cap. Could anything be more absurd?"
Bobby reached out and softly closed the register.
Then he turned to grip Johnny fiercely by the arm. His eyes blazed.
"Mr. Kincaid is my friend," he hissed. "Understand that? He's my best friend. If you ever say anything about this afternoon——"
"Let go!" cried Johnny, struggling. "You hurt. You needn't get mad about it. He's my friend, too. I ain't going to say anything." Bobby released his arm. "He must have done it, though," concluded Johnny.
"Of course he did it. I'd have done it. Prilchard was an old beast. You ought to have been along with me when he ordered us off his land."
"Mr, Kincaid says he was never up at that end."
"There's his cap, with the hole I shot in it," Bobby pointed out. "It was right where Pritchard was when I shot at it."
"If we let that get out, they'll have us in as witnesses."
"We mustn't," said Johnny.
Following this policy the boys for the next month carried about an air of secrecy and an irresponsibility of action very aggravating to everybody. They forgot errands, they did absent-minded destructive things, they were much given to long consultations behind the woodshed. When they were permitted to visit Mr. Kincaid at the jail, they tried mysteriously to convey assurance of absolute discretion, but succeeded only in appearing stupid, frivolous and unsympathetic. Nevertheless their concern was very real. Bobby in especial brooded over the affair to the exclusion of all other interests. Over and over he visualized the scene, until he could shut his eyes and reproduce its every detail—the hillside with its scattered, half-burned old logs, the popple thicket shining white, the scrub oaks with red, rustling leaves, the patch of brown that looked exactly like a partridge; and then the whirl of the cap in the air as the bullet struck, and the horrible sinking feeling before he turned to flee. A dozen small things he had not noticed consciously at the time now stood out clear. He remembered that the supposed partridge had stood out above the sky line; that the ground broke gently up just beyond the black log. "Mr. Kincaid must have been standing on a stump," he thought. He recalled now his own exact position, and figured the course of the bullet. "It must have gone in just at the tip-top," he figured. "That's the only way it could have done without hurting his head. Otherwise it would have scalped him." Over and over he turned the facts until gradually he evolved an exact picture of what had occurred—here was the victim, here the murderer. Inquiry disclosed where Prichard's body had been found. It was uphill from the spot Bobby had shot the cap—and about ten feet away. "He must just have done it," he said with a shudder.
"Why?" demanded Johnny, to whom he confided these reasonings. "Maybe it was before."
"No," argued Bobby; "because when I shot the cap off, if Pritchard had been alive, we'd have heard from him."
"Maybe Mr. Kincaid killed him to keep him from chasing us," suggested Johnny.
Bobby considered this romantic suggestion, but shook his head.
"No," said he, "there wasn't time for Mr. Kincaid to kill him and then walk down to the other end of the thicket. He must have run when I shot."
"Do you think they'll convict Mr. Kincaid?"
"Papa says he doesn't think so," said Bobby.
"He says nobody can prove Mr. Kincaid was at the place."
"We're going to shut up!" said Bobby sharply.
General opinion did not, however, share Orde's optimism. The circumstantial evidence was very strong. Interest in the trial was such that people came from far out in country to attend it. Every day of the preliminaries the court-room was filled with silent spectators. The boys, eluding the vigilance of the women and utterly disregarding specific commands, found themselves unable to get beyond the outer corridor. Here they hung around for some time, in the vain hope of hearing something. The heavy breathing and jostling of the crowd about them was their only reward. Finally they gave it up and wandered out into the grounds.
It was by now nearly December of a remarkably open year. Although Indian summer had long since gone, and although the low, black clouds and heavy gales of late autumn had given repeated warnings, winter had somehow failed to arrive. There was as yet no snow; and the sun, turned silver in place of the harvest gold, sometimes, as now, dispensed considerable warmth. In consequence of the mildness without and the crowd within, the windows of the court-room had been lowered at the top. The boys could almost catch the the words of whomever was speaking.
"Come on, let's shin up that tree," suggested Johnny.
Immediately they acted on the inspiration. The highest limbs capable of bearing weight were still some three feet below the window-sills. Still, the boys could hear plainly what was going on, and could see into the room on an upward slant.
The legal processes had been fulfilled, and the first witness was giving his testimony.
"I was working in my field, throwing out manure, when I saw the prisoner come out of the popple thicket on Pritchard's place.
"How far were you from the thicket?"
"My field is right across the county road."
"At what point did the prisoner emerge from the thicket as respects the spot where the body was found?"
"He came out right opposite, a good quarter mile, I should say.
"Anything unusual in the prisoner's appearance or actions?"
"He didn't have no hat. I noticed that."
After a few more questions the witness was excused. In an instant he appeared in the boys' line of vision and sat down.
Another witness was sworn, and deposed that he had been driving along the county road, and had also seen Mr. Kincaid emerge from the thicket without a hat. This witness likewise, on being excused, crossed the room and took his seat near the window.
This point established, the prosecution called upon the man who had found the body. He stated that he was in the employ of the deceased; had gone out afoot to look up a strayed cow; had come across the body late in the afternoon. Pritchard had been killed by a knife thrust in the throat. He lay on his back. He had carried a 22-caliber rifle, with which he was accustomed to shoot hawks and crows. The rifle had been discharged. In looking about for evidence, witness had found a cap lying by a stump, ten feet or so down hill. He identified the cap. He also took a seat where Bobby and Johnny could see him—a short, thickset man, with a swarthy complexion and very oily long black hair.
A witness was called who identified positively the cap as belonging to Mr. Kincaid.
At this point the prosecution rested. A moment later Bobby heard again the measured, calm tones of his friend, called in his own defense.
"I know nothing about it," said Mr. Kincaid, after the usual preliminaries. "I was nowhere near the scene of the murder. What the first witness had to say as to personal antagonism between Pritchard and myself was quite true: he had ordered me off his land, and very offensively. We had some words at that time."
"When was that?" asked the attorney.
"Some months back. Therefore I took especial pains to keep off his land, and was at the lower edge of the thicket, a good quarter mile from the place his body was found."
"You did not enter the thicket?"
"Only a few feet, after the dog took my cap."
"How about the cap?"
"My retriever. Curly, was playing with me. I was teasing him by waving the cap before him. He managed to get hold of it and ran with it into the thicket. In a moment or so he came back without it. I could not find it, nor could I induce him to retrieve it."
"When was this?"
"About two o'clock."
"Two witnesses have sworn they saw you come out of the thicket shortly before sundown."
"That was on my way home. I tried again to get Curly to hunt up the cap."
"How do you account for the cap's being found at the upper edge of the thicket?"
"I cannot account for it."
"Could the dog have carried it that far in the time before he returned?"
"I do not think so—I am certain not."
"How do you account for the holes?"
"They might have been the marks of Curly's teeth," said Mr. Kincaid doubtfully.
"Look at them."
A pause ensued.
"They certainly do not look like teeth-marks," acknowledged Mr. Kincaid.
At this moment the heavy bell in the engine-house tower boomed out the first strokes of noon. The boys nearly lost their holds from the surprise of it. By the time they had recovered, court had been declared adjourned, and the crowds were pouring forth from the opened double doors.
By remarkable prompitude and the exercise of the marvelous properties ascribed impartially to the worm, the eel, and the snake, Bobby and Johnny succeeded in gaining a place in the court-room for the afternoon session. It was not a very good place. Breast-high in front of them was a rail. Behind them pressed a suffocating crowd. On the other side of the rail were many benches on which was seated another crowd. This second multitude concealed utterly whatever occupied the floor of the court-room. Only when one or another of the actors in the proceedings arose to his feet could the boys make out a head and shoulders. They could see the massive walnut desk, and the judge, however, and the lower flat tables at which sat the recording officials. And on the blank white wall ticked solemnly a big round clock. The second-hand moved forward by a series of swift jerks, but watch as he would Bobby could see no perceptible motion of the other two hands. In the monotony of some of the proceedings this bland clock fascinated him.
Likewise the living wall before him caught and held his half-suffocated interest—the slope of shoulders, the material of coats, the shape of heads, the cut of hair. One by one he passed them in review. Two seats ahead sat a thickset man, with very long, oily black hair. He turned his head. Bobby recognized the man who had found Pritchard's body. He nudged Johnny, calling attention to the fact.
The prosecuting attorney was on his feet, making a speech. It was interesting enough at first, but after a time Bobby's attention wandered. The prosecuting attorney was a young man, ambitious, and ego was certainly a large proportion of his cosmos. Bobby listened to him while he spoke of the obvious motive for the deed; but when he began again, and in detail, to go over the evidence already adduced, Bobby ceased to listen. Only the monotonous cadences of the voice went on and on. The clock tick-tocked. People breathed. It reminded him of church.
A little stir brought him back from final drowsiness. A man in the row ahead of him wanted to get out. The disturber carried an overcoat over his left arm, and it amused Bobby vastly to see the stiff collar of that overcoat rumple the back hair of those who sat in the second row. As he watched, it caught the long, oily locks of the witness for the prosecution. With a fierce exclamation the man turned, scowling at the other's whispered excuse. When he had again faced to the front, he had rearranged his disturbed locks.
After this slight interruption, Bobby again relapsed into day-dreaming. He fell once more to visualizing the scene of that day. Gradually the court-room faded away. He saw the hill-side, the burnt logs on the bare ground, the popples, silvery in the sun, the sky blue above the hill. The patch of brown by the rustling oak glimmered before his eyes. He saw again the exact angle it lay above him. For the hundredth time he looked over the sights of the rifle, fair against that spot of brown. "I must have overshot a foot," he sighed, "or it would have taken him square."
And then as he stared over the sights, his finger on the trigger, the imaginary scene faded, the familiar court-room came out of the mists to take its place. Slowly the brown spot at which he aimed dissolved, a man's head took its place; the oily-haired witness for the prosecution happened now to occupy exactly the position relative to Bobby's attitude as had Mr. Kincaid's cap the day of the murder. And through the slightly disarranged long hair, and exactly in line with the imaginary rifle sights, Bobby could just make out a dull red furrow running along the scalp. At this instant, as though uneasy at a scrutiny instinctively felt, the man reached back to smooth his locks, The scar at once disappeared.
For perhaps ten seconds Bobby sat absolutely motionless, while a new thought was born. Then, oblivious of surroundings or of the exasperated objections of those near him, he clambered over the rail and wriggled his way to the open aisle. Several tried to seize him, but he managed, in some manner, to elude them all. Once in the open he darted forward toward the astonished officials. His freckled face was very red, his stubby hair tousled, his gray eyes earnest. The sheriff rose from his seat as though to stop him.
"I want to see that cap!" cried Bobby to the blur in general. He caught sight of it, ran to seize it, looked at it closely, and threw it down with a little cry of triumph. The bullet-holes were not both at the top; one perforation was high up, but the other, on the left-hand side, was situated low near the edge. Bobby knew that the man who had worn that cap must have been hit.
The judge's gavel was in the air, the sheriff on his feet, a hundred mouths open to expostulate against this interruption of a grave occasion.
"Mr. Kincaid did not do it!" cried Bobby aloud.
The clamor broke out. The sheriff seized Bobby by the arm.
"Here," he growled at him, "you little brat! What do you mean raising a row like this?"
Bobby struggled. He had a great deal to say. All was confusion. Half the room seemed to be on its feet. Bobby saw his father making way toward him through the crowd. Only the clock and the white-haired judge beneath it seemed to have retained their customary poise. The clock tick-tocked deliberately, and its second-hand went forward in swift jerks; the judge sat quite motionless, his chin on his fists, his eyes looking steadily from under their bushy white brows.
"Just a moment," said the judge finally. "Sheriff, bring that boy here."
Bobby found himself facing the great walnut desk. Behind him the room had fallen silent, save for an irregular breathing sound.
"Who are you?" asked the judge.
"Why do you say the prisoner—Mr. Kincaid—did not commit the deed?"
Bobby started in a confused way to tell about the cap. The judge raised his hand.
"Were you present at this crime?" he asked shrewdly.
"Yes, sir," replied Bobby.
The judge lowered his voice so that only Bobby could hear.
"Do you know who murdered Mr. Pritchard?"
"Yes, sir," replied Bobby in the same tone, "I do."
"Who was it?"
"I don't know his name. He's sitting——"
"I thought so," interrupted the judge. "Mr. Sheriff, " he called sharply. That official approached. "Close all doors," said the judge to him quietly, "and see that no one leaves this room. Mr. Attorney, your witness here is ready to be sworn.
Bobby went through the preliminaries without a clear understanding of them—or, indeed, a definite later recollection. He was deadly in earnest. The crowd did not exist for him.
Not the faintest trace of embarrassment confused his utterance, but he got very little forward under the prosecuting attorney's questioning—the matter was too definite in his own mind to permit of his following another's method of getting at it. Finally the judge interposed.
"It's not strictly in my province," said he, "but we are all anxious for the truth. I hope the prosecuting attorney may see the advisability of allowing the boy to tell his own story in his own way. Afterward he will, of course, have full opportunity for cross-questions."
This being agreed to, Bobby went ahead.
"Mr. Kincaid lost his cap, just as he said, and Curly carried it into the woods and dropped it. Another man came along and picked it up and put it on. Then he walked through the thicket and came up with Mr. Pritchard. He knew where Mr. Pritchard was, because Mr. Pritchard had just shot his little rifle at a hawk or something. He stabbed Mr. Pritchard, and then walked downhill and climbed up on a stump to look around. He was facing downhill. He saw Mr. Kincaid and Curly 'way below. Just then his cap was knocked off by another bullet. "
"What other bullet?" interposed the prosecution sharply.
"That was just an accident," said Bobby confusedly; "it happened to hit. It wasn't shot at him at all."
"You mean a spent ball from somewhere else? Who shot it? Where did it come from?"
"I'll 'splain that in a minute."
"Then he ran as fast as he could——"
That was as far as Bobby got for the moment. A slight confusion at one of the doors interrupted him. Almost immediately it died, but before Bobby could resume, the sheriff elbowed his way forward.
"Laughton—you know, that second witness, the fellow who worked for Pritchard—tried to get out. I have him in charge."
"Hold him," said the judge. The sheriff elbowed his way back down the aisle.
"How do you know all this?" began the prosecuting attorney.
"If Mr. Kincaid wore the cap, why isn't his head hurt?" demanded Bobby.
"If the shot was fired by Pritchard when lying on the ground," explained the attorney, "it would not have scraped."
"But it wasn't," persisted Bobby. "It was fired from downhill, and about thirty feet away. That would hit the man, wouldn't it?" he appealed.
"Well, is Mr. Kincaid hurt?"
"This, your honor," said the attorney with some impatience, "is beside the mark——"
He was interrupted by a cry from Bobby.
"He's gone!" he wailed, pointing his hand toward the seat where Laughton had been sitting.
"Was that the man?" asked the judge.
"Yes," said Bobby, "and he's gotten away."
"Mr. Sheriff," said the judge, "examine the man for a scar or wound on the head."
The sheriff disappeared. The clock tick-tocked away five minutes, then ten. Finally the door swung open.
"Your honor," said the sheriff clearly across the court-room, "the man has confessed.
Bobby and his friend Johnny English sat on the floor of Bobby's chamber reviewing the exciting events of the afternoon. In the tumult following the sheriff's announcement, Bobby was temporarily forgotten. He had slipped back into the crowd, and from that point had followed closely all that had ensued. Laughton's confession merely filled in the details of Bobby's surmises. It seems that Pritchard had had a violent quarrel with his man, ending by knocking him down and stalking off across the fields. Mad with rage, Laughton had picked himself up and followed, without even pausing long enough to get a hat. He had lost track of his victim in the popple thicket, but had come across Kincaid's cap, which he had appropriated. A shot from Pritchard's little rifle apprised him of his enemy's whereabouts. The murder committed, he had mounted a stump to spy upon the country. He had seen Kincaid and his dog, and was just about to withdraw, when the cap was knocked from his head by a bullet which at the same time broke the skin on his scalp. Thinking himself discovered, he had run. Later, reconnoitering carefully, he had seen two apparently unexcited small boys with a rifle climbing into a pony cart half a mile away, and had come to the conclusion that the bullet had been spent, and a chance shot. The idea of incriminating Mr. Kincaid had not come to him until later.
Mr. Kincaid had at once been released. Under cover of the congratulations, the boys made their escape.
"I don't see how you ever figured it out!" cried Johnny for the dozenth time.
"I knew it must have hit his head, unless it just grazed his cap," said Bobby, "and when I saw that scar——"
"Gee! it was great," gloated Johnny, "just like a book! It'll be in all the papers to-morrow. You saved Mr. Kincaid's life, didn't you?"
"I suppose I did," said Bobby complacently, At this moment the open hot-air register began to speak, carrying up the voices from the rooms below. As the subject under discussion was the closest to the boys' hearts for the moment, they drew near to listen.
"It's Mr. Kincaid himself!" breathed Bobby.
"I've been trying to catch you all the way up the street," Mr. Kincaid was saying, "but you walk like a steam-engine."
"I felt good," explained Mr. Orde. "I knew you were innocent, of course, but it looked dark."
"Yes, it looked dark," admitted Mr. Kincaid. "Where's that youngster of yours? He saved the day."
"I was just going to look for him. There're a few points I'd like to clear up. If he saw all that, why didn't he say something before?"
"Don't know. But he certainly spoke to the point when he did get going. Look here, Orde, I'm proud of that kid. I want you to let me do something; he's old enough now to have a sure enough gun, and I want you to let me give it to him. Stafford has a little shotgun—sixteen-gauge—ever see one?"
"Nothing smaller than a twelve," confessed Orde.
"Well, I told him to keep it for me. I'd like to give it to Bobby. He's learned fast, and he's paid attention to what he learned. I don't believe in guns for small boys, but Bobby is careful; he doesn't make any breaks."
Johnny reached over to clasp Bobby excitedly.
"Now we can get partridges!" he squealed under his breath.
But Bobby was unexpectedly cold to this enthusiasm. He reached over to close the register. At once the voices were shut off. Then for some time he sat cross-legged, staring straight in front of him. To Johnny's remarks he replied irritably until that youngster flounced himself into a corner with a book, ostentatiously indifferent.
Bobby was seeing things. As was his habit, he was visualizing a scene that had passed, recalling each little detail of what had at the time apparently passed lightly over his consciousness. It was this faculty that later gave him his chief equipment in the field of letters.
He saw again plainly the yellow sand-hills under his feet, and the village lying below, its roofs half hidden in the lilac and mauve of bared branches, its columns of smoke rising straight up in the frosty air. He saw the sturdy, round-shouldered form in the old shooting-coat, the lined, brown, lean face, the white mustache and eyebrows, the kindly twinkling eyes squinted against the western light. He heard again Mr. Kincaid's deep, slow voice:
"Sonny, you can always be a sportsman. A sportsman does things because he likes them, Bobby, for no other reason—not for money, nor to become famous, nor even to win—and a right man does not get pleasure in doing a thing if in any way he takes an unfair advantage—if you—not the thinking you, nor even the conscious you, but the 'way-down-deep-in-your-heart you that you can't fool nor trick nor lie to—if that you is satisfied, it's all right.
Bobby sighed deeply and went down-stairs.
He opened the door and entered very quietly, so that neither occupant of the room saw him before he spoke.
"I heard what you said—through the register," he explained, "but I can't take the shotgun."
Both men turned and looked at him curiously, the first natural exclamations stilled on their lips by the sight of his straight, earnest little figure facing them.
"Why not, Bobby?" asked Mr. Orde at last.
"I was the one who fired that shot that hit Mr. Laughton's head. I did it a-purpose."
"I saw something brown in the brush, and I was sure it was a partridge, so I shot at it. I really didn't know it was a partridge. It just looked brown. You told me not to do that, lots of times, but I got all excited and forgot. So ou see I'm not careful, like you said. I ought not to have any shotgun."
"Oh, Bobby!" said Mr. Kincaid, "and that's one of the most important things of all."
"I know, sir," said Bobby; "that's why I thought I'd tell you."
The two men examined the youngster for some time in silence. A very tender look lurked back in their eyes.
"What did you do then?" asked Mr. Orde at last.
"I saw the cap fly up in the air, and ran."
"And then after a little I saw Mr. Kincaid come out down below, and I thought it was all right until I got home."
"Why did you jump up in court this afternoon?"
"I knew where I was standing, and I saw a scar on Laughton's head, and then I knew if the holes in the cap were low down, he must have been the man."
"Why didn't you tell all this before?"
"I'd never seen the cap; and I thought Mr. Kincaid had done it. I wasn't going to give him away."
Both men burst into laughter.
"And you thought I'd kill a man!" reproached Mr. Kincaid at last.
"I'd have done it—to old Pritchard," maintained Bobby stoutly.
"After a time Mr. Kincaid returned to the first subject.
"There is no doubt, Bobby," said he, "that a man careless enough to shoot at anything without knowing what it is—especially in a settled country—is not fit to have a gun of any kind. There are plenty of people killed every year through just such carelessness. On that ground you are quite right in saying that you do not deserve the new shotgun."
"Yes, sir," said Bobby,
"But you will never do anything like that again. You have learned your lesson. And you told the truth. That is a great thing. It is easy to cover up a mistake, but very hard to show it when you don't have to. I was a little disappointed that you forgot about shooting at things; but I am more than proud that you remembered to be a sportsman. With your father's permission, I'm going to get you that shotgun, just the same. We'll go down together in the morning to get it."
At the end of ten minutes more Bobby returned to his room. He looked about it as one looks on a half-remembered spot visited long ago. The place seemed smaller; the toys trivial. A deep gulf had been passed since he had left the room a half hour before. To his eyes had opened a new vision. Little-Boyhood had fallen away from him as a garment. A touch had loosed. All experience and observation had led the way; but it was only in expectation of the supreme test of self-sacrifice. Character changes radically only under that test. Bobby had borne it well, and now stood at the threshold of his Youth.
He picked up the Flobert rifle and looked it over.
"It'll always be handy to fool with," said he to Johnny.