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The outlaw, Bob Younger, was at my mercy, but he gave no indications, even with death staring him in the face, of surrendering the precious secret that I demanded.
"Do you take me for a coward?" he growled, looking up at me with haggard, but unquailing eyes. "Yes, you're right. I do know where the little Tip can be found. But blaze away, curse you ! You'll never get the secret out of me!"
"It's for the child's own good -- for his moral and worldly welfare!" I exclaimed. "I swear it!"
"You swear it ?" was the sneering rejoinder. "Ha, ha! A detective's oath!"
I relieved him of the pressure of my knee, though still keeping my pistol at his head, and threw an added earnestness into my voice that could not but impress him.
"Listen to me, Bob Younger," said I. "I own that I am Judge Rideau's agent in looking up the child. I would rather a hundredfold give you your life than take it. I pledge you my word, as between man and man, that the boy, if given up, will be brought up honestly, even luxuriously, and in the fear of God. He will
be educated like a Christian and a gentleman. It will be the making of him, body and soul!"
I saw that my words were having some effect. The outlaw's face had gradually grown grave and anxious.
"If I thought that," he began, in a low voice; "if I were sure of that -- "
At this point there was the crack of a near-at-hand firearm. My head reeled, everything swam before me, and, feeling that I was wounded, I staggered to my feet, with a bitterer sense of disappointment than I can give any idea of.
As I leaned against a tree, pistol in hand, while concealing as best I could the weakness I was in, Cole Younger who had fired the shot, came running into the glade, and helped his brother to his feet. From the fact of his not firing again, I rightly inferred that he had expended his last cartridge, and it soon became apparent that Bob was in the same predicament.
I was no longer in a condition to draw a bead on either of them. Had it been otherwise, I would certainly at least have shot down Cole Younger in his tracks, as in duty bound, secret or no secret. As it was, I succeeded in disguising my real state, and making a show of keeping them covered until they had limped off in the forest together, after exchanging some whispered words.
Then, with a feeling of disappointment far more poignant than any physical pain I was suffering -- a desolate feeling of having missed my longed-for secret on the very threshold of discovery -- I staggered to the edge of the brook and fainted away.
A splashing of the cool water on my head and face revived me in a short time. I found myself under the ministrations of Charley Ford and Jack Gorham, who had been sent back to look after me on my being missed from the main body of pursuers. They had also dressed my wound, and in other ways contributed to my comfort.
Then, as we were nearer Independence than any other town, we proceeded thither. There, at my request, I was placed under the care of old Cynthy, a task which the good creature undertook with more than willingness.
Time proved that the Jameses and their organized followers had suffered more disastrously. Indeed, it was a question whether they were not crippled beyond recovery as a large, compact organization. The Red Cut had been their deathtrap. It had cost them -- before the active pursuit was given up -- thirteen of their veterans, in killed and wounded and prisoners. Though the James' themselves got off with their usual good luck, together with the Youngers, the Hites, the Millers, Jim Cummings, and a few more of perhaps their most desperate confederates, they sunk into as sudden inactivity and apparent lifelessness as though the earth had swallowed them. I, for one however, knew perfectly well that we were destined to hear from them again; and before long, at that, now that they were driven to desperation.
My wound, though not dangerous, was painful, and forced me to more than a fortnight's rest, with a good deal of nursing, at Aunt Cynthy's.
One day I was surprised and gratified by a visit from Mattie Collins. Her cheerful and attractive presence was like sunshine to me, but she had, notwithstanding, come on serious business.
After a few preliminary words, she said:
"I have had several interviews with my husband since the Red Cut fight, Mr. Lawson, and am here to negotiate in his interest. He wants to desert the robbers, and work right along with you detectives, as Ford and Sheppard have done. All he asks is protection and an assurance of Government pardon. I come to you first in his behalf, because you are the only detective whose personal acquaintance I have made."
"That is right. Has your husband, Dick Little, ever committed an actual murder with his own hand?"
"Never!" she exclaimed, solemnly.
"All right. Why does Dick wish to quit his heretofore confederates ?"
"Simply to reform, and through his affection for me. Besides, Dick, with perhaps some others, has long been wearying of the James boys' increasing avarice, and of their habit of burying their stolen treasure."
"Burying their treasure, eh?" said I, instantly, with an eye to business. "This is astounding intelligence.''
"And perhaps not unwelcome from the detective point of view, Mr. Lawson," said Mattie, smiling. "Well, the information shall remain exclusively in your possession with no other detective or official to act upon it, if you will help me in my object."
"That I shall certainly do, and you have my thanks in the bargain," said I, with sudden opening visions of wealth in comparison with which all theretofore offered rewards in a solid lump melted into insignificance. "But what has prevented other members of the gang from inquiring into this matter?"
"Fear- deadly fear of the Jameses, and especially of Jesse."
"You will say nothing of this to anyone else, and you will keep your husband equally reticent?" said I.
"I swear it!" said Mattie, solemnly. "You can be content. Neither Dick nor I would dare to meddle further with the matter, nor would any member of the gang."
"All right," said I. "Bring Dick Little here with you tomorrow night. I promise him at least safe conduct to and fro for that occasion. I hope, also, to have then secured him the assurance from the authorities that he requires."
Overjoyed at what I said, Mattie departed.
I now had an added string to my bow, of which I had never dreamed before. The restoration of Judge Rideau's grandchild; the lumped rewards for the capture of the Jameses, dead or alive; the buried treasure of the freebooter chief, doubtless amounting to a princely fortune in itself ! Could any mortal detective ask for any greater incentive to professional exertion than was furnished by these ?
True to her word, Mattie returned on the night of the following day. Dick Little accompanied her. He was an athletic, rather mild-looking fellow for a desperado though with an unmistakable resoluteness of bearing. I could readily understand how he had gradually been made the criminal subordinate of such a character as Jesse James.
Upon entering the inner room of Aunt Cynthy's cabin, accompanied by Mattie, he was surprised, and not a little alarmed, to encounter there, beside myself, both Sheriff Timberlake and Commissioner Craig. We all speedily reassured him, however. I had busied myself industriously in his behalf since Mattie's first visit. We had a
promise of conditional pardon in the Governor's own handwriting, to show him, besides the guaranty of our united protection to offer, in case of his bad faith to his confederates coming to their knowledge. The conference ended in a solemn agreement, by which he engaged to serve our interests to the best of his ability; while maintaining a quasi connection with the freebooters up to the last moment. In other words, he was placed on pretty much the same footing as were Charley Ford and George Sheppard.
Little and Mattie remained after the others had departed. The former appreciated the personal efforts I had made in his behalf, and wished to thank me in private. I cut him short by recalling, as an offset, the personal obligation that his wife had put me under to her during the Red Cut affair, but neither he nor Mattie were any the less hearty in their gratitude for that.
"As you doubtless know, Mr. Lawson," said Dick, "I have been contemplating this move for a great while,' but, with my natural distrust of the authorities, I would never have got this far but for your assistance. I am indebted to you for having shown me the way back to an honest life. Whatever information of value I shall obtain, in pursuance of this agreement, shall be first communicated to you personally."
"Thanks !" said I. "Has the gang, then, given up the Minnesota bank raid that was projected?"
"No; it is only delayed indefinitely by reason of this unforeseen disaster at the Red Cut. That cut us up awfully, as you know. However, the bank raid may be revived at any day. Fewer men, I fancy, will engage in it than you suppose. I doubt if there will be half a dozen besides the Jameses and the Youngers.
"Will you be of the number?"
"I hope not, but can't tell. It will be just as Jess decides. His word is law with the gang."
"Now for a different sort of a question," said I, lowering my voice, "Do you have any idea of the general locality of Jesse James' buried treasure?"
Little started, and at once became ill at ease. He looked hesitatingly at his wife, but she kept her eyes castdown, and he got no encouragement from her.
"Perhaps I have a general idea of it," he at length stammered; "but I don't like to think or talk of it. Whenever I do so the air seems full of pistols and knives, with Jesse James' tigerish eyes blinking at me from behind 'em."
I presently succeeded in mitigating his dread, amounting almost to superstition, so that he could at least breathe and talk more freely.
"Is it buried in Cracker Neck, or in the vicinity of this place, think you?" I then asked.
"No; nowhere near here," was the somewhat dogged reply.
"Oh, hang to your secret, by all means," said I.
"It ain't that, Mr. Lawson, and pray don't get out of humor with me," said Little, humbly. "The fact is, I ain't got any secret to hang onto. I do, however, suspect that Jess hides his treasure somewhere in the woods near where I work as a farmhand when not out on any racket with the gang. You know, there's a good many of us in that lay, for the sake of appearances. We can't all of us support the brigand chief character without any special let up, as the Jameses and Youngers can."
Here was something like definiteness at last.
"On what farm do you work?" I asked.
"Four and a half miles out of St. Joe, on the H -- ville road. It's a small and lonely farm, and I'm the only hired hand on it. The country round about is a system of wooded hills, even savager and lonesomer than around the Younger or the Samuels homestead. Now, Mr. Lawson, when are you going to be fit for the saddle again?"
"I rode out for the first time to-day, without inconvenience," I replied. "In a week hence I shall be thoroughly myself again."
"Good! Come to me in some sort of disguise, sir, and we'll have a talk. You'll find me working alone in the fields by the road in the middle of the afternoon. I'm certain the Minnesota job won't be undertaken within a week. I shall at least have something to tell you about that, and maybe about something else."
The concluding words were uttered after a pause, and with a certain significance that pleased me. I obtained a few more particulars, and then we separated, Mattie saying, while bidding me goodnight, that she felt lighterhearted on Dick's account than she had for many a day.
A week later I proceeded to St. Joseph, where I procured a horse and set out to keep my appointment.
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