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A short story by George Barr McCutcheon

The Astonishing Acts Of Anna

Title:     The Astonishing Acts Of Anna
Author: George Barr McCutcheon [More Titles by McCutcheon]

The case of Loop vs. Loop was docketed for the September term in the Bramble County Circuit Court at Boggs City. When it became officially known in Tinkletown, through the columns of the _Banner_, that Eliphalet Loop had brought suit for divorce against his wife Anna, the town experienced a convulsion that bore symptoms of continuing without abatement until snow fell, and perhaps--depending on the evidence introduced--throughout the entire winter. For Eliphalet, in accusing his wife, was obliged to state in his bill that the identity and whereabouts of "said co-respondent" were at present unknown to complainant. As Mrs. Loop emphatically--some said spitefully--declined to satisfy the curiosity of Mr. Loop, and the whole of Tinkletown as well, speculation took such an impatient attitude toward her that Eliphalet, had he been minded to do so, could have made use of any one of three hundred names in a village boasting an adult male population of three hundred and seventeen. Husbands who had been in the habit of loafing around the village stores for a couple of hours after supper, winter and summer, now felt constrained to remain later than usual for fear that evil-minded persons outstaying them might question the statement that they were going home; and many a wife who was seldom awake after nine stayed up until the man of the house was safely inside, where she could look at him with an intentness so strange that he began to develop a ferocious hatred for Mrs. Loop.

The town marshal, Anderson Crow, encountering the lugubrious Eliphalet in front of Dr. Brown's office early one morning several weeks after the filing of the complaint, put this question to him:

"See here, Liff, why in thunder don't you make that wife o' yourn tell who 'tis she's been carryin' on with?"

Mr. Loop was not offended. He was not even embarrassed.

"'Cause I ain't speakin' to her nowadays, that's why."

"But you got a right to speak to her, ain't you? She's livin' in the same house with you, ain't she? An' it's _your_ house, ain't it? Stand up to her. Show her you got a little spunk."

"I been livin' out in the barn, Anderson, on the advice of my lawyer. He says as long as she won't git out, I've got to. Been sleepin' out there for the last three weeks."

"I'd like to see any woman drive me out of a comfortable bed!"

"I don't a bit mind sleepin' in the barn," said Eliphalet in apology. "It's kind of a relief to get away from them women. Hosses can't talk. I don't know as I've ever slept as well as I have--"

"The point is," broke in Anderson firmly, "this wife of yourn is causin' a great deal of misery in town, Liff. Somethin's got to be done about it."

"I ain't askin' anybody to share my misery with me," said Mr. Loop with some asperity.

"I bet I've heard fifty men's names mentioned in the last twenty-four hours," said Anderson, compressing his lips. "'Tain't fair, Liff, an' you know it."

"'Tain't my fault," said Mr. Loop stubbornly. "I won't ask her ag'in. You wouldn't either, if you'd got a wallop over the head with a stove-lid like I did when I asked her the first time." He removed his weather-worn straw hat. "See that? Doc Brown had to take seven stitches in it, an' he says if old Hawkins the undertaker had seen it first, I wouldn't have had to send for a doctor at all. You ask her yourself, if you're so blamed anxious to know. I seen her out in the back yard just 'fore I left. She was lookin' kinder sad and down in the mouth; so I sez to her as gentle as I knowed how--an' as legally as possible, on the advice of my lawyer: 'Good mornin', Mrs. Loop.' An' then when I seen her lookin' around for somethin' to throw at me, I knowed it wasn't any use tryin' to be polite, so I sez: 'Git out o' my sight, you old cow!' And 'fore you could say scat, she was out o' my sight. I didn't know it was possible for me to be so spry at _my_ age. Just as she was gettin' out o' my sight by me gettin' around the corner of the barn, I heard somethin' go ker-slam ag'inst the side of the barn, but I don't know what it was. Sounded like a milk-crock."

Anderson looked at him sorrowfully. "Well, you can't say I didn't warn you, Liff."

"Warn me about what?"

"'Bout advertisin' fer a wife. I told you no good could come of it. An' now I guess you'll agree that I was right."

"Oh, shucks! Anna was as good a woman as I ever had, Andy Crow, an' I don't know as I ever had a better worker around the place. Fer two years she--"

He choked up and began to sniffle.

"There ain't no denyin' the fact she lasted longer'n any of 'em," agreed Anderson. "I don't just exactly remember how many funerals you've had, Liff, but--say, just out o' curiosity, how many have you had? Me an' Mrs. Crow had a dispute about it last evenin'."

"It's cost me a lot o' money, Anderson, a turrible lot o' money," groaned Eliphalet, "what with doctors' bills an' coffins; an' nothin'--absolutely nothin'--to show fer it! No children, no--nothin' but mother-in-laws an' tombstones. By gosh, why is it mother-in-laws last so long? I've got five mother-in-laws livin' this minute, an' the good Lord knows I never done anything to encourage 'em. I've lost four wives an' not a single mother-in-law. It don't seem right--now, does it, Anderson?"

"Well, if you'd married somebody nearer your own age, Liff, you might stand some chance of out-livin' their mothers. But you been marryin' women anywheres from fifty to sixty years younger'n you are. You must be derned near eighty."

"If you git 'em too old, they're allus complainin' about doin' the work around the house and garden, an' then you got to git a hired girl. Specially the washin'!"

"Seems to me it'd be cheaper in the long run to work a hired girl to death rather than a wife," said Anderson tartly.

"Most generally it is," agreed Mr. Loop. "But I sorter got into the habit of marryin' hired girls, figgerin' they make the best kind of wives. I give 'em a good home, plenty to eat an'--" His eyes roamed aloft, as if searching for some other beneficence, and finally lighting on Dr. Brown's door-plate, found something to clinch his argument. "An' as fine a funeral as any woman could ask fer!" he concluded.

"Let's git back to the main question," said Anderson unfeelingly. He didn't have much use for Eliphalet. "What fer sort of lookin' feller is this man your wife's been carryin' on with?"

"Well," began Mr. Loop, squinting his bleary eyes reflectively, "I ain't never seen him 'cept when he was runnin', an' it was after dark besides. Twice I seen him jump out of one of our back winders when I got home earlier'n usual from lodge-meetin'. First time I made out he was a burglar an' hustled in to see if he had took anything. You see, I allus keep my pocketbook in a burey drawer in our bedroom; an' natcherly, as it was our bedroom winder he jumped out of, I--well, natcherly I'd be a little uneasy, wouldn't I?"

"Specially if you thought your wife might 'a' been rendered insensible by the robber," said Anderson.

"Natcherly," said Mr. Loop quickly. "Course, I thought of her first of all. Well, after I went to the burey an' found the pocketbook all safe, I asked Anna if she'd heard anybody tryin' to get in through the winder. She looked kinder funny-like fer a second er two an' then said no, she hadn't. I told her what I'd seen, and she said I must be drunk er somethin', 'cause she'd been in the room all the time havin' a bite of somethin' to eat 'fore goin' to bed. I never saw anybody that could eat more'n that woman, Anderson. She's allus eatin'. Course I believed her _that_ time, 'cause there was a plate o' cold ham an' some salt-risin' biscuits an', oh, a lot of other victuals on the washstand, with only one knife an' fork. Her mother was sound asleep in her room upstairs; an' her sister Gertie,--who come to visit us six months ago an' is still visitin' us an' eatin' more'n any two hired men you ever saw,--Gertie, she was out in the kitchen readin' that Swede paper my wife takes. An' she said she didn't hear anybody either, an' up and told Anna she'd be afraid to live with a man that come home drunk every night in the week like I did. She's the meanest woman I ever see, Anderson. She--"

"I don't want to hear about that side of your wife's relations, Eliphalet Loop," interposed Anderson.

"Well," said Eliphalet patiently, "I kinder figered I might 'a' been mistaken about seein' him that first time, but when the same thing happened ag'in on the night I went over to set up with Jim Hooper's corpse, why, I jest natcherly begin to think it was kinder funny. What set me thinkin' harder'n ever was finding' a man's hat in my room, hangin' on the back of a chair. Thinks I, that's mighty funny--specially as the hat wasn't mine."

"What kind of a hat was it?" questioned Anderson, taking out his notebook and pencil. "Describe it carefully, Liff."

"It was a grey fewdory," said Mr. Loop.

"The one you been wearin' to church lately?"

"Yes. I thought I might as well be wearin' it, long as nobody claimed it," explained the ingenuous husband of Anna. "It was a couple of sizes too big fer me, so I stuffed some paper inside the sweat-band. I allus hate to have a hat comin' down on my ears, don't you? Kinder spreads 'em out."

"Well, the first thing we've got to do, Liff, is to find some one with a head two sizes bigger'n yours," said Anderson, giving his whiskers a slow, speculative twist.

"That oughtn't to be hard to do," said Eliphalet without hesitation. "I wear a five an' three-quarters. Most everybody I know wears a bigger hat than I do."

"That makes it more difficult," admitted Anderson. "Was it bought in Tinkletown or Boggs City?"

"It had a New York label stamped on the sweat-band."

"Bring it down to my office, Liff, so's I c'n examine it carefully. Now, when did you next see this man?"

"'Bout two weeks after the second time--up in our cow-pasture. He was settin' beside Anna on some rails back of the corn-crib, an' he had his arm around her--or part way round, anyhow; she's a turrible thick woman. Been fattenin' up somethin' awful in the last two years. I snook up an' looked at 'em through the blackberry bushes, layin' flat so's they couldn't see me."

"Was that all you did?"

"What else could I do?" demanded Mr. Loop in some surprise.

"Why, you could have tackled him right then an' there, couldn't you?"

"Didn't I tell you there was two of 'em?"

"Two men?"

"No. Him an' Anna. You don't suppose I could lick _both_ of 'em, do you? I bet there ain't a man in town--'cept that blacksmith, Bill Kepsal--that c'n lick Anna single-handed. Besides, I ain't half the man I used to be. I'm purty nigh eighty, Anderson. If I'd been four or five years younger, I'd ha' showed him, you bet."

"Umph!" was Mr. Crow's comment. "How long did they set there?"

"I can't just perzactly say. They was gone when I woke up!"

"When you what?"

"Woke up. It was gittin' purty late, long past my bedtime, an' I'd had a hard day's work. I guess I muster fell asleep."

"Was Mrs. Loop up when you got back home?"

"Yes, she was up."

"What did you say to her?"

"I--I didn't git a chance to say anything," said Eliphalet mournfully. "All three of 'em was eatin' breakfast, an' I got the most awful tongue-lashin' you ever heard. 'Cused me of everything under the sun. I couldn't eat a mouthful."

"Served you right," said Anderson sternly. "Well, did you ever see him ag'in?"

"I ain't sayin' as it was the same feller," qualified Mr. Loop, "but last night I seen a man streakin' through the potato-patch lickety-split some'eres round nine o'clock. He was carryin' a bundle an' was all stooped over. I yelled at him to stop er I'd fire. That seemed to make him run a little faster, so I took after him, an' run smack into Anna comin' round the corner of the hen-roost. Soon as I got my breath, I asked her what in tarnation she was doin' out at that time o' night."

"Well, go on. What did she say?" demanded Anderson as Mr. Loop paused to wipe his forehead.

"She--she insulted me," said Mr. Loop.

"How?" inquired Marshal Crow sceptically.

"She called me a skunk."

Mr. Crow was silent for some time, tugging at his whiskers. He stared intently at the upper corner of Dr. Brown's cottage. His lip twitched slightly. Presently, feeling that he could trust his voice, he asked:

"Why don't you offer a reward, Liff?"

"I thought of doin' that," said Mr. Loop, but a trifle half-heartedly.

"If you offer a big enough reward, I'll find out who the feller is," said Anderson. "Course, you understand it ain't my duty as marshal to ferret out matrimonial mysteries. I'd have to tackle it in my capacity as a private detective. An' you couldn't hardly expect me to do all this extry work without bein' paid fer it."

Mr. Loop scratched his head. Then he scratched a small furrow in the gravel roadway with the toe of one of his boots.

"Well, you see, I got to pay a lawyer right smart of a fee; an' besides--"

Anderson interrupted him sternly. "You owe it to your feller-citizens to clear up this mystery. You surely don't think it is fair to your friends, do you, 'Liphalet Loop? Purty nigh every man in town is bein' suspicioned, an'--"

"That ain't any business o' mine," snapped Eliphalet, showing some ire. "If they feel as though the thing ought to be cleared up jest fer _their_ sakes, why don't they git together an' offer a reward? I don't see why I ought to pay out money to 'stablish the innocence of all the men in Tinkletown. Let them do it if they feel that way about it. I got no objection to the taxpayers of Tinkletown oppropriatin' a sum out of the town treasury to prove they're innocent. Why don't you take it up with the selectmen, Anderson. I'm satisfied to leave my complaint as it is. I've been thinkin' it over, an' I believe I'd ruther git my divorce without knowin' who's the cause of it. The way it is now, I'm on friendly terms with every man in town, an' I'd like to stay that way. It would be mighty onpleasant to meet one of your friends on the street an' not be able to speak to him. Long as I _don't_ know, why--"

"Wait a minute, Liff Loop," broke in Anderson sternly. "Don't say anything more. All I got to say is that it wasn't _you_ your wife insulted when she called you a skunk. Good mornin', sir."

He turned and strode away, leaving the amazed Mr. Loop standing with his mouth open. Some time later that same afternoon Eliphalet succeeded in solving the problem that had been tantalizing him all day. "By gum," he bleated, addressing the high heavens, "what a blamed old fool he is! Anybody with any sense at all knows that you _can't_ insult a skunk."

* * * * *

Briefly, Mr. Loop's fifth matrimonial experience had been, in the strictest sense, a venture. After four discouraging failures in the effort to obtain a durable wife from among the young women of Tinkletown and vicinity, he had resolved to go farther afield for his fifth. So he advertised through a New York matrimonial bureau for the sort of wife he might reasonably depend upon to survive the rigours of climate, industry and thrift. He made it quite plain that the lucky applicant would have to be a robust creature, white, sound of lung and limb, not more than thirty, and experienced in domestic economy. Nationality no object. Mr. Loop's idea of the meaning of domestic economy was intensely literal. Also she would have to pay her own railroad fare to Boggs City, no matter whence she came, the same to be refunded in case she proved acceptable. He described himself as a widower of means, young in spirit though somewhat past middle age, of attractive personality and an experienced husband.

The present Mrs. Loop was the result of this spirit of enterprise on his part. She came from Hoboken, New Jersey, and her name was Anna Petersen before it was altered to Loop. She more than fulfilled the requirements. As Mr. Loop himself proclaimed, there wasn't "a robuster woman in Bramble County;" she was exceedingly sound of lung, and equally sound of limb. What pleased him more than anything else, she was a Swede. He had always heard that the Swedish women were the most frugal, the most industrious, and a shade more amenable to male authority than any others.

Anna was a towering, rather overdeveloped female. She revealed such astonishing propensities for work that she had been a bride but little more than a week when Eliphalet decided that he could dispense with the services of a hired man. A little later he discovered, much to his surprise, that there really wasn't quite enough work about the house to keep her occupied all the time, and so he allowed her to take over some of the chores he had been in the habit of performing, such as feeding the horses and pigs, and ultimately to chop and carry in the firewood, wash the buckboard, milk the cows, and--in spare moments--to weed the garden. He began to regard himself as the most fortunate man alive. Anna appeared to thrive where her predecessors had withered and wasted away. True, she ate considerably more than any of them, but he was willing to put up with that, provided she didn't go so far to eat as much as _all_ of them. There were times, however, when he experienced a great deal of uneasiness on that score.

The fly avoided his ointment for something like three months. Then it came and settled and bade fair to remain and thrive upon the fat of his land. Anna's mother came to live with them. He now realized that he had been extremely shortsighted. He should have stipulated in his advertisement that none except motherless young women need apply.

Mrs. Petersen was his fifth mother-in-law, and he dolefully found himself contending with the paraphrase: like mother, like daughter. His latest mother-in-law proved to be a voracious as well as a vociferous eater. She fell little short of Anna in physical proportions, but his wife assured him that it would be no time at all before she'd have her as plump as a partridge! Mr. Loop undertook the experiment of a joke. He asked her if _partridge_ was the Swede word for _hippopotamus_. After that he kept his jokes to himself.

A year and a half went by. Then Miss Gertie Petersen came up from Hoboken for a flying visit. She was a very tall and lean young woman. Mr. Loop shuddered. The process of developing her into a partridge was something horrible to contemplate. But Anna was not dismayed. She insisted that the country air would do her sister a world of good. Mr. Loop was a pained witness to the filling out of Gertrude, but something told him that it wasn't the country air that was doing it. She weighed in the neighbourhood of one hundred and fifty pounds when she flew in for the visit. At the end of six months she strained the scales at two hundred and twenty. There was a good deal of horse-sense in his contention that if all this additional weight was country air, she'd have to be pretty securely anchored or she'd float away like a balloon.

But he did not openly complain. He had acquired the wisdom of the vanquished. He was surrounded by conquerors. Moreover, at butchering-time, he had seen his wife pick up a squealing shoat with one hand and slit its throat with the other in such a skilful and efficient manner that gooseflesh crept out all over his body when he thought of it.

[Illustration: _He was surrounded by conquerors_]

And during those long, solitary nights in the barn he thought of it so constantly that everything else, including the encroachment of the home-wrecker, slipped his mind completely. He never ceased wondering how he screwed up the courage to institute proceedings against Anna, notwithstanding the fact that the matter had been vicariously attended to by his lawyer and a deputy from the county sheriff's office.

* * * * *

Marshal Crow fell into a state of profound cogitation after leaving Mr. Loop. The old man had put a new idea into his head. Late in the afternoon he decided to call a meeting of citizens at the town hall for that night. He drafted the assistance of such able idlers as Alf Reesling, Newt Spratt, Rush Applegate, Henry Plumb and Situate M. Jones, and ordered them to impress upon all male citizens of Tinkletown between the ages of twenty-one and seventy-five the importance of attending this meeting. Ebenezer January, the barber, and George Washington Smith, the garbage-wagon driver, were the only two men in town whose presence was not considered necessary. They, with their somewhat extensive families, represented the total coloured population of Tinkletown.

When the impromptu gathering was called to order that night by Ezra Pounder, the town clerk (acting in an unofficial capacity), there were nearly two hundred and fifty men present, including Messrs. January and Smith. Uncle Dad Simms, aged eighty-four, was present, occupying a front seat. He confessed for the first time in his life that he was a little "hard o' hearin'." This was a most gratifying triumph for his fellow-citizens, who for a matter of twenty years had almost yelled their lungs out advising him to get an ear-trumpet, only to have him say: "What in thunder are you whisperin' about?"

The three clergymen of the town put in an appearance, and Elmer K. Pratt, the photographer, brought his seven-months-old baby, explaining that it was _his_ night to take care of her. He assured the gentlemen present that they were at liberty to speak as freely and as loudly as they pleased, so far as his daughter was concerned; if she got awake and started to "yap," he'd spank the daylights out of her, and if that didn't shut her up he'd take her home.

Anderson Crow, wearing all his decorations, occupied a chair between Mr. Pounder and Harry Squires, the _Banner_ reporter. By actual count there were seven badges ranging across his chest. Prominent among them were the familiar emblems of the two detective associations to which he paid annual dues. Besides these, one could have made out the star of the town marshal, the shield of the fire chief, badges of the Grand Army of the Republic, Sons of Veterans, Sons of the Revolution, and the Tinkletown Battlefield Association.

Harry Squires, at the request of Mr. Crow, arose and stated the object of the meeting.

"Gentlemen," he began, "the time has come for action. We have been patient long enough. A small committee of citizens got together today, and acting upon the suggestion of our distinguished Marshal, decided to make a determined effort to restore peace and confidence into the home of practically every gentleman in this community. It is a moral certainty that all of us can't be the individual in Mr. Loop's woodpile, but it is also more or less an immoral certainty that Mrs. Loop obstinately refuses to vindicate an overwhelming majority of the citizens of this town.

"The situation is intolerable. We are in a painful state of perplexity. One of us, gentlemen, appears to be a _Lothario_. The question naturally arises: which one of us is it? Nobody answers. As a matter of fact, up to date, nobody has actually _denied_ the charge. Can it be a matter of false pride with us? Ahem! However, not only does Mrs. Loop decline to lift the shadow of doubt, but Mr. Loop has assumed a most determined and uncharitable attitude toward his friends and neighbours. He positively refuses to come to our rescue. We have put up with Mr. Loop for a great many years, gentlemen, and what do we get for our pains? Nothing, gentlemen, nothing except Mr. Loop's cheerful wink when he passes us on the street. Our esteemed Marshal today proposed to Mr. Loop that he offer a suitable reward for the apprehension of the man in the case. He gave him the opportunity to do something for his friends and acquaintances. What does Mr. Loop say to the proposition? He was more than magnanimous. He as much as said that he couldn't bear the idea that any one of his numerous friends was innocent.

"Now, while Mr. Loop may feel that he is being extremely generous, we must feel otherwise. Gentlemen, we have arrived at the point where we must take our reputations out of Eliphalet Loop's hands. We cannot afford to let him trifle with them any longer. Mr. Loop refuses to employ a detective. Therefore it is up to us to secure the services of a competent, experienced sleuth who can and will establish our innocence. It will cost us a little money, possibly fifty cents apiece; but what is that compared to a fair name? I am confident that there isn't a man here who wouldn't give as much as ten dollars, even if he had to steal it, in order to protect his honour. Now, gentlemen, you know what we are here for. The meeting is open for suggestions and discussion."

He sat down, but almost instantly arose, his gaze fixed on an object in the rear of the hall.

"I see that Mr. Loop has just come in. Perhaps he has some news for us. Have you anything to say, Mr. Loop?"

Mr. Loop got up and cleared his throat.

"Nothin'," said he "except that I'm as willin' as anybody to subscribe fifty cents."

Harry Squires suddenly put his hand over his mouth and turned to Marshal Crow. The Marshal arose.

"This ain't no affair of yours, Liff Loop. Nobody invited you to be present. You go on home, now. Go on! You've contributed all that's necessary to this here meetin'. Next thing we know, you'll be contributin' your mother-in-law too. Get out, I say. Open the door, Jake, an' head him that way. Easy, now! I didn't say to _stand_ him on his head. He might accidently squash that new fewdory hat he's wearin'."

After Mr. Loop's unceremonious departure, the Marshal resumed his seat and fell to twisting his sparse whiskers.

"What is your opinion, Mr. Crow," inquired Harry Squires, "as to the amount we would have to pay a good detective to tackle the job?"

Mr. Crow ran a calculating eye over the crowd. He did not at once reply. Finally he spoke.

"Between a hundred and five an' a hundred an' seven dollars," he said. "It might run as high as hundred and ten," he added, as two or three belated citizens entered the hall.

"Can we get a goot man for dot amoundt?" inquired Henry Wimpelmeyer, the tanyard man.

"Well, we can get one that c'n tell whether it's daylight or dark without lightin' a lantern to find out," said Mr. Crow in a slightly bellicose tone.

"I ain't so sure aboudt dot," said Henry, eying the Marshal skeptically. He had had it in for Marshal Crow ever since that official compelled him to hang an American flag in front of his tanyard.

Luckily Uncle Dad Simms, who had not heard a word of the foregoing remarks, piped up.

"This ain't no time to be thinkin' of unnecessary improvements, what with peace not signed yet, an' labor an' material so high. I don't see that there's any call for a new roof, anyway. S'posin' it does leak a little once in a while. We've all got umbrellas, I guess, an'--"

"Wake up, wake up!" bawled Alf Reesling, close to the old man's ear. "We ain't talkin' about a roof. Loop! That's what we're talkin' about!"

"What say?" squealed Uncle Dad, putting his hand to his ear. "My hearin' is a little bad lately."

"I said you was the derndest old nuisance in town; that's what I said--an' I don't care whether you hear me or not," roared Alf in exasperation.

"That's better," said Uncle Dad, nodding his head approvingly. "But I wish you wouldn't chaw tobacker, Alf," he added rather plaintively.

"Order!" commanded Marshal Crow, pounding on the table with his cane. "Now, feller-citizens, let us git down to business. Most of us have got to be home before nine o'clock, or the dickens will be to pay. All those in favour of employin' a detective to unearth this dark mystery raise their right hands."

"Just a moment, please," called out the Reverend Mr. Maltby, of the Congregationalist church. "I presume I am safe in saying that Father Maloney, the Reverend Mr. Downs and myself are hardly to be regarded as interested parties--"

He was interrupted by Father Maloney, who sprang to his feet and shouted in his most jovial voice:

"Nonsense, my dear Maltby! I consider it a great honour to be considered in the list of suspects. Nothing could give me more pleasure than the feeling that my parishioners trusted me sufficiently to take me to their hearts and say: 'He is one of us.' I should consider myself very badly treated if they were to leave me out of the case. Come--join me. Let us get all we can out of a most delicate situation. What do you say, friend Downs?"

The Methodist minister, an elderly person, looked a trifle dashed for a moment or two, and then heartily declared himself as with Father Maloney. Whereupon Mr. Maltby said he guessed it would be all right, provided Mr. Squires promised not to publish the names.

Harry Squires promptly announced that he intended to save labour and space by stating briefly and concisely that if any of his feminine readers cared to have a list of "those present," she could get it very easily and alphabetically by consulting the telephone-book.

The outcome of the meeting may be recorded in a very few words, although a great many were required in its achievement. Virtually everybody, including the coloured gentry, had something to say on the subject, and most of them said it without reservations. After Mr. Squires had announced that any man who voted in the negative would automatically convict himself, there wasn't a man present who failed to subscribe fifty cents toward the civic honour fund. It was found, on computation, that the total amount was one hundred nine dollars and fifty cents. Marshal Crow at once increased his contribution to one dollar, declaring it would be mortifying to offer a reward of less than one hundred and ten dollars to any decent, self-respecting detective.

Messrs. January and Smith insisted on their rights as citizens to join in the movement. Mr. January took the floor and vociferously harangued the assemblage at some length on certain provisions of the Proclamation of Emancipation, and Mr. Smith said that "this wasn't no time to draw the colour-line."

Mr. Crow consented to undertake the baffling case, and it was "so ordered."

"Have you got a clue?" whispered Alf Reesling as he started homeward in the wake of the preoccupied sleuth.

"No, but I will have 'fore mornin'," replied Anderson.

And he never uttered truer words in all his life.

* * * * *

Being a man of action, Mr. Crow began operations at once. He went home and for nearly an hour worked over the list of subscribers to the fund, aided by his wife and daughters. Among them they separated the wheat from the chaff. At least twenty per cent. of the contributors were set aside in a separate group and labelled "no good." Ten per cent. were designated as "fairly good," and the remainder as "good." It must not be assumed that the division had anything to do with the Loop mystery. Mr. Crow was merely figuring out who would pay and who would not.

It was shortly after ten o'clock when he started, in a roundabout way, for the home of Eliphalet Loop. The more direct route would have been down the street from his own house to the Boggs City pike, first turn to the left, fifty paces straight ahead, and he would have found himself at Eliphalet's front gate--in all, a matter of half a mile. But he preferred to descend upon the premises from an unexpected angle. So he approached by a far, circuitous way and arrived at the gate after traversing something like three miles of wood and pasture-land, stealthily following the stake-and-rider fences in order to screen his movements. He was well aware that Mr. Loop did not own a dog, on account of the expense.

The house was dark. Mr. Crow leaned against the hitching-post and mopped his brow. Then he blew his nose. It was his custom when he blew his nose, to blow it with tremendous force. Having performed these highly interesting feats he restored his handkerchief to his hip pocket. He remembered quite clearly doing all these things. Afterwards he claimed that he blew his nose as a signal. In any case, it _proved_ to be a signal. A thinly pleated light appeared in one of the front windows of the house, narrow little streaks one above the other, shining through the window-slats.

The Marshal of Tinkletown stared. He craned his neck. A chill of excitement swept over him. Was he about to witness the surreptitious departure of the unwelcome guest? Had he arrived in the nick of time? And what in the world was he to do if the fellow had a revolver? Fascinated, he watched one of the blinds slowly swing outward. He held his breath.

Suddenly it dawned on him that the visitor was still _expected_, and not on the point of departing. In that case it behooved him to retire to a less exposed spot, where he could observe the fellow without being observed.

Stooping low, he stole across the road and wound his way through the scraggly hedgerow and into the brambles beyond. Just as he was settling himself down for his vigil, a most astonishing thing occurred.

A hand fell heavily upon his shoulder, and something cold punched him in the back of the neck--and remained fixed in that spot.

"Don't move or I'll blow your brains out," whispered a voice in his ear. The grip on his shoulder tightened.

"Who--who--" he started to gasp.

"Shut up!" hissed the voice of the invisible one. "I've got you dead to rights. Get up! Put your hands up!"

"I--I got 'em up," gulped Mr. Crow, in a strangled voice. "Don't shoot, Mister! I--I promise to let you go, I swear I will. It's--"

"By thunder!" fell from the lips of the captor. It was an exclamation of surprise, even dismay.

"Take it away, if it's a revolver," pleaded Anderson. "I withdraw from the case. You c'n go as fer as you like. Eliphalet--"

"Stand still. I can't take a chance with you. You may be trying to fool me with this rube talk. Keep 'em up!"

Swiftly the stranger ran a hand over Mr. Crow's person.

"You _ought_ to have a gun," he said in a puzzled voice.

"I loaned it last winter to Milt Cupples, an' he--"

"Who the devil are you?"

"I'm the marshal of Tinkletown, an' my name is Crow--A. Crow. I made a mistake, takin' up this case. Go on in and see Mrs. Loop if you feel like it. I won't say a word to anybody--"

"Get down on your knees, Mr. Crow, here beside me, an'--"

"Oh, Lordy, Lordy! You shorely ain't going to shoot, Mister!"

"I don't want you to pray. I want you to keep still. Don't make a sound--do you hear?"

"I've got a wife an' children--"

"Shut up! Look! She's put out the light. Keep your eyes skinned, old man! He must be near. Don't make a sound. My partner's in that rain-barrel at the corner of the house. If we can get him between us, he won't have any more chance than a snowball in--Look! There he is, sneaking across the yard! By golly, we've got him at last."

What happened in the next fifteen seconds was a revelation to the most recent addition to the forces of the International Society of Sleuths. He witnessed the quick, businesslike methods of two of the craftiest men in the craftiest organization in the world--the United States Secret Service.

Two words were spoken. They came, loud and imperative, from a point near the house.

"Hands up!"

The skulking figure in the yard stopped short, but only for a fraction of a second. Then he made a wild spring toward the front gate.

A shot rang out.

The man at Anderson's side leaped forward through the hedge. Mr. Crow was dimly conscious of a mishap to his erstwhile captor. He heard him curse as he went sprawling over a treacherous vine.

Mr. Crow did not waste a second's time. He leaped to his feet and started pellmell for home. With rare sagacity he avoided the highway and laid his course well inside the hedgerow. He knew where he could strike an open stretch of meadowland, and he headed for it through the brambles.

He heard shouts behind him, and the rush of feet. If he could only get clear of the cussed bushes! That was his thought as he plunged along.

Down he went with a crash!

* * * * *

As the marshal tried to rise, a huge object ploughed through the hedge beside him, and the next instant he was knocked flat and breathless by the impact of this hurtling body.

The next instant two swift, ruthless figures came plunging through the hedge, and he found himself embroiled in a seething mix-up of panting, struggling men.

Presently Crow sat up. The steady glare of a "dark-lantern" revealed a picture he was never to forget.

A single figure in a kneeling position, hands on high, was crying:

"Don't shoot! Don't shoot!"

Over him stood two men with pistols levelled at the white, terrified face.

[Illustration: _Over him stood two men with pistols levelled at the white, terrified face_]

Anderson, to his dying day, was to remember those bulging eyes, the flabby and unshaven face, the mouth that appeared to be grinning--but never had he seen such an unnatural grin!

"Stand up!" commanded one of the men, and the victim struggled to his feet. In less time than it takes to tell it, the fellow was searched and hand-cuffed. "Run back there, Pyke, and see that the woman don't take a crack at us with a shotgun. She'd do it in a minute." As his companion darted back into the roadway, the speaker turned to his captive. "Where's your gun?"

By this time Anderson Crow was on his feet. He was clutching something in his hand. He looked at it in stark astonishment. It was an automatic pistol. In raising himself from the ground his hand had fallen upon it.

"I don't know," said the captive sullenly. Then his gaze fell upon the gaunt figure of Anderson Crow. A frightful scowl transfigured his face. Mr. Crow involuntarily drew back a step and reversed the pistol in his hand, so that its muzzle was pointing at the enemy instead of at himself. Between imprecations the prisoner managed to convey the fact that he realized for the first time that it was a human being and not a log that had brought him to earth.

* * * * *

Mr. Crow found his voice and some of his wits at the same time.

"I'll learn you not to go rampagin' around these parts carryin' concealed weapons, you good-fer-nothin' scamp! I've got your gun, blast ye!" He turned triumphantly to the surprised secret-service man. "I took it away from him soon as I had him down, an'--"

"Holy mackerel!" gasped the operative. "Did--did you head him off and--and down him? You? Well, I'll be hanged!"

"I sorter knowed he'd strike about here, tryin' to make the woods up yonder, so I hustled down here to head him off while you fellers--"

"Never mind now," broke in the other. "Tell it to me later. Come on, both of you. We're not through yet." He urged the burly captive through the hedge. Marshal Crow followed very close behind.

They found a terrified, excited group on the front porch--three sturdy females in nightgowns, all with their hands up! Below, revealed by the light streaming through the open door, stood a man covering them with a revolver. Fifteen or twenty minutes later Mr. Crow dug the shivering Eliphalet Loop out of the hay-mow and ordered him forthwith to join his family in the kitchen, where he would hear something to his advantage.

The happiest man in Bramble County was Eliphalet Loop when he finally grasped the truth. The prisoner turned out to be his wife's first husband--he grasped that fact some little time before he realized that _he_ wasn't even her second husband, owing to certain fundamental principles in law--and a fugitive from justice. The man was an escaped convict, the leader of a gang of counterfeiters, and he was serving a term in one of the federal prisons when he succeeded in his break for liberty. For many months the United States Secret Service operatives had been combing the country for him, hot and cold on his trail, but always, until now, finding themselves baffled by the crafty rogue, who, according to the records, was one of the most dangerous, desperate criminals alive. Finally they got track of his wife, who had lived for a time in Hoboken, but it was only within the week that they succeeded in locating her as the wife of Eliphalet Loop. The remainder of the story is too simple to bother about.

"Of course, Mr. Loop," said one of the secret-service men, "you can prosecute this woman for bigamy."

Mr. Loop shook his head. "Not much! I won't take no chance. She might prove that she wasn't ever married to _this_ feller, an' then where would I be? No, sirree! You take her along an' lock her up. She's a dangerous character. An' say, don't make any mistake an' fergit to take her mother an' sister, too."

* * * * *

The next evening Mr. Crow sat on the porch in front of Lamson's store. His fellow-townsmen were paying up more promptly than he had expected. Practically three-fourths of the reward was in his coat pockets--all silver, but as heavy as lead.

"Yes, sir," he was saying in a rather far-reaching voice, for the outer rim of the crowd was some distance away, "as I said before several times, I figgered he would do just what he did. I figgered that I'd have to outfigger him. He is one of the slickest individuals I have ever had anything to do with--an' one of the most desperit. I--er--where was I at, Alf?... Oh, yes, I recollect. He was a powerful feller. Fer a second or two I thought maybe he'd get the best of me, being so much younger an' havin' a revolver besides. But I hung on like grim death, an' finally--Thanks, Jim; I wasn't expectin' you to pay 'fore the end of the month. Finally I got my favourite holt on him, an' down he went. All this time I was tryin' to git his revolver away from him. Just as I got it, the secret-service men came dashin' up an'--What say, Deacon? Well, if the rest of the crowd ain't tired o' hearin' the story, I don't mind tellin' it all over."

Harry Squires, perched on the railing, assured him that the crowd wouldn't mind in the least.

"The real beauty of the story Anderson," he added dryly, "is that it has so much of the spice of life in it."

"What's that?"

"I mean variety."

[The end]
George Barr McCutcheon's short story: The Astonishing Acts Of Anna