Chapter X -- A Good Witness
Dick's surprise and concern when he found the cache empty and deserted, with papers and motorcycles alike gone, may be imagined. For a moment he thought he must be mistaken, that, after all, he had come to the wrong place. But a quick search of the ground with his flashlight showed him that he had come to the right spot. He could see the tracks made by the wheels of the machine; he could see, also, evidences of the brief struggle between Harry and Graves. For a moment his mystification continued. But then, with a low laugh, Jack Young emerged from the cover in which he had been hiding.
"Hello, there!" he said. "I say, are you Dick Mercer?"
"Yes!" gasped Dick. "But however do you know? I never saw you before!"
"Well, you see me now," said Jack. "Harry Fleming told me to look for you here. He said you'd be along some time tonight, if you got away. And he was sure you could get away, too."
"Harry!" said Dick, dazed. "You've seen him? Where is he? Did he get away? And what happened to the cycles and the papers we hid there? Why --"
"Hold on! One question at a time," said Jack. "Keep your shirt on, and I'll tell you all I know about it. Then we can decide what is to be done next. I think I'll attach myself temporarily to your patrol."
"Oh, you're a scout, too, are you?" asked Dick.
That seemed to explain a good deal. He was used to having scouts turn up to help him out of trouble. And so he listened as patiently as he could, while Jack explained what had happened. "And that's all I know," said Jack, finally, when he had carried the tale to the point where Harry rode off on the repaired motorcycle in pursuit of Ernest Graves. "I should think you might really know more about it now than I do."
"Why, how could I? You saw it all!"
"Yes, that's true enough. But you know Harry and I were too busy to talk much after we found that motor was out of order. All I know is that when we got here we found someone I'd never seen before and never want to see again messing about with the cycles. We thought it must be you, of course -- at least Harry did, and of course I supposed he ought to know."
"And then you found it was Ernest Graves?"
"Harry did. He took one look at him and then they started right in fighting. Harry seemed to be sure that was the thing to do. If I'd been in his place I'd have tried to arbitrate I think. This chap Graves was a lot bigger than he. He was carrying weight for age. You see, I don't know yet who Graves is, or why Harry wanted to start fighting him that way. I've been waiting patiently for you to come along, so that you could tell me."
"He's a sneak!" declared Dick, vehemently. "I suppose you know that Harry's an American, don't you?"
"Yes, but that's nothing against him."
"Of course it isn't! But this Graves is the biggest and oldest chap in our troop -- he isn't in our patrol. And he thought that if any of us were going to be chosen for special service, he ought to have the first chance. So when they picked Harry and me, he began talking about Harry's being an American. He tried to act as if he thought it wasn't safe for anyone who wasn't English to be picked out!"
"It looks as if he had acted on that idea, too, doesn't it, then? It seems to me that he has followed you down here, just to get a chance to play some trick on you. He got those papers, you see. And I fancy you'll be blamed for losing them."
"How did he know we were here?" said Dick, suddenly. "That's what I'd like to know!"
"Yes, it would be a good thing to find that out," said Jack, thoughtfully. "Well, it will be hard to do. But we might find out how he got here. I know this village and the country all around here pretty well. And Gaffer Hodge will know, if anyone does. He's the most curious man in the world. Come on -- we'll see what he has to say."
"Who is he?" asked Dick, as they began to walk briskly toward the village.
"You went through the village this afternoon, didn't you? Didn't you see a very old man with white hair and a stick beside him, sitting in a doorway next to the little shop by the Red Dog?"
"That's Gaffer Hodge. He's the oldest man in these parts. He can remember the Crimean War and -- oh, everything! He must be over a hundred years old. And he watches everyone who comes in. If a stranger is in the village he's never happy until he knows all about him. He was awfully worried today about you and Harry, I heard," explained Jack.
Dick laughed heartily.
"Well, I do hope he can tell us something about Graves. The sneak! I certainly hope Harry catches up to him. Do you think he can?"
"Well, he might, if he was lucky. He said the cycle he was riding was faster than the other. But of course it would be very hard to tell just which to way to go. If Graves knew there was a chance that he might be followed he ought to be able to give anyone who was even a mile behind the slip."
"Of course it's at night and that makes it harder for Harry."
"Yes, I suppose it does. In the daytime Harry could find people to tell him which way Graves was going, couldn't he?"
"Yes. That's just what I meant."
"Oh, I say, won't Gaffer Hodge be in bed and asleep?"
"I don't think so. He doesn't seem to like to go to bed. He sits up very late, and talks to the men when they start to go home from the Red Dog. He likes to talk, you see. We'll soon know - that's one thing. We'll be there now in no time."
Sure enough, the old man was still up when they arrived. He was just saying goodnight, in a high, piping voice, to a little group of men who had evidently been having a nightcap in the inn next to his house. When he saw Jack he smiled. They were very good friends, and the old man had found the boy one of his best listeners. The Gaffer liked to live in the past, he was always delighted when anyone would let him tell his tales of the things he remembered.
"Good-evening, Gaffer," said Jack, respectfully. "This is my friend, Dick Mercer. He's a Boy Scout from London."
"Knew it! Knew it!" said Gaffer Hodge, with a senile chuckle. "I said they was from Lunnon this afternoon when I seen them fust! Glad to meet you, young master."
Then Jack described Graves as well as he could from his brief sight of him, and Dick helped by what he remembered.
"Did you see him come into town this afternoon, Gaffer?" asked Jack.
"Let me think," said the old man. "Yes -- I seen 'un. Came sneaking in, he did, this afternoon as ever was! Been up to the big house at Bray Park, he had. Came in an automobile, he did. Then he went back there. But he was in the post office when you and t'other young lad from Lunnon went by, maister," nodding his head as if well pleased. This was to Dick, and he and Jack stared at one another. Certainly their visit to Gaffer Hodge had paid them well.
"Are you sure of that, Gaffer?" asked Jack, quietly. "Sure that it was an automobile from Bray Park?"
"Sure as ever was!" said the old man, indignantly. Like all old people, he hated anyone to question him, resenting the idea that anyone could think he was mistaken. "Didn't I see the machine myself -- a big grey one, with black stripes as ever was, like all their automobiles?"
"That's true -- that's the way their cars are painted, and they have five or six of them," said Jack.
"Yes. And he come in the car from Lunnon before he went there -- and then he come out here. He saw you and t'other young lad from Lunnon go by, maister, on your bicycles. He was watching you from the shop as ever was."
"Thank you, Gaffer," said Jack, gravely. "You've told us just what we wanted to know. I'll bring you some tobacco in the morning, if you like. My father's just got a new lot down from London."
"Thanks, thank'ee kindly," said the Gaffer, overjoyed at the prospect.
Then they said good-night to the old man, who, plainly delighted at the thought that he had been of some service to them, and at this proof of his sharpness, of which he was always boasting, rose and hobbled into his house.
"He's really a wonderful old man," said Dick.
"He certainly is," agreed Jack. "His memory seems to be as good as ever, and he's awfully active, too. He's got rheumatism, but he can see and hear as well as he ever could, my father says."
They walked on, each turning over in his mind what they had heard about Graves.
"That's how he knew we were here," said Dick finally. "I've been puzzling about that. I remember now seeing that car as we went by. But of course I didn't pay any particular attention to it, except that I saw a little American flag on it."
"Yes, they're supposed to be Americans, you know," said Jack. "And I suppose they carry the flag so that the car won't be taken for the army. The government has requisitioned almost all the cars in the country, you know."
"I'm almost afraid to think about this," said Dick, after a moment of silence. "Graves must know those people in that house, if he's riding about in their car. And they --"
He paused, and they looked at one another.
"I don't know what to do!" said Dick. "I wish there was some way to tell Harry about what we've found out," Jack started.
"I nearly forgot!" he said. "We'd better cut for my place. I told Harry we'd be there if he needed a telephone, you know. Come on!"