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"The Boiled Ham Mystery" from American Girl

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from American Girl
The Boiled Ham Mystery
by Ellis Parker Butler

Our Detective Club was having its regular Thursday afternoon meeting in our yard, but it was not much of a meeting because only two of us were there, and we had no mysteries to solve anyway. Dot Carver had been away with her family, visiting Dot's uncle, so Betty Bliss and I were alone.

"Well, Inspector," Betty said, "there doesn't seem to be any crime today, so we might as well read a little more in The Mystery of Hedge Hill."

That was the mystery story Betty's father had picked for us to read, and when we had no crimes or mysteries of our own to solve, we took turns reading chapters of it at our meetings. So I found our place in the book, and I had just begun to read when Dot Carver came running into the yard -- and was she excited!

"Girls! Girls!" she cried, almost out of breath. "We've got a real crime. There were burglars at our house. They broke in while we were at Uncle George's. They pried the kitchen door open --"

"Jimmied," said Betty Bliss. "They jimmied the door. Remember you are a detective, Inspector Carver, and please use the proper terms."

For a moment Dot looked at Betty as if she did not know what she was talking about.

"Oh!" she said then. "Jimmied. All right -- they jimmied the back door open. And they stole a ham --"

"A what?" Betty asked.

"A ham," said Dot. "A boiled ham -- a whole boiled ham out of the refrigerator."

Betty got to her feet.

"Inspectors," she said, "this is a serious matter. We shall have to look into this. Was anything else taken, Inspector Carver?"

"Well, I should say so!" exclaimed Dot. "They just about emptied the refrigerator, and they took three cans of evaporated cream, and five cans of soup, and every bit of sugar we had in the house, and --"

"You will make a list of the missing articles, Inspector Carver," Betty said.

"We have no time to lose now; we must proceed to the scene of the crime."

"There are two policemen there now," Dot said. "Father telephoned the minute we got home. They are at a loss."

"At a what?" I asked.

"At a loss," Dot repeated. "Like all the policemen in the mystery books we have read. They can't find any clues, and they haven't an idea who the burglars were, and they say they don't see much chance of ever discovering the criminals. They say that the loot was all food, and the criminals will eat the food. If the loot was jewels, it might be traced through pawn shops, but when food is eaten it is gone."

"There would be the evaporated cream cans," I suggested. "They can't eat them."

"But what good are empty cans when you haven't got them?" Dot asked. "There are thousands of empty tin cans. You can't prove anything by empty cans, especially when you don't know where they are."

Betty Bliss was waiting impatiently.

"Hadn't we better stop arguing, and proceed to the scene of the crime without delay?" she asked. "What the police say, or think, does not interest us."

So we went to Dot's house. The two policemen were still there, but they were just leaving, and it was easy to see they did not think there was much chance of discovering the burglars.

"Tramps," one of them said to the other, as they passed us on the way to their car, "and probably a hundred miles away by now."

And that did seem possible and even likely, because the Carvers did not know when the burglary had taken place. They had been away several days, and the kitchen might have been broken into just after they left. It would have been perfectly easy for tramps to come to the back door and, finding no one at home, break in. I told Betty so. She gave me a harsh look.

"Inspector," she said, "it is too early to form theories. Remember Rule Seven of the Detective Club: 'Facts first, theories later.' There will be time enough for theories when we have gathered more facts."

Of course I felt squelched. I said, "I'm sorry, Superintendent," because every real detective knows it is silly to form theories until quite a lot of facts have been gathered and clues found, and we hadn't even looked for clues yet.

"If we are just going to say 'tramps' every time we have a case," Betty said, "we might as well not be a Detective Club. If tramps were guilty of this boiled ham crime, it is our duty to prove they were guilty, and not just guess at it." So we went to work, and I must say it was about the most unproductive work any three detectives ever undertook. Dot's father and mother were there, of course, but they did not make fun of us, as some grown-ups might have done.

"Go to it, girls," Mrs. Carver said. "I think it was tramps, but see what you can discover. We'll never see that boiled ham again -- that's been eaten by now -- so there's no use offering a reward for its discovery and return, but I'll offer you five dollars' reward if you can show me who did steal the ham. Your Club can buy books with the money."

'The door was closed when we got home,' said Mr. Carter, 'but the lock was pried off.'

"The kitchen door was open when you got home?" Betty Bliss asked.

"Closed, but the lock pried off," said Mr. Carver. "The screen door had been hooked, but was jimmied open, and the wooden door was jimmied, as you can see. And perhaps this will be a lesson to my wife not to feed every tramp that comes to the door. You are altogether too kind-hearted, Millie."

"But, John," said Dot's mother, "I just can't send hungry men away when we have food to spare, and times are so hard. Not all the men are to blame for being idle. So many of them want work, and can't find it."

"You are a good woman, Millie," Mr. Carver said, "but I don't like to have our house broken into, for all that."

Betty Bliss had been examining the doors. Almost anything could have been used to jimmy them -- a chisel, or a screw driver, or the edge of a hatchet -- and there were no fingerprints. Of course, there were no footprints, because the burglar could have come to the door by the foot path without leaving any.

"And there was nothing stolen but food?" Betty asked.

"Nothing," Dot's mother said. "The thief doesn't seem to have gone anywhere but into the kitchen. Not a thing but food was taken."

"Someone who was hungry," Betty said, "but that's not much of a clue. Were there any signs that the thief ate anything while he was in the kitchen, Mrs. Carver?"

"No," Dot's mother said. "You mean ham-grease on the table, or a greasy knife? No. They just took --"

She stopped short and cried, "What is that child eating?"

Dot's baby brother, Eddie, was in a kiddie coop out on the back porch. He was about two years old, and the back porch was where he played most of the time because it was clean and sunny. There was a rug for him to sit and roll on, and beyond the kiddie coop a box with a hinged lid, to hold his toys when he was not using them. Mrs. Carver had dumped him there when they got home, and now Eddie was standing in the kiddie coop, holding to the edge with one hand and, in the other hand, he had a chicken bone -- a leg bone -- and he was chewing on it although it had no meat

Dot's baby brother was chewing on a chicken bone. 'The idea! That dirty bone!' cried Mrs. Carter. 'Where did he get it?'

"The idea! That dirty bone!" Mrs. Carver cried, and she took the bone and threw it as far as she could. She wiped Eddie's hand and mouth, and gave him a toy cat from the box, and he never uttered a whimper.

"Kickie," he said, trying to say "Kitty," and he hugged the toy cat; and then he said "Chiggie," but no one paid any attention to that.

"Where in the world did he get that dirty bone?" Mrs. Carver wondered. "It does seem as if you had to watch a child every minute. What was it you asked me, Betty? Oh, yes -- I was saying the thief did not stop to eat anything in the kitchen. He must have just gathered all he could put into a bag or something, and then hurried away."

Betty checked the list of stolen articles, and then went into the kitchen pantry.

"I think it was one man working alone, Inspector Carver," she said to Dot. "You will observe that a great many cans of food remain on the shelves, which two men with two bags could have taken. I think one man with one bag worked here."

"And not a very strong man," I said, "or else he had a very small bag to store the loot in. Perhaps he was weak from hunger, and not strong enough to carry much of a load."

And meant to come back, Dot suggested. Betty was looking at what remained on the shelves. She took down a large tin can, removed the lid, and peered into the can.

"Coffee," she said. "A can full to the top with coffee. That's odd, Inspector."

"Why? What do you mean, Superintendent Bliss?" I asked.

"I mean that it is odd, if the burglar was a tramp, that he did not take this coffee," Betty said, and she turned to Mrs. Carver. "Perhaps you had some other coffee?" she asked.

"No," Dot's mother said. "We buy one can at a time, to have it fresh. That is all the coffee we had when we went away. I'm sure of that, Betty."

"I can't help thinking it is odd," Betty said, frowning a little. "If the burglar was a tramp, why did he leave coffee? Coffee is the one thing a tramp would be sure to take. Coffee is a thing a tramp can always use."

"And he took sugar and evaporated cream, Betty -- I mean, Superintendent," I said.

"Exactly so, Inspector," Betty agreed. "A tramp would have taken the coffee. So what do you deduce from that?"

"I don't know," I answered. "What do I deduce from it, Superintendent?"

"What I would deduce from it," Betty said, "is that the thief must have been someone that already had enough coffee. He took sugar and he took cream, and both of those are used with coffee, but he did not take coffee. If he had enough coffee at home, he must have had a home, and tramps don't have homes."

"Perhaps he drank only tea," Dot suggested.

"Don't be silly," Betty said, but I could not see that what Dot had said was especially silly, except that the tea in the tea canister -- as Betty pointed out -- had not been touched any more than the coffee had.

There was nothing more to investigate in the kitchen, and it did not seem to me that we had discovered much in the way of clues, except that the coffee had not been taken. There were no bits of cloth torn from coats, or fingerprints, or any of the clues that detectives in good mystery stories discover to trace the criminal by. So we went out on the back porch, and looked again at the marks where the doors had been jimmied.

Betty Bliss studied the jimmy marks so long that I was sure she was learning something, and I expected to hear her say, "Look at this, Inspector! This was done by a left-handed man, using an oyster knife with two scratches on it; all we need is to find a left-handed man with a damaged oyster knife," or something clever like that, but she did not.

These marks don't mean anything to me," she said. "Anyone could have made them. Well --"

Mr. Carver, who had been upstairs changing his clothes, came down then; and on his way out to the garage to attend to the car and get out the rest of the luggage, he stopped a moment.

"How goes it, Super?" he asked. "Are you hot on the trail? Anything to report yet?"

"I'm afraid not -- yet," Betty said. "We haven't had much time to think it over. I'll -- I'll keep you posted, sir."

That was good detective stuff -- just like in a book. Whenever a detective hasn't anything to report, he always says he will keep somebody posted, or says it is not desirable to disclose the facts at that time. So Mr. Carver said he wished us good luck, and he went to the garage. Dot was looking toward the weedy vacant lots that spread out back of our row of houses.

"There are Dick and Arthur," she said, and she lifted her voice and shrilled "Oo-oo!" at them, and they turned and saw us. Dick raised his arm and waved at us, and Art called, "Hello! Come here!" and I said, "Let's see what they are doing."

Dot's mother came from the kitchen.

"Wait, Dot," she said. "I want you to unpack the suitcases, and change your dress before you go with the girls. She'll be with you in half an hour, Betty, or sooner."

So Betty and I went out the back way, and through the weeds, to where the boys were. They had their air rifles and had been shooting.

"I thought this was your Detective Club meeting afternoon," Art said. "What's the matter? Why aren't you meeting? Did the Club quit?"

"It did not," Betty declared. "We were working on a case."

She would have gone on to tell about it, I suppose, but my eye lighted on the thing the boys had been shooting at. It was tied on the upper end of a tall mullein stalk, and was red and blue and green.

"What on earth is that?" I asked, for it did not look like anything I had ever seen before. I walked toward it.

"Hey! Come away from that!" Dick shouted. "That's our target." But I wanted to see what it was, and Betty came with me. I guess she was curious, too.

"For the land's sake!" I exclaimed, taking the queer object in my hand. "It's a parrot."

"It's a dead parrot," Betty exclaimed.

"It's a stuffed parrot," Art said.

"Where's its head?" I asked.

"It didn't have any head," Dick said. "That's all there was of it when we found it. I don't know that it ever had any head."

"Certainly it did," Betty said. "Every parrot has a head to begin with. It had a head when it was stuffed. Who would stuff a headless parrot?"

"She's a regular Sherlock Holmes, isn't she, Dick?" Art laughed. "Quick as a wink, Betty is -- the minute she sees a headless parrot, she says, 'It had a head!' Marvelous, what?"

"Amazing, old top," Dick chaffed. "Wonderful brains these lady detectives have."

"Oh, quit it!" Betty twisted the sick-looking parrot around on its string. "Anyway we're as good detectives as you are marksmen; you don't seem to have hit this very often."

So the upshot of it was that the four of us took turns shooting at the headless parrot, and we did hit it once in a while. Betty and I hit it as often as Dick and Art did, too, and we were busy shooting when Dot came out of her yard. The moment she was near us, she saw the parrot.

"Here!" she cried. "Stop that! Where did you get our parrot?"

"What do you mean 'your parrot?' Art asked her.

"That's Eddie's parrot, our baby's parrot," Dot said, pulling it loose from the mullein stalk. "It belonged to great-grandmother Carver, and when it died she had it stuffed -- years and years ago. Eddie plays with it; he loves it best of anything. He calls it his 'chiggy' -- his chicken."

"Where's its head?" I asked Dot.

"Head? It never had a head, not as long as I can remember. You don't think we would let Eddie play with it if it had a beak on it, do you? He'd hurt himself."

Dot was clinging to the headless parrot as if she was afraid the boys might take it away from her. It surely was a crazy-looking bird, with no head, and its long bright-hued tail feathers crumpled and bent, and some of the stuffing sticking out at the neck. Betty Bliss stood there, looking at the stuffed parrot and frowning a little, as she always did when she was thinking hard.

"Dick," she asked suddenly, "where did you find this parrot?"

"Why, there," said Dick, pointing. "Right there in the path. It was just lying there, and I picked it up. Do you think I stole it?"

"No, I don't," Betty answered, and she took the parrot from Dot. "It is dry now; was it wet when you picked it up?"

"No," said Dick, and he asked, "Why?"

"It rained yesterday morning. If the parrot had been in the path night before last, it would be wet. But it is dry, so it must have been dropped there last night. Dot, where did you keep the parrot?"

"In the toy box on the back porch," Dot told Betty. "Always. So anyone could hand it to Eddie when he was put in the kiddie coop. Why do you ask that, Betty?"

"I'm thinking, Dot. I believe this parrot is a clue. Because if it isn't, I'd like you to tell me how it came to be out here on the path to Shantytown when it ought to be in Eddie's toy box."

"Somebody took it, of course," I said. "It certainly did not walk here, or fly here."

"All right, Inspector," agreed Betty in her most detective manner. "Then tell me this -- who would steal a miserable old headless parrot like this? And if anyone was crazy enough to steal it, why would he throw it away where anyone could find it?"

"He wouldn't do either," I said.

"But I'll tell you what might have happened," Art said. "Some kid may have been snooping around Dot's yard, and opened that toy box; and he may have taken this moth-eaten bird, and maybe kicked it up this path until he got tired of it, and just left it where we found it."

"An eight- or nine-year-old boy?" Betty asked.

"Well, maybe," Art said, not quite sure what Betty was getting at. "How do I know how old he was?"

"I know he wasn't a boy of that age, if I know anything about boys," Betty told him. "A boy like that, after he had kicked the parrot around, would tear it open to see what was inside of it. They always do. And a girl would have taken it all the way home because the feathers are pretty. And a man would not have stolen anything so worthless, when there was a box full of good toys."

"Betty!" I cried. "You mean a baby took it?"

"Well, there was the chicken bone in the kiddie coop," Betty said. "Dot's mother is the cleanest of all clean people; she would never let an old chicken bone be in Eddie's kiddie coop, would she?"

"She certainly would not," Dot declared. "The rug, and the floor of the porch, have to be as clean as a new pin before Mother will let Eddie play there. Why, she even washed the bars of the kiddie coop itself after that other baby had been in it."

"Other baby?" Betty Bliss asked sharply. "What other baby?"

"Why --" Dot began, and then her eyes got as big as saucers. "Betty," she cried, "is that what you have been thinking all the while? Did you know there had been a Shantytown baby in that kiddie coop -- Gypsy Joe's baby?"

"I don't know who Gypsy Joe is," Betty answered. "I never heard of any Gypsy Joe. All I guessed was that whoever broke into your house had a baby with him -- or her; and that the baby was chewing on a chicken bone; and that the burglar put the baby in the kiddie coop while he worked, and gave the baby this old parrot to keep it quiet."

"But that would be Gypsy Joe," Dot exclaimed. "He lives in Shantytown, and last week he did come to our house by this path, and he did bring his baby because his wife is very, very sick. He asked for work, Betty, and Mother let him beat our rugs, and he did put his baby in Eddie's kiddie coop while he worked. Yes, Mother did give the baby the parrot to play with that day, because the poor child cried."

"How long ago was that?"

"It was just before we went on this trip," Dot said. And then, "Oh! How awful! Mother told Gypsy Joe he could come back yesterday for the pay because she had no small bills the day he was here -- only ten dollars -- and we were not home when he came! Nobody remembered a thing about it. Betty, did -- did Gypsy Joe steal that ham?"

Betty nodded. She didn't look very happy over her findings. We all went back to Dot's house then, and we caught Mr. Carver just as he was getting into his car to go downtown for sugar and evaporated cream and, I suppose, a ham. Betty told him what we were afraid the clues of the chicken bone and the headless parrot led to, and Mr. Carver had us all get into his car.

"I don't go around accusing people of burglary without someone to back me up," he said.

We were a little crowded in the car, but we did not mind that; and Mr. Carver drove to Shantytown and found the shack Gypsy Joe lived in, and he went inside while we waited in the car. When he came out, he looked very solemn.

"He confessed," he said. "I saw the ham -- what is left of it. We won't say anything to the police about this, Betty, I guess. It was our fault, anyway, for forgetting to pay Gypsy Joe before we went away. He's a sick man, besides, Gypsy Joe is, and that wife of his is very, very sick. The fellow was desperate, I think. He broke down and wept, Betty. It is his first law-breaking, he says."

"Oh!" said Betty.

"So we'll let him off this time, if it is all the same to you, Superintendent," said Mr. Carver.

"Well, of course, we just detect for fun," Betty told him.

"That may be," Mr. Carver answered, "but if you can solve all cases as cleverly as you solved this one, I would hate to be a criminal and have you after me in earnest. You don't mind if I drive around by my doctor's, do you? I'd like to have him take care of that woman. And I want to send them a few groceries -- she shouldn't be eating ham. And here's your five-dollar reward. You earned it."

And that was very spiffy, of course, but it wasn't the best. When Mr. Carver went in to see the doctor, who should speak up but Dick Price.

"Betty," he said -- the same Dick who had sneered at our Detective Club! -- "I'll say you are not so bad at this detective business. How about letting Art and me join the Detective Club?"

And was Betty proud? Oh, girl!



Saturday, October 07 at 1:10:35am USA Central
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