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"Chicken Bait" from Best Detective Magazine

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Best Detective Magazine
Chicken Bait
by Ellis Parker Butler

While I am sitting here waiting the arrival of the stenographer I have hired to take down the remarkable series of episodes I intend to publish under the title of "Bryson Brace, the Parson Detective," I am tempted to jot down hurriedly a quaint little example of the cleverness of the Reverend Bryson Brace, that is too slight to form a part of the book I mean to produce. In writing of the exploits of a man who has become as famous as the Reverend Bryson Brace, where there is such a wealth of material, there is much that the biographer can well afford to omit -- and should omit -- because those who take up a volume devoted to his doings expect to read matters of importance. When it is recalled how suddenly the Reverend Bryson Brace leaped into local fame after his remarkable solution of the Graydon bond matter, and how soon he became nationally famous through his subsequent work, it will be seen that a trifle like the case of the chickens of Roger Finch has no place in a book dealing with the Parson Detective.

It was only by chance that the episode came to my knowledge at all. I happened to be serving on a jury in our county court, and at noon I went across the street from the courthouse to a restaurant. As I entered, Judge Scofield hailed me and invited me to the table where he was sitting. There were five or six others there, and we began discussing some laughable incident of the trial just completed. Then Judge Scofield told a little story that has since taken its place among the humorous classics of the bar.

"Yes," he said, "there are some funny things happen in court. Sometimes it is hard for the judge to keep from laughing and to maintain his dignity, but it is not often he draws a laugh down upon his own head. We soon learn to avoid that. Once in a while we do get caught."

It was just here that the Reverend Bryson Brace entered. He came in with the sort of breathless rush that is so characteristic of him, and when he saw our little group his eyes brightened; he had expected to see none but strangers. The judge moved over and made place for an additional chair.

"This is fine; I did not expect any one I knew would be here; was dreading a dreary meal," said Bryson Brace. "Just came down to see a poor fellow who has got into trouble and sent word he wanted to see me. Don't let me interrupt --"

"I was just going to tell a joke on myself, parson," said the judge.

"Go right along! Go right along!" said Brace.

"I had a case here last week," said Judge Scofield, "and the jury brought in a verdict of petty larceny. Chicken-stealing case. It was a proper verdict, to my notion, but the district attorney had worked hard to prove it burglary. You may remember reading a line or two about it in the newspaper," he said, turning to me. "A man named Silas Washington? Got three of those white leghorns Roger Finch is so proud of?"

"I remember it," said Bryson Brace and I together.

"Silas Washington is that happy man," said Brace.

"That's the fellow," said the judge. "Happy? He seemed almost delighted to be on trial, and he acted quite pleased when the jury found him guilty. Big, strapping man! Well, you all know the difference between petty larceny and burglary, of course. Petty larceny is taking another man's property, of a value less than twenty-five dollars. The law doesn't consider that as wicked as burglary, parson, although you might. Burglary, roughly speaking, is breaking into a locked building. The law considers it much worse to break into a place to steal than merely to pick up something you take a fancy to. You might say that when a man locks a thing up he gives warning he wants to keep it himself, but when he just leaves it in the open he doesn't care quite as much about keeping it. Anyway, this young district attorney was keen to prove that Silas Washington had broken into the chicken house of Roger Finch, to steal the three chickens. That would have made it burglary -- the more serious offense.

"But he could not do it. Several times I had to call Silas Washington to order, he seemed to think the attorney's questions were such a joke. He was a mighty cheerful criminal, it seemed to me.

"The State, by its evidence, had proved that Silas stole the chickens. As a matter of fact, the man practically admitted it. The heads, feathers, and feet of the three victims of his eager palate were found in his garbage can, and Roger Finch, on the witness stand, proved they were part of his chickens. These chicken cranks have secret marks they put on their chickens, you know.

"Roger Finch, on the stand, said he had gone direct to the shack of Silas Washington the morning after the theft. Officer Burke went with him. They went direct to Silas' place because, as Finch said on the stand, he had seen Silas lurking around the chickens several times, and, as soon as he discovered the chickens were missing, he suspected Silas. And more than this!

"Yes, more than that! He had seen Silas in the neighborhood of the chicken house the previous afternoon. For that reason, when he locked the chickens in the chicken house, he had carefully smeared the padlock with grease. The next morning there was not a finger print on the padlock!"

"Silas climbed in at a window?" asked Bryson Brace carelessly. He was eating a portion of creamed hash.

"No," said Judge Scofield, "he did not climb in at a window. The windows were no more than narrow slits, and they were glazed and barred. The chicken house was set up a foot and a half from the ground, on four posts, but Silas did not cut his way in from beneath. I was thoroughly interested in the case by the time the assistant district attorney began trying to worm out of Silas how he did get in. It was a puzzle, you know, and each question might be the one that would bring the answer. But Silas dodged each time. The spectators giggled several times, and I had to warn them. The young attorney did his best, but Silas was too smart for him. I had to charge the jury, when it went out to deliberate, that there had been no evidence that the defendant had entered the chicken house, and, therefore, there could be no burglary. I told them to consider whether he was guilty of petty larceny or innocent. It took them about three minutes to decide he was guilty. And he was. He's in jail now, serving the short term I gave him.

"I sentenced him before he left the courtroom, because he had been in jail a week or so, awaiting trial, and I did not want to hold him any longer. So, after I had sentenced him, I called him to the bench.

"'Silas,' I said, 'you got those chickens, didn't you?'

"'Yas, jedge, I got 'em,' he said. 'Me an' the ole woman et 'em.'

"'Well, Silas,' I said, 'I've given you a light sentence. You've been under arrest quite a while, and I don't want you to suffer too much for three chickens.'

"'Thank you, jedge!' he said. "'And, Silas,' I said, 'I'm inclined to suspend your sentence.'

"'Well, that would be right kindly of you, jedge,' he said. 'I'd take that right kindly of you!'

"'Yes, I know you would,' I told him. But I'm only going to suspend your sentence on one condition: I'm going to suspend your sentence provided you will tell me how you got into that chicken house without touching that lock or cutting a board or breaking a window!'

"Well," said the judge, "he stood there a minute or so, thinking as I never saw a man think before. Then he looked up at me with a solemn face. "'No, jedge!' he said, shaking his head. 'I ain't gwine tell you. You better stick to your own business.'"

We laughed, of course, and then some one at the table -- one of those who always think it necessary to explain a joke -- said:

"He thought you wanted to go into the chicken-stealing business."

Reverend Bryson Brace laughed as loud or louder than the rest of us, but I think he stopped sooner.

"But how did he get into the chicken house?" he asked.

We all howled. He was so serious about it. We thought, too, for an instant, that this was what the judge had been leading up to -- a sell, as it is called -- and that the parson had "bitten." But it was no sell.

"That I am unable to tell you," said Judge Scofield, "but I have wondered several times since then."

He paid his check and went out of the restaurant.

Reverend Bryson Brace pushed back his abundant brown hair from his forehead.

"I have always been very much interested in mysteries," he said. "I love them. I have a library half full of theological works and half full of detective fiction, and I do not know which I find most interesting. I have often wished -- No, I will not say that; I will say that if I had not been chosen to be a minister I would have chosen to be a detective. I think I have some talent that way. Some of us have, don't you think?"

"Certainly," I said, smiling. The idea of a parson wanting to do detective work was a new one to me then; I had, like the world at large, to learn what manner of detective Reverend Bryson Brace could be when he gave his mind to it.

"Now, this case of the chickens," he said. "This case does interest me. I know Silas, and I know Roger Finch, and, as it happens, I know the chicken house. The chickens," he said, with a smile, "I did not know personally."

"And never will know now," I laughed.

"No, they are gone," he said, with amusement. "As a matter of fact, except as a thing of temporary interest, this whole chicken affair is too slight to usurp the attention of serious men for more than a minute or two. Its only interesting feature is one that is as old as detective fiction; it is a problem that was perhaps, the oldest problem of all those proposed by writers of detective fiction -- the locked room that cannot be entered, but is entered. It is a fascinating problem always. You remember how Zangwill solved it?"

"How?" I asked.

"A man is found murdered in a room. The keeper of the rooming house is an excitable lady. Across the street lives a retired detective. Finding that the roomer does not answer her knockings, and fearing foul play, she rushes across the street for the man she knows was once a great -- the greatest -- detective. He comes, opens the door, finds the man murdered in a way that precludes the theory of suicide. No one can have entered the room, yet some one has entered the room and has done murder. The impossible has been accomplished!"

"And what was the answer?" one of us asked.

"The retired detective, who tells the whole story, did the murder himself," said Brace. "He was jealous of the man who had succeeded him as head of Scotland Yard, and he wished to create a case his successor could not solve. There was a bolt on the inside of the door, as I remember it, and he called the attention of the nervous, excited rooming-house lady to this after he had broken into the room. The murdered-man was alive when the detective burst into the room, but unconscious from a drug which he used habitually. The detective simply burst into the room, murdered the man as he lay unconscious, and let it be supposed that the man was dead when the detective entered. Of course, no one suspected him. Who would?"

"Clever," I said, "but is that not a trick played upon the unsuspecting reader?"

"Certainly," said Brace, "but a fair trick, in this case, because Zangwill tells the whole story in a playful, joking manner. He suggests all the while that it is all a joke. To a certain extent that is true of all the unenterable room mystery cases. The moment a writer declares a room is unenterable, and at the same time declares it has been entered, he warns you that one or the other is untrue. The two things cannot be possible at the same time. Now, in reaching my solution of this mystery of the chickens of Roger Finch --"

"Hold on, parson!" I said. "You don't mean you know the answer to that, do you?"

"Answer?" he said, with real surprise. "You don't mean that you don't know the answer?"

"Well, now," I said, perhaps a little sheepishly, "I have not given it much thought. I did not think it was as easy to solve as all that. I might, you know, if I stopped to think for a minute."

"Think for a minute," said Bryson Brace, with a smile. "I'm going to order a piece of apple pie."

"We all will think," I said, and we did. We made nothing of it. We told the Reverend Bryson Brace so after we had given several minutes of hard thought to the puzzle.

"Very well," he said, when we had admitted this. "I will show you the basic principles of detective work, as I understand them. One of you take a piece of bread and put it on the table to represent the chicken house. That is it? Very good! Where is the door that was padlocked?"

"On this side," I said, pointing out the location on one side of the chunk of bread.

"Just so!" said Brace. "And now, please, point out the other characteristics of the chicken house as you know them."

He was eating his pie, taking over-large mouthfuls, but he kept his eyes on my hands as I indicated the salient points of the imaginary chicken house. I set the chunk of bread on four lumps of sugar, to represent the four posts on which the chicken house stood, and on top of the house I stuck another bit of bread, to serve as the ventilator. Then I showed him the slitlike, barred windows of the house, and the narrow openings in the ventilators.

"Anything else you know about the chicken house?" he asked, through a mouthful of pie.

"It was padlocked," I said. "Yes," he agreed. "And where was Roger Finch's house -- his dwelling -- in relation to the chicken house?"

I thought a moment.

"Here," I said, placing a larger chunk of bread near by the one that represented the chicken house.

"A little farther away." said Brace, moving the bread. "Sixty feet away. And here, five feet behind the chicken house, is a fence -- a ten-foot wire fence. I will put this fork to represent it. In front of the chicken house is more of the fence. The fence is also at the sides. In short, the wire fence, ten feet high, quite surrounds the chicken house, making a snug, tight chicken yard, with a gate toward the house. I presume the gate was only latched, since there was no mystery regarding how Silas Washington entered the yard to get at the house. Is there anything else you want to know about the chicken house? I can tell you, because I used to live in the dwelling before the parsonage was built. You know the house I mention," he said, appealing to me. "It was a farmhouse originally, before the town grew out and surrounded it."

"Yes, I knew that," I said. "No, I don't want to know any more about the chicken house, I want to know how Silas got into it."

"First, then," said the Reverend Bryson Brace, "we must consider the case in its broader aspects, mustn't we? I will pretend, for the moment, that I am a detective -- a sort of Sherlock Holmes. The first thing I ask you is this: What policeman went to the place to investigate the case, after Roger Finch reported that his chickens had been stolen?"

"What policeman?" I said, with surprise. "What has that got to do with it?"

"Everything!" said Bryson Brace. "Everything! And I will tell you what policeman went. It was the policeman who walked the beat past Mr. Finch's house every day. It does not matter what his name is, but it happens to be Burke."

"Hold on, parson!" I said. "Of course his name was Burke. Judge Scofield told us that."

"So he did!" said Brace. "But I knew it anyway. I would have known it, because the policeman did not see the solution of the mystery in a moment. If he had been a detective sent for the purpose he would have been alert to solve the mystery, and he would have solved it because it was so easy to solve. I happen to know that Burke walks that beat, but to know how Burke would proceed we must know Roger Finch."

"Know Roger Finch?" I exclaimed.

"Certainly!" said Bryson Brace. "We must know what kind of man he is, his habits of mind, his general character. Because, gentlemen, the mystery of the chicken house is not how Silas Washington entered it, but that anything so simple should be considered a mystery. So I will say, to make the matter clearer, that Roger Finch is an estimable and honest citizen, but something of a crank in the matter of chickens. You might steal ten dollars from him and he would forgive you, but if you stole one of his white leghorn chickens he would hate you for life. He loves his chickens. If you stole a large sum of money from him, he would think of recovering it; if you stole his chickens, he would think of immediate revenge.

"Yes, that's the way he is," I said.

"So, when he suspected Silas of designs on his chickens, he greased the padlock," said Bryson Brace, "and the minute he found three chickens gone, he rushed out to find a policeman. His first great desire was to get the chickens back, alive and unharmed."

"Fancy stock like that, naturally!" I said.

"And, suspecting Silas Washington, he ran for a policeman and went direct to the home of Silas Washington with him. They found the proof that Silas had killed the chickens. His next thought was revenge. Burke arrested Silas, took him before a magistrate, and the magistrate held him for trial. A grand jury indicted Silas, the case went into the hands of the district attorney, the district attorney tried it -- or at least he had one of his assistants try it."


"But, before the case was placed before the grand jury, the district attorney examined the evidence, of course," said Brace. "He had Mr. Finch and Burke come before him. Finch, being the man he is, wanted Silas given the most the law permitted. He wanted him convicted of burglary. So what would the district attorney do? He would question Burke about the chicken house -- whether it showed signs of having been broken into or not. Burke would not know. He had not seen the chicken house. The district attorney would send Burke back to see it."

"That is all natural enough," one of us said.

"And Burke," smiled Bryson Brace, "having seen the chicken house every day, and being familiar with it, would know too much about it and not enough about it. He would take too much for granted. He would think he was familiar with it, and he would concentrate his examination on the points the district attorney had asked him to make sure of -- whether the door had been pried open, for example. He would examine carefully the staple that held the padlock, to see whether it could be pulled out without touching the lock. He would examine the board into which the staple was driven, to see whether the board had been removed and put back again. He would examine the windows to see if they could be taken out, frames and all. He would look to see if a board was loose anywhere. Any of these things might be a solution of the locked chicken-house mystery, and, finding that none of them was possible, he would return and report to the district attorney the result of his investigations."

"That is probably just what he did," I said.

"Just so!" said Brace. "And, after all, the case was a minor one. Three chickens stolen, and the district attorney and his office busy with two or three murder cases, assaults, and the great mass of crime that must be sifted and prepared for trial or for presentation to the grand jury. Burke would be questioned, thanked, and sent about his business."

"I know how they do it," I said. "I have been on the grand jury myself, on occasion."

"Yes," said Brace. "Then the case comes before the grand jury. It occupies about five minutes of time. Mr. Finch is examined and proves the chickens were stolen, that they were his chickens, and admits that the value was less than twenty-five dollars, He says Silas Washington could not have got them without breaking into the chicken house, but admits he doesn't know how he did it. Then Burke comes into the grand-jury room, testifies to finding the feathers, heads, and feet, and tells how he examined the chicken house."

"That's exactly the way they do it!" I said.

"I believe so," said Brace. "Then the assistant district attorney addresses the grand jury and says there seems to be no doubt that Silas stole the chickens, but that there does seem to be some doubt as to how he entered the chicken house. If the grand jury thinks there is proof enough, it can indict for petty larceny and burglary in the third degree. So the grand jury finds a true bill, and the case comes to trial. The assistant district attorney tries to prove burglary and cannot do it, and the mystery of the chicken house that was not entered, but was entered, comes into existence. No one can solve it, and Silas Washington will not tell."

"But you can solve it," I suggested hopefully.

"I have solved it," said Bryson Brace. "But first let me ask why Silas Washington would not confess the mystery? We must know him and know his wife Sallie to know that. I will say, to make it short --"

"Yes, we've got to be getting back into that jury box," I said, looking at my watch.

"To make it short, then," said Bryson Brace, "Sallie is a terror, and she has beaten Silas up more than once. She is a good woman, with a terrible temper. Silas took that into consideration. He figured that if he returned home with the shame of a sentence on him, but without having made due reparation by serving out the sentence, Sallie would just naturally give him something ten times worse than jail. On the other hand, she would be sorry for him if he had to serve a jail term. So he chose the jail term. He did not tell Judge Scofield how he got the chickens. He side-stepped with a joke and made it more of a mystery than ever. He made it a real mystery when it had been only a case of bungling police work. The answer to the question, How did Silas get into a chicken house that he could not get into? is that he did not get into it at all!"

"How did he get the chickens, then?" I asked.

"With a fishhook." said Reverend Bryson Brace.

"What?" we all shouted. "With a fishhook on the end of a stout cord," said Bryson Brace.

"But where did he fish?" we demanded in amazement.

"Through a hole in the roof of the chicken house," said Brace.

"A hole in the roof! Why --"

"Yes," Brace said calmly. "Silas got the roof of the ventilator off and put it on again! He was never in the chicken yard. He sat on the limb that extends over the chicken house from the tree in the vacant lot beyond the wire fence back of the yard. From there he prodded the roof of the ventilator with his fishing pole until he got it loose, hooked it, and lowered it carefully to the roof of the chicken house. Then he baited a hook with bread, dangled it down the opening, and the chickens took the hook from where they sat on the perch. A chicken can't squawk when it is hooked that way. He pulled the chickens up, wrung their necks, quietly lifted the roof of the ventilator on his pole, and replaced it over the opening, picked up the chickens, and took them home and ate them.

"The whole trouble with Roger Finch and Officer Burke, as detectives, was that they were not trying to get the whole truth. They were trying to prove that Silas got inside the chicken house. They wanted to make out a case of burglary against him. They did not attack the affair with open minds. And," said Reverend Bryson Brace, with his broad smile, "they were not so well equipped to solve the mystery as I am at this moment."

"You mean you have the detective faculty highly developed?" I asked respectfully.

"No," said Bryson Brace. "I mean that this morning, before I started down to see if I could get Silas out of jail, Sallie came around to the parsonage and told me exactly how Silas got the chickens!"



Saturday, October 07 at 1:18:13am USA Central
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