Originally under the working title Bridge and the Oskaloosa Kid this book is one of the few contemporary thrillers by Burroughs, a partial sequel to the much loved The Mucker, and was published in Blue Book Magazine in March of 1918. It’s the character of Bridge, the tramp with a heart gold, who connects these two stories together, but other than his appearance in both they are quite standalone stories. This entry is much shorter than its predecessor and though it’s billed as a mystery crime thriller there really isn’t much of a “Who dunnit” element to this story as there is a “Who are these people” element.
The book begins with a young and inexperienced burglar breaking into home of Jonas Prim, president of the First National Bank of Oakdale. The young crook heads directly, but not so stealthily, to the room belonging to Prim’s daughter Abigail, easily finds the hidden safe and concealed gun, then slips out of the house and into the night. While skulking about our burglar had overheard Jonas Prim and his wife discussing their daughter, and how she has left town to visit the family of the man she will soon be announcing an engagement to. We quickly ascertain that the young Abigail is not all that keen on marrying this man who is older and balder than her ideal version of a husband.
While out on the dark streets the young burglar quickly becomes drawn to human companionship, even just this brief foray into the night as unnerved the thief, and soon The Kid comes upon a group of hoboes hiding out in a farmer’s barn. They at first turn away this young interloper but once they see the diamonds and pearls bulging out of the thief’s pockets they decide to let him stay. The thief lets them believe he is the Oskaloosa Kid but this group could care less about who he claims to be as they are about relieving him of his spoils. The Kid’s sleep is soon interrupted when one of the hoboes plunges a knife into him, but lucky for the kid the knife hit the concealed gun. The Kid shoots and wings one of the hoboes, and flees into the night.
It’s while on the run through a stormy that The Kid runs into Bridge, a strangely educated tramp, and explains the horrors he’s gone through, he also confesses to being a thief and the notorious Oskaloosa Kid. Bridge happens to be well acquainted with the real Oskaloosa Kid and this young boy is certainly not the pug nosed thug he’s encountered in the past. Bridge doesn’t let The Kid in on his knowledge which is kind of the theme of this story. Who is exactly who?
Meanwhile back in Oakdale the town is in an uproar; not only was the Prim home been burgled but notable town member John Baggs was assaulted and robbed in his home, and not expected to live, and local bon vivant Reginald Paynter was murdered and thrown from a car. Worse is that the Prim’s daughter is missing and witnesses claim that Abigail was in that car.
The Kid and Bridge end up riding out the storm in the old deserted Scribs farmhouse, or as most know it “The Murder House” and The Kid is at first against going into this supposedly haunted house, but when a car roars by, with the sound of a gunshot piercing the night, and young woman is thrown from the speeding automobile, it’s up to our two heroes to take the unconscious woman to the “safety” of the farmhouse. Soon after entering the darkened abode The Kid trips over a corpse which event is shortly followed by the sounds of a heavy body, dragging a chain, ascending the cellar stairs. They flee upstairs and barricade themselves into one of the back rooms. Later they are joined by two of the hoboes that were pursuing The Kid, who had also found themselves chased upstairs by the mysterious creature.
If you happen to have seen the Frank Frazetta cover of The Oakdale Affair the mystery of the chain rattling creature is no mystery at all…it’s a bear.
What follows are numerous close calls with the authorities, Jonas Prim had hired a private detective to find his missing daughter, and the meeting up with a young gypsy girl (it’s her bear), and more encounters with those dangerous hoboes. Bridge is at odds with himself as he can’t understand why he’s become so protective of this young criminal, as he himself has a reputation of never straying from the path of law and order, and yet he is constantly helping this admitted thief stay one step ahead of the law. Even the young woman they found, who refuses to divulge her name but all assume that she’s the missing Abigail, if not up to no good has been involved with people of less than virtuous actions.
I will not get into spoiler territory for this review as the final reveal of who is exactly who is too fun to spoil here; let’s just say if you guess it before the final act reveal you did better than me. Overall this is excellent and very quick read; the characters are interesting and Bridge is a quintessential example of pulp hero. The book has some great comic bits as a local farm boy, with dreams of rewards and becoming a detective, keeps running into our poor suffering heroes and causing no end of problems. For those who only know Burroughs from his Tarzan or Mars books this is one worth checking out.
Note: The Oakdale Affair was adapted to the screen in 1919. Sadly this is one of those films that has been lost to time. Hopefully one day a studio intern will uncover a can of film reels and this movie will be restored.