[Frontispiece: The resemblance . . . transformed itself slowly into the breath-cutting reality, and I was staring up . . . into the face of Cummings.]
THE TAMING OF RED BUTTE WESTERN, THE CITY OF NUMBERED DAYS, ETC.
ARTHUR E. BECHER
GROSSET & DUNLAP
PUBLISHERS ————— NEW YORK
COPYRIGHT, 1917, BY
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Published April, 1918
Reprinted April, 1918
To the one who, more clearly than any other, can best understand and appreciate the motive for its writing, this book is affectionately inscribed by
I. THE HEATING OF THE IRON II. THE SEARING TOUCH III. IN THE NAME OF THE LAW IV. SCARS V. THE DOWNWARD PATH VI. A GOOD SAMARITAN VII. THE PLUNGE VIII. WESTWARD IX. THE CUP OF TREMBLING X. THE PLAIN-CLOTHES MAN XI. NUMBER 3126 XII. A CAST FOR FORTUNE XIII. FOR THE SINEWS OF WAR XIV. PAPER WALLS XV. THE BROKEN WAGON XVI. IN THE OPEN XVII. ALADDIN'S LAMP XVIII. "THE WOMAN . . . WHOSE HANDS ARE AS BANDS" XIX. A RECKONING AND A HOLD-UP XX. BROKEN FAITH XXI. THE END OF A HONEYMOON XXII. A WOMAN'S LOVE XXIII. SKIES OF BRASS XXIV. RESTORATION XXV. THE MOUNTAIN'S TOP
The Heating of the Iron
It was not until the evening when old John Runnels, who had been the town marshal in my school days, and was now chief of police under the new city charter, came into the dingy little private banking room to arrest me that I began to realize, though only in a sort of dumb and dazed fashion, how much my promise to Agatha Geddis might be going to cost me.
But even if the full meaning of the promise had been grasped at the time when my word was given, it is an open question if the earlier recognition of the possible consequences would have made any difference. Before we go any farther, let it be clearly understood that there was no sentiment involved; at least, no sentimental sentiment. Years before, I, like most of the other town boys of my age, had taken my turn as Agatha's fetcher and carrier; but that was only a passing spasm—a gust of the calf-love which stirs up momentary whirlwinds in youthful hearts. The real reason for the promise-making lay deeper. Abel Geddis had been crabbedly kind to me, helping me through my final year in the High School after my father died, and taking me into his private bank the week after I was graduated. And Agatha was Abel Geddis's daughter.
Over and above the daughterhood, she was by far the prettiest girl in Glendale, with a beauty of the luscious type; eyes that could toll a man over the edge of a bluff and lips that had a trick of quivering like a hurt baby's when she was begging for something she was afraid she wasn't going to get. All through the school years she had been one of my classmates, and a majority of the town boys were foolish about her, partly because she had a way of twisting them around her fingers; partly, perhaps, because her father was the rich man of the community and the president of the Farmers' Bank.
She had sent for me to come up to the big house on the hill the night before this other night of old John Runnels's call. I went, taking it as a matter of course that she wished to talk to me about the trouble at the bank, and saying to myself that I was going to be iron and steel and adamant; this when I might have known that I should be only putty in her hands. She met me on the porch, and made me sit with my back to the window, which was open, while she faced me, sitting in the hammock where the house lights fell fairly upon her and I could get the full benefit of the honeying eyes and baby lips as she talked.
She had begun by saying in catchy little murmurings that I knew better than any one else what it was going to mean to her—to all of them—if her father's crookedness (she called it his "mistake") in using the depositors' money for his own speculations should be published abroad; and I did. She was engaged to young Wheeland, son of the copper magnate Wheeland, of New York, and the wedding date was set. Black ruin was staring them all in the face, she said, and I could save them, if I only would. What would be shouted from the housetops as a penitentiary offense in the president of the bank would be condoned as a mere error in judgment on the part of a hired bookkeeper.
If I would only consent to let the directors think that I was the one who had passed upon and accepted the mining-stock collateral—which had taken the place in the bank's vault of the good, hard money of the depositors—well, I could see how easily the dreadful crisis would be tided over; and besides earning the undying gratitude of the family, her father would stand by me and I would lose nothing in the end.
For one little minute she almost made me believe what she didn't believe herself—that the crime wasn't a crime. Her father, "our eminent and public-spirited fellow-citizen, the Hon. Abel Geddis," to quote the editor of the Glendale Daily Courier, was desperately involved. For months he had been throwing good money after bad in a Western gold mine; not only his own money, but the bank's as well. At the long last the half-dozen sleepy directors, three of them retired farmers and the other three local merchants, had awakened to the fact that there was something wrong. They didn't know fully, as yet, just what they were in for; Geddis's part of the bookkeeping was in a horrible muddle owing to his efforts to hide the defalcation. But they knew enough to be certain that somebody had been skating upon thin ice and had broken through.
"You can't help seeing just how it is, Herbert," Agatha had pleaded, with the soulful look in her pretty eyes and the baby lips all in a tremble. "If the faintest breath of this gets out, VanBruce Wheeland will have to know, and then everything will come to an end and I shall want to go and drown myself in the river. You are young and strong and brave, and you can live down a—an error of judgment"—she kept on calling it that, as if the words had been put into her mouth; as they probably had. "Promise me, Herbert, won't you?—for—for the sake of the old times when you used to carry my books to school, and I—I——"
What was the use? Every man is privileged to be a fool once in a while, and a young man sometimes twice in a while. I promised her that I would shoulder the load, or at least find some way out for her father; and when she asked me how it could be done, I was besotted enough to explain how the mining-stock business had really passed through my hands—as it had in a purely routine way—and telling her in so many words that everything would be all right for her father when the investigating committee should come to overhaul the books and the securities.
When I got up to go, she went to the front steps with me, and at the last yearning minute a warm tear had splashed on the back of my hand. At that I kissed her and told her not to worry another minute. And this brings me back to that other evening just twenty-four hours later; I in the bank, with the accusing account books spread out under the electric light on the high desk, and old John Runnels, looking never a whit less the good-natured, easy-going town marshal in his brass-buttoned uniform and gilt-banded cap, stumbling over the threshold as he let himself in at the side door which had been left on the latch.
I had started, half-guiltily, I suppose, when the door opened; and Runnels, who had known me and my people ever since my father had moved in from the farm to give us children the advantage of the town school, shook his grizzled head sorrowfully.
"I'd ruther take a lickin' than to say it, but I reckon you'll have to come along with me, Bertie," he began soberly, laying a big-knuckled hand on my shoulder. "It all came out in the meetin' to-day, and the d'rectors 're sayin' that you hadn't ort to be allowed to run loose any longer."
The high desk stool was where I could grab at it, and it saved me from tumbling over backward.
"Go with you?" I gasped. "You mean to—to jail?"
Runnels nodded. "Jest for to-night. I reckon you'll be bailed, come mornin'—if that blamed security comp'ny that's on your bond don't kick up too big a fight about it."
"Hold on—wait a minute," I begged. "There is nothing criminal against me, Uncle John. Mr. Geddis will tell you that. I——"
The big hand slipped from my shoulder and became a cautionary signal to flag me down.
"You mustn't tell me nothin' about it, Bertie; I don't want to have to take the stand and testify against your father's boy. Besides, it ain't no kind o' use. You done it yourself when you was up at Abel Geddis's house las' night. Two of the d'rectors, Tom Fitch and old man Withers, was settin' behind the window curtains in the front room whilst you was talkin' to Miss Agathy on the porch. You know, better'n I do, what they heard you say."
For a second the familiar interior of the bank went black for me. I was young in those days; much too young to know that human nature in the lump is neither all saint nor all devil; that a man may be a second father to you for years, and then turn and hold your head under water until you drown when he is fighting for himself. It had been a trap, deliberately set and baited with Agatha. I remembered now that she had not spoken loud enough to be overheard; while I, with my back to the open window, had talked in ordinary tones. Fitch and Withers had heard me say that the investigating committee would find nothing against Abel Geddis, and they had naturally taken it as a confession of my own guilt.
I remember that I went quite methodically about putting things away while Runnels waited, though every move was dumbly mechanical. Something seemed to have died inside of me, and I suppose the psychologists would say that it was the subconscious Bert Weyburn who put the books in the vault, locked the iron door, set the high desk in order, and turned off all the lights save the one we always left turned on in front of the vault.
Afterward, when we were in the street together, and Runnels was walking me around the square to the police station, the dead thing inside of me came alive. It had gone to sleep a pretty decent young fellow, with a soft spot in his heart for his fellow men, and a boy's belief in the ultimate goodness of all women. It awoke a raging devil. It was all I could do to keep from throttling unsuspecting John Runnels as we tramped along side by side. I could have done it. I had inherited my father's well-knit frame and serviceable muscles, and all through my office experience I had kept myself fit with long walks and a few bits of home-made gymnastic apparatus in my room at Mrs. Thompson's. And the new-born devil was ready with the suggestion.
I have been glad many times since that old John never knew; glad that the frenzied curses that came boiling up out of that inner hell were wordless. I contrived to hold in while Runnels was hurrying me through the station office and past the sleepy sergeant at the desk. But when the cell door had opened and closed for me, and old John's heavy footsteps were no longer echoing in the iron-floored corridor, the newly hatched devil broke loose and I made a pretty bad night of it.
The Searing Touch
Out of the first twenty-four hours, when my little raft of respectability and good report was going to pieces under me, I have brought one heart-mellowing recollection. In the morning it was old John Runnels himself who brought me my cell breakfast, and he did it to spare me the shame of being served by the police-station turnkey. Past that, he sat on the edge of the iron cot and talked to me while I tried to eat.
"They was aimin' to telegraph the sheriff and have you railroaded slap up to the county seat las' night, but I told 'em nary," he confided. "I wasn't allowin' to have 'em jerk you out of your home town before you'd had a chance to pick a lawyer and talk to your friends; no sir-ee, I wasn't."
"I guess I haven't any friends any more," I was still bitter enough to say. And then: "Tell me, if you can, Uncle John, just what the charge against me is."
"I reckon you know a heap better'n I do, Bertie," was his sober rejoinder, "but I can tell you what I heard. They say you've been takin' the bank's money to put into a gold mine somewheres out yonder in the Rocky Mountains."
"Who swore out the warrant for my arrest?"
Abner Withers, town miser, note-shaver and skinflint, was the one man on the board of directors of the bank whom I had always most cordially detested. Back in my childhood, before my father had got upon his feet, Withers had planned to foreclose a mortgage on the home farm, making the hampering of my father so that he could not pay the debt a part of the plan. More than once I had half suspected that he was in with Geddis on the mining deal, but I had no proof of this.
"You say they were getting ready to railroad me out of town last night: I suppose they will do it to-day, won't they?"
"Not if I can help it, Bertie. I'm goin' to try to hold you here till you've had time to kind of straighten yourself around and ketch up with the procession. I don't know what in Sam Hill you wanted to go and bu'st yourself up for, this way, but I'm owin' it to Amos Weyburn dead to help his boy get some sort of a fair show for his white alley. You ask me anything in reason, and I'll do it."
I considered the most necessary requirements hastily. My mother and sister were absent on a visit to a distant relative in the far-away Saskatchewan wheat country, and I thanked God for that. It was altogether unlikely that they would see any of the home newspapers, for some time, at least, and any anxiety on that score might be dismissed, or at all events postponed. The most pressing need was for a lawyer, and since lawyers do not serve without fees, I was glad to remember that my savings, which were still reposing in Abel Geddis's bank vault, would enable me to pay as I went.
By this time, in bitter revulsion from gratitude to fierce enmity, I was determined to defend myself tooth and nail. At one stroke Abel Geddis had cancelled all my obligations to him. At the very moment when I was promising his daughter to help cover up his criminality, he had been deliberately plotting to make me his scapegoat.
"I need a lawyer, of course," I told Runnels; and then I made the first and worst of a long series of wretched mistakes. "Send word to Cy Whitredge and tell him I'd like to see him."
If anybody had asked me five minutes after Runnels went away why I had chosen Cyrus Whitredge to be my counsel I doubt if I could have offered any justifiable reason. Whitredge was known throughout our end of the State as a criminal lawyer, shrewd, unscrupulous, and with a reputation built up entirely upon his singular success in defeating the ends of justice. Before a jury of farmers and small merchants, such as I was likely to have, I had prejudiced my case at the very outset.
I was completely and thoroughly convinced of this a little later when Whitredge came to see me. He was a lean man, leather-faced, and with an eye like that of a fish. To my consternation and keen disheartenment he assumed my guilt from the moment the cell door was locked upon him and he had seated himself upon the iron-framed cot to nurse a knee in the locked fingers of his bony hands.
"You've got the wrong idea of things, altogether, Weyburn," he criticised, after I had tried to tell him that I was being made to hold the bag for some one else; and his use of the bare surname, when he had known me from boyhood, cut me like a knife. "You can't expect me to do anything for you unless you are entirely frank with me. As your counsel, I've got to know the facts; and you gain absolutely nothing by insisting to me that you are not guilty."
There was more of it; a good bit more in which I stubbornly asserted my innocence while Whitredge used every trick and wile known to his craft to entrap me into admitting that I was guilty, in the act if not in the intention.
"You can't deny—you don't deny—that you knew these mining sharps, Hempstead and Lesherton, pretty intimately, that you saw them frequently and talked with them in the way of business, and that you knew all about the capitalization scheme they were trying to put over," was Whitredge's summing up of the situation. "You'll have to loosen up, Weyburn, if you expect to get any help. I'll come around again this afternoon, and maybe by that time you will have taken a tumble to yourself."
He got up, rattled the door for the turnkey, and then wheeled upon me with a sharp question.
"I take it you've got a little ready money hid away somewhere, haven't you?" he demanded.
I told him I had; but when I added that my savings were all in the bank he swore impatiently.
"That will mean an order from the court before you can even pay your counsel's retainer—always providing your account hasn't already been attached to apply on the shortage," he snapped; and at that the corridor officer came to let him out and he went away.
Having lived in Glendale practically all my life, I had a good right to expect that at least a few of my friends would rally to my support in the time of trouble. They came, possibly a half-dozen of them in all, between Whitredge's visit and old John Runnels's bringing of my dinner at one o'clock.
Who they were, and what they said to me, are matters which shall be burled in the deepest pit of oblivion I can find or dig. For the best of them, in the turning of a single leaf in the lifebook, I had apparently become an outcast, a pariah. One and all, they had already tried and condemned me unheard, and though there were clammy-handed offers of assistance they were purely perfunctory, as I could see, and there was never a man of them all to say heartily, "Bert Weyburn, I don't believe it of you." It wasn't the fault of any of these cold comfort bringers that the milk of human kindness didn't turn to vinegar in me that day, or that I did not drink the cup of bitterness and isolation to the very dregs.
I know now, of course, that I was boyishly hot-hearted and unfair; that I was too young and inexperienced to make allowances for that deathless trait in human nature—in all animate nature—which prompts the well to recoil instinctively from the pest-stricken. Later on—but I needn't anticipate.
It was along in the latter part of the afternoon, and before Whitredge's return, that Agatha came. Her appearance in my cell was a total surprise. I was standing at the little grated window when I heard footsteps in the corridor. I thought it was Whitredge coming back, and was morose enough not to turn or look around until after the door had opened and clanged shut again. Then I wheeled to find myself looking straight into the man-melting eyes.
"Oh, Herbert!" she gasped; and with that she dropped upon the cot and put her face in her hands.
If only the women wouldn't weep at us how vastly different this world would be! All day long I had been praying that I might some time have the chance to hold a mirror up to Agatha Geddis; a mirror that would reflect her soul and show her what a mean and shriveled thing it was. But what I did was to sit beside her and put my arm around her and try to comfort her as I might have comforted my sister.
When her sobbing fit had subsided and she began to talk I found out what she had come for—or I thought I did. It was all a miserable mistake—so she protested—and Abner Withers was the responsible one. It was he who had insisted that I should be arrested and prosecuted; and, thus far, her father had not been able to make him listen to reason. But it would come out all right in the end, if I would only be patient and wait. Mr. Whitredge had been up to the house to see her father, and they had had a long talk. Among other things, she had heard her father say that he would bear all the expenses, meaning—I supposed—that he would see to it that Whitredge did not lose his fee.
I have more than once had professional mesmerists try to hypnotize me, without success. But there is little doubt that Agatha Geddis turned the trick for me that afternoon in the steel cell of the Glendale police station. As she talked, my heart grew putty-soft again. As before, she dwelt upon the terrible consequences, the awful disgrace, the wreck of her happiness, and all that; and once more I promised her that I would stand by her. Even after she had gone I told myself that since the worst had already happened, it would be cowardly and unmanly to turn back.
Later, when the reaction came, it is more than likely that I swung back to the other extreme, writing Agatha Geddis down in the book of bitter remembrances as a cold-blooded, plotting fiend in woman's form. She was not that. It may be said that, at this earlier period, she was merely a loosely bound fagot of evil potentialities. Doubtless the threatened cataclysm appeared sufficiently terrifying to her, and she was willing to use any means that might offer to avert it. But it may be conceded, in bare justice, that in this stage of her development she was nothing worse than a self-centered young egoist, immature, and struggling, quite without malice, to make things come her way.
It was quite late in the afternoon when Whitredge made his second visit to my cell, and this time his attitude was entirely different. Also, he dropped the curt use of my surname.
"We're going to ignore the question of your culpability for the present, Bert, and wrestle with the plain facts of the case," was the way he began on me. "From what you said this morning, I was led to infer that you had some notion of trying to shift the responsibility to Mr. Geddis. I won't say that something couldn't be done along that line; not to do you any good, you understand, but to do other folks a lot of harm. You could probably roil the water and stir up the mud pretty badly for all concerned. But in the outcome, and before a jury, you'd be likely to get the hot end of it. I'll be frank with you. If I were in your shoes, I'd rather have Geddis for me than against me. He has money and influence, and you are a young man without either."
"You are trying to advise me to plead guilty?" I asked.
"Oh, of course, the formal plea in court would be 'Not guilty.' I'm merely advising you not to make the fight vindictive. If you don't, I'm inclined to believe that Geddis will stand by you and you'll get off easy."
It was on the tip of my tongue to say that I would fight to the last gasp before I would suffer myself to be tried and condemned for a crime of which I was innocent. Then the distorted sense of honor got in its work again. Agatha Geddis's visit was still recent enough to make me believe that I owed her something.
"You'll have to get me out of it in some way," I returned. "I can't afford to be convicted."
"Abel Geddis has been a pretty good friend of yours in the past, Bert," the lawyer suggested. "You don't want to forget that."
"I'm not forgetting it, and I'm giving him all the credit that is due him. But you can't blame me for thinking a little of my mother and sister, and myself. You know what a prison sentence means to a man, better than I do. I couldn't stand for that."
Whitredge stroked his long chin and looked past me out of the little grated window.
"We'd hope for the best, of course," he returned. "If we can make it appear as an error in judgment"—there was that cursed phrase again—"without any real criminal intention, and if we can prove that you didn't reap any monetary benefit from the transfer of the mining stock, there is good reason to hope that the court may be lenient. Do I understand that you are giving me a free hand in the case, Bert?"
"I don't see that there is anything else for me to do," I said, half-doubtfully; and as he was going I asked him about the question of bail.
"I have waived the preliminary examination for you—merely to save you the humiliation of appearing in a justice's court in Glendale," was the evasive reply.
"But without the examination I shan't have a chance to offer bail, shall I?"
Whitredge shook his head. "The guaranty company that is on your bond beat us to it, I'm sorry to say. They sent their attorney over from Cincinnati last night, and he is here now, prepared to refuse the company's consent in the matter of ball. That is another reason why, acting for you, I have waived the preliminary. Without the guaranty company's assent to the arrangement it would be useless for us to offer sureties, though Geddis and two or three others have expressed their willingness to sign for you."
"Then what am I to expect?"
"Nothing worse than a little delay. Court is in session, and you will be taken to Jefferson. If the grand jury finds a true bill against you, the cause will probably be tried at the present term of court. There need be nothing humiliating or embarrassing for you here in Glendale. Sam Jorkins will take you over to Jefferson on the midnight train, and you needn't see any of the home-town folks unless you want to."
Remembering the clammy handshakings of the forenoon, I thought I should never again want to see anybody that I knew. And thus I made the second of the miserable blunders which led to all that followed.
"Let it be that way," I said. "If Jorkins will go with me up to Mrs. Thompson's so that I can get a few things and pack a grip——"
"Oh, of course," said Whitredge, readily enough. "I'll have a carriage to take you to the train, and it can drive around by your boarding-house. But you mustn't try to run away. I suppose you wouldn't do anything like that, would you?—even if you had a good chance?"
I turned upon him as quick as a flash.
"Do you mean that you're trying to give me a hint that I'd better run away?" I demanded.
He took a step toward the cell door and I had a fleeting impression that he was listening to determine whether or not there was any one in the corridor. When he faced me again he was frowning reprovingly.
"I am a member of the bar in good standing," he reminded me stiffly. "If you knew the first letter of the legal alphabet you'd know that I couldn't advise a client to run away."
"Damn the legal alphabet!" I broke out hotly. "You're a man, Cy Whitredge; and I'm another man and in trouble. Can't you drop the professional cant for half a minute and talk straight?"
At this he shook his head again.
"It would prejudice your case mighty badly—that is, if you should try it and not succeed. On the other hand—but no; I won't say another word. Your best friend wouldn't advise you to make such a break. Besides, you have no money, and you couldn't get very far without it. I shouldn't even think of it, if I were you. Dwelling on a thing like that sometimes gives it a chance to get hold of you. But this is all foolishness, of course. You are going to Jefferson, and you'll take your medicine like a man if you have to. That's all, I believe, for the present. Keep a stiff upper lip, and if anybody comes to see you, don't talk too much. I'll be over at the county seat in a day or two, and we'll thresh it out some more."
After Runnels had brought me my supper, and I had nothing to do but to wait for the constable and train-time, I did the very thing that Whitredge had advised me not to do; I couldn't get it out of my mind that freedom at any price was now the most desirable thing on earth—in the universe, for that matter. It was facilely easy to picture a future in some far distant corner of the country where I might begin all over again and make good. Other men had done it. Every once in a while I had read in the newspapers the story of some fellow who had eluded his fate, deserved or otherwise, years before and had lived and builded anew and in a fashion to win the applause of all men.
Because I had lived in a small town the better part of my life, I had the mistaken notion that the world is very wide and that there must be no end of safe hiding-places for the man who needs to seek one. From that to imagining the possible details was only a series of steps, each one carrying me a little nearer to the brink of decision. As I have said, I had money of my own in the bank vault; much more than enough to bribe easy-going Sam Jorkins, the constable who, as Whitredge had said, was to take me to Jefferson. I weighed and measured all the chances and hazards, and there were only two for which I could not provide in advance. There was a possibility that Geddis might be staying late in the bank; and if he were not, there was the other possibility that he might have changed the combination on the vault lock since my arrest.
The more I thought about it, the more fiercely the escape notion gripped me. Whitredge's talk had made it perfectly plain that the best I could hope for in a court trial would be a light sentence. As train-time drew near, the obsession pushed reason and all the scruples aside. If I could only persuade Jorkins to let me go to the bank on the drive to the station——
The town clock in the tower of the new city hall was striking eleven when good old John Runnels and the constable came for me. At the final moment I was telling myself feverishly that it would be of no use for me to try to bribe honest Sam Jorkins; that this was the fatal weakness in my plan of escape. Hence, I could have shouted for joy when Runnels unlocked the cell door and turned me over, not to Jorkins, but to a stranger; a hard-faced man roughly dressed, and with the scar of a knife slash across his right cheek.
"This is Bill Simmons, a deputy from Jefferson, Bertie; come to take you over to the county ja—to the sheriff's office," said Runnels. "I've told him he ain't goin' to have no use for them handcuffs he's brought along."
"That may be," growled the sheriff's messenger. "All the same, I ain't takin' no chances—not me!" and with that he whipped the manacles from his pocket. But Runnels intervened quickly.
"Nary!—not here in my shop, you don't, Simmons," he said. "For two cents I'd go along with Bertie, myself, if only to see to it that he gets a fair show. You treat him right and white, or I'll fire you out, warrant or no warrant!"
When we reached the street I said I wanted to go around by way of my boarding-house for a change of clothing.
"That's all been 'tended to," said the surly deputy, with a jerk of his thumb toward a suitcase in the seat beside the driver of the hack carriage. "You get in and keep quiet; that's all you've got to do."
After this he said nothing and made no further move until we were jouncing along on our way to the railroad station. Then, without warning, he turned upon me suddenly and tried to snap the hand-cuffs on my wrists.
It was all I was waiting for; something to pull the trigger. In a flash the savage, which, in the best of us, lies but skin-deep under the veneer of habit and the civilized conventions, leaped alive. There was a fierce grapple in the interior of the darkened carriage—fierce but silent—and the blood sang in my veins when I found that I was more than a match for the scar-faced deputy. With fingers to throat I choked him into submission, and when I had taken his pistol and hand-cuffed him with his own manacles, the step that made me a criminal in fact had been overpassed.
"One yip out of you, and you get a bullet out of your own gun!" I warned him; and then I got speech with the driver, a squat, thickset Irishman, whose face and brogue were both strange to me.
"Drive to the Farmers' Bank—side door—and be quick about it!" I called to him over the lowered window-sash.
"I'm hired to go to the train. Who's payin' me for the side-trip?" he queried impatiently.
"I am," I snapped; adding: "There's money in it for you if you put the whip on."
He obeyed the order with what might have seemed suspicious readiness, if I had been cool enough to consider it, and a minute or two later the hack ground its wheels against the curb at the side door of the bank building. With the pistol at his ribs I pushed the deputy out ahead of me. My keys were still in my pocket—Runnels hadn't searched me for anything—and I opened the door and entered, driving Simmons a step in advance.
The bank was untenanted, as I knew it would be if Geddis should not be there, since we had never employed a night watchman. At that time of night there was nothing stirring in the town, and in the midnight silence the ticking of the clock on the wall over Abel Geddis's desk crashed into the stillness like the blows of a hammer. I made the deputy sit down under the vault light while I worked the combination. The lock had not been changed, and the door opened at the first trial.
Again pushing Simmons ahead of me, I entered the vault. It was a fairly modern structure; Geddis had had it rebuilt within the year; and it was electric-lighted and large enough to serve the double purpose of a bank strong-room and a safety deposit. Shoving the deputy into a corner I opened the cash-box and took out the exact amount of my savings, neither more nor less. Simmons stretched his neck and leered at me with an evil grin.
"You're the fine little crook, all right enough," he remarked. "They was sayin' over at Jefferson that you was a Sunday-school sup'rintendent, or somethin' o' that sort. Them kind is always the flyest."
It struck me suddenly that he was taking his defeat pretty easily, but there was no time for a nice weighing of other men's motives.
"I'm fly enough to give you what's coming to you," I said; and with that I snapped off the electric light, darted out, slammed the vault door and shot the bolts. For a few hours at least, during the latter part of which he might have to breathe rather bad air, the deputy was an obstruction removed.
My hurriedly formed plan of escape would probably have made a professional criminal weep; but it was the only one I could think of on the spur of the moment. In the next county, at a distance of thirty-odd miles, there was another railroad. If I could succeed in bribing the Irish hack-driver, I might be far on my way before the bank vault would be opened and the alarm given.
The Irishman took my money readily enough and offered no objections when I told him what I wished to do. Also, he claimed to be familiar with the cross-country road to Vilasville, saying that he could set me down in the village before daylight. Oddly enough, he made no comment on the absence of the deputy, and seemed quite as willing to haul one passenger as two. With my liberal bribe for a stimulant he whipped up his horses, and in a few minutes we were out of town and rolling smoothly along the intercounty pike.
For a time the sudden break with all the well-behaved traditions kept me awake and in a fever heat of excitement. But along in the small hours the monotonous clack-clack of the horses' hoofs on the limestone pike and the steady rumbling of the wheels quieted me. Reflecting that I had had little sleep the night before, and that the way ahead would be perilous enough to ask for sharpened faculties and a well-rested body, I braced myself in a corner of the carriage and closed my eyes.
When I awakened, after what seemed like only the shortest hand-space of dreamless oblivion, a misty dawn was breaking and the carriage was stopped in a town street and in front of a brick building with barred windows. While I was blinking and rubbing my eyes in astoundment, a big, bearded man whose face was strangely familiar opened the door and whipped the captured pistol from the seat.
"This was one time when the longest way 'round was the shortest way home," chuckled the big pistol-snatcher quizzically. And then: "Old Ab Withers seems to know you better than most of us do, Bert. He told me I'd better not risk you on the train with just one Glendale constable; that I'd better send a rig and two deputies after you, if I wanted to make sure o' seein' you. What have you done with Simmons?"
I told him briefly.
"All right," he said. "Climb down out o' that and come on in. The jig's up."
It was not until I was standing on the sidewalk beside the gigantic sheriff, with the Irishman grinning at me from his seat in the hack, that I realized fully what had happened. Instead of taking me to Vilasville, the driver, who was Simmons's partner and fellow deputy, had changed his route while I was asleep and brought me to the county seat.
In the Name of the Law
Of course, I didn't have to wait until Whitredge came over to the county seat to learn that I had hopelessly cooked my goose by the clumsy attempt at an escape. What I did not suspect then, nor, indeed, for a long time afterward, was the possibility that Withers or Geddis, or both of them, had forestalled me in the matter of bribing the two deputies; that my foolish attempt had been anticipated, and that Whitredge, himself, was not wholly above suspicion as an accessory before the fact. For it was his thinly veiled suggestion that put the thing into my head.
However, that is neither here nor there. With the charge before it, the grand jury quickly brought in a true bill against me; and on the plea of the county prosecuting attorney my case was advanced on the docket and set for trial within the week, the argument for haste being the critical state of affairs in the business of the Farmers' Bank of Glendale; a state of affairs which demanded that the responsibility for certain shortages in the bank's assets be fixed immediately as between the accused bookkeeper and cashier and his superiors. Whitredge brought me word of this hurry-up proposal, and either was, or pretended to be, properly indignant over the unseemly haste.
"You just say the word, Bert, and I'll have the case postponed until the next term of court, or else I'll know the reason why!" he blustered stoutly.
"Why should I wish to have it postponed, when the delay would merely mean six months more of jail for me?" I objected.
"It might give us some chance to frame up some sort of a defense; and, besides, it would give public opinion a little time to die down," he suggested. "I say it isn't fair to try you while everybody's hot and excited and wrathy about the money loss. Still, if you think you're all ready, and want to take the chance——"
He knew I did, and was only egging me on. What he and all the rest of them were working for was to get me out of the way as swiftly as possible. I knew this afterward, after I had time to think it out and piece it together; and God knows, they gave me all the time I needed to do the thinking.
So, with the prisoner's counsel making no motion to the contrary, the trial date stood, and shortly I found myself in the dock, with good old Judge Haskins peering down at me over the top of his spectacles. Like many of the older people in the county, the judge had known my father well, and I am willing to believe that it was not easy for him to sit in judgment upon that father's son.
The trial was fair enough, as such things go. In the selection of the jury, Whitredge made free use of his challenging privilege; but it seemed to me that he always objected to the intelligent man and chose the other kind. When our Anglo-Saxon ancestors fought for the right of trial by jury, and got it, they passed down to us a sword with two edges. Their idea, which was embodied in the common law, was that a man should be tried by a jury of his peers. But the way things have worked out, the man of average intelligence is apt to have to face a dozen jurors who are chosen partly for their lack of intelligence, and partly because their earning ability is so low that they are willing to serve for the paltry wage of a juror, whatever it may be.
So far as the presentation of the case went, the county attorney had it all his own way. Certain of the bank's moneys were missing, and they had been replaced by worthless mining stock. Specifically, the charge was that I had been borrowing the bank's money and investing it in the mining stock—all without authority from anybody higher up—and that at the last I had grown panic-stricken, or something, and had turned the stock in as part of the bank's assets.
Chandler, the prosecuting attorney, called only two witnesses, Withers and Fitch. They both testified that they had heard me admit that I was guilty. There were no details given which could involve Agatha Geddis. It was merely stated that my admission of guilt was made at Abel Geddis's house, and both witnesses asserted that Geddis himself was not present.
Whitredge leaned over and whispered to me while this evidence was being taken.
"Chandler knows, and we all know, that this acknowledgment of yours was made in a talk with Miss Geddis. We are all willing to spare her the humiliation of being brought into court. But it is your perfect right to have her called if you wish it."
Knowing well enough by this time what I was in for, I was still foolish enough, or besotted enough, to shake my head. "I don't wish it," I said; and since this was practically telling Whitredge not to do so, he did not cross-examine the two witnesses.
When the prosecution rested, Whitredge took up his line of defense. He tried to show, rather lamely, I thought, that I had always lived within my means, hadn't been dissipated, and had never been known to bet, either on horse races or on the stock market; that whatever I had done had been done without criminal intent. In this part of the trial I had a heart-warming surprise. The afternoon train from Glendale brought a big bunch of young people, and a good sprinkling of older ones, all eager to testify to my former good character. I saw then how unfair I had been in the bitterness of that first day. The shock of my arrest had simply dammed up the sympathy stream like a sudden frost; but now the reaction had come and I was not without friends. That little demonstration went with me though many a long and weary day afterward.
Naturally, the greater part of this "character evidence" was thrown out as irrelevant. The trial wasn't held for the purpose of ascertaining what sort of a young man I had been in the past. It was supposed to be an attempt to get at the facts in a particular case; and according to the testimony of two uncontradicted witnesses, I had admitted these facts.
Chandler said nothing about my attempt to escape until he came to address the jury. But then he drove the nail in good and hard. The deputy sheriff, Simmons, bruised and beaten, was shown to the jurors, and the prosecuting attorney made much of the fact that I had not stopped at a possible murder in shutting Simmons up in the bank vault. There was nothing said about the bribe to the other deputy who had figured as the hack driver; from which I inferred that the Irishman had pocketed my money and held his peace.
Whitredge's summing-up was as lame in effect as it was rantingly emotional. He liked to hear himself talk, and his stock in trade as a criminal lawyer consisted mainly of perfervid appeals to the sympathies of his juries. Here, he pleaded, with the tremolo stop pulled all the way out, was a young man whose entire future would be blasted—and all that sort of thing. It hadn't the slightest effect upon the group of stolid hill farmers and laborers in the box who sat and yawned through it, and I fancy it wasn't intended to have any.
Good old Judge Haskins's charge to the jury was all that a fair and upright judge could make it. He was no party to the agreement between the attorneys to keep Agatha Geddis out of it, or even to any knowledge of it, as he proved by pointing out to the jury the lack of detail in Fitch's and Withers's testimony. Also, he cautioned the twelve not to make too much of the attempted escape. He said—what most judges wouldn't have said—that the attempt was entirely extraneous to the charge upon which I had been arraigned; that it was not to be taken as a presumption of guilt; that it proved nothing either way. He added that an innocent man badly involved might be as easily terrified into taking flight as a guilty one. If the jury, upon due deliberation, should be convinced that I had misappropriated the bank's funds, the verdict should be "Guilty"; but not otherwise.
It was merely in conformity with time-honored custom that the jurymen rose and left the box and filed out of the court-room, I am sure, for they were back again in almost no time. Though I had every reason to expect it, the low-voiced verdict of "Guilty as charged" struck me like the blow of a fist.
"Brace up and be a man!" Whitredge leaned over to whisper in my ear; and then the good old judge, with his voice shaking a little, pronounced my sentence. Five years was the minimum for the offense with which I stood charged. But a law recently passed gave the judges a new power. Within the nominal period of five years my sentence was made indeterminate. The law was vindicated and I became a convict.
I was twenty-five years old, almost to a day, when Judge Haskins pronounced the words which were to make me for the next five years or less—the period to be determined upon my good behavior—an inmate of the State penitentiary. Lacking the needful good behavior, five long years would be taken out of the best part of life for me, and what was worse (I realized this even in the tumultuous storm of first-moment impressions and emotions), my entire point of view was certain to be hopelessly twisted and distorted for all the years that I might live beyond my release.
Surely little blame can attach to the confession that out of the tumult came a hot-hearted and vindictive determination to live for a single purpose; to work and strive and endure so that I might be the sooner free to square my account with Abel Geddis and Abner Withers. I need make no secret now of the depth of this hatred. At times, when the obsession was strongest upon me, the fear that one or both of them might die before my chance should come was almost maddening. They were both old men, and in the nature of things there was always a possibility that death might forestall me.
So it was this motive at first that made me jealous of my good-conduct marks; made me study the prison regulations and live up to them with a rigidity that knew no lapses. I am not defending the motive; I cheerfully admit that it was unworthy. None the less, I owe it something: it sustained me and kept me sane and cool-headed at a time when, without some such stimulus, I might have lost my reason.
Of the three succeeding years and what they brought or failed to bring the least said will be, perhaps, the soonest mended. I am glad to be able to write it down that my native State had, and still has, a fairly enlightened prison system; or at least it is less brutalizing than many others. During my period of incarceration the warden-in-office was an upright and impartial man, just to his charges and even kindly and fatherly when the circumstances would warrant. After my steady determination to earn an early release became apparent, I was made a "trusty," and for two of the three years I was the prison bookkeeper.
Study as I might, I could never determine how the prison life affected my associates; but for me it held few real hardships beyond the confinement, the disgrace, and the fear that before I could outlive it I should become a criminal in fact. Fight the idea as we may, environment, association, and suggestion have a great deal to say to the human atom. I was treated as a criminal, was believed to be a criminal, and mingled daily with criminals. Put yourself in my place and try to imagine what it would make of you in three changes of the calendar.
During the three years I received but one letter from home, and wrote but one. Almost as soon as my sentence period began I had a heart-broken letter from my sister. She and my mother had returned from Canada, only to find me dead and buried to the world. I answered the letter, begging her not to write again, or to expect me to write. It seemed a refinement of humiliation to have the home letters come addressed to me in a prison; and besides, I was like the sick man who turns his face to the wall, wishing neither to see nor to hear until the paroxysm has passed. I may say here that both of these good women respected my wishes and my foolish scruples. They wrote no more; and, what was still harder for my mother, I think, they made no journeys half across the State on the prison visiting days.
It will be seen that I have cut the time down from the five-year limit imposed by my sentence; and so it was cut down in reality. After I had been promoted to the work in the prison offices my life settled into a monotonous routine, with nothing eventful or disturbing to mark the passing weeks and months; and by living strictly within the prison requirements, working faithfully, and never once earning even a reprimand from the kindly warden or his deputy, I was given the full benefit of my "good time," and at the end of the third year, with a prison-provided suit on my back and five dollars of the State's money in my pocket, I was paroled.
Though I have been its beneficiary and victim, and have been made to suffer cruelly under its restrictions, I make here no arraignment of the law which provides in some States—my own among the number—for the indeterminate prison sentence. The reform was doubtless conceived in mercy and a true spirit of sociological lenity toward the offender. But in practice it may be so surrounded with safeguards and limitations, so wrapped up in provisos and conditions, as to completely defeat its own end and reverse its intent.
Under the law as it stood—and still stands, I believe—in my own commonwealth, I was required to remain in the State; to report, at least once a month, by letter to the prison authorities, and in person to the chief of police in any city in which I might be living; to retain my own name; and to bind myself to tell a straightforward story of my conviction and imprisonment at any time and to any one who should require it. The omission to comply with any of these restrictions and requirements would automatically cancel my parole and subject me to arrest and re-imprisonment for the unexpired period of the original sentence.
Again I ask you to put yourself in the place of a man paroled under such conditions. With such handicaps, what possible chance can a released man have to secure honest employment? Fortunately for me, I was still only twenty-eight—young and hopeful; and I started out to do my best, saying only that nothing should tempt me to go back to Glendale where, I was told, my mother and sister were still living in retirement and under the shadow of the family disgrace.
Knowing that the released convict usually heads for the largest city he can reach, thus obeying the common-sense instinct which prompts him to lose himself quickly in a crowd, I planned to do the opposite thing. I told myself that I was not a criminal, and therefore would not follow the criminal's example. I would board an interurban trolley and expend a portion of my five dollars in reaching some obscure town in a distant part of the State, where I would begin the new life honestly and openly in any employment that might offer.
There was nobody to meet me as I forthfared from the prison gates, but I was not expecting any one and so was not disappointed. None the less, on my way to the central trolley station I had a half-confirmed conviction that I was followed; that the follower had been behind me all the way from the prison street.
After making several fruitless attempts I finally succeeded in fixing upon the particular person in the scattering sidewalk procession who made all the turns that I made, keeping always a few paces in the rear. He was a man of about my own age, round-faced and rather fleshy. In my Glendale days I should have set him down at once as a traveling salesman. He looked the part and dressed it.
Farther along, upon reaching the interurban station, I was able to breathe freer and to smile at the qualms of my new-liberty nervousness. Just as I was parting with two of my five dollars for a ticket to the chosen destination my man came up to the ticket window, followed by a hotel porter carrying a grip and a sample case. I saw then how facilely easy it was going to be to take fright at shadows. Evidently the young man was a salesman, and his apparent pursuit of me had been merely a coincidence in corner turnings. And in the recoil from the apprehensive extreme I refused to attach any significance to the fact that he was purchasing a ticket to the same distant town to which I had but now paid my own passage.
During the leisurely five-hour run across the State the object of my suspicions—my foolish suspicions, I was now calling them—paid no attention to me, so far as I could determine. Save for the few minutes at noon when the interurban car stopped to permit its passengers to snatch a hasty luncheon at a farm-town restaurant, he did not once leave his place, which was two seats behind mine and on the opposite side of the car. On the contrary, like a seasoned traveler, he made himself comfortable behind the barricade of hand-baggage and wore out the entire time with sundry newspapers and magazines. Moreover, at our common destination he did not follow me to the one old-fashioned hotel; instead, he led the way to it, and was buying a cigar at the little counter show-case when I came up to bargain, with another of my precious dollars, for the supper, lodging and breakfast which were to launch me upon the new career.
After this, I saw the fat-faced traveling man but twice, and both times casually. At supper he had a small table to himself in one corner of the room; and the following morning, when I went out to lay siege to my new world, he was smoking in the hotel office and again buried in a newspaper. Two hours later I had found employment driving a grocer's delivery wagon, and in the triumph of having so soon found even this humblest of footholds in a workaday world, I had completely forgotten him.
Having thus made my cast for fortune and secured the foothold, it took me less than a week to learn that I had made a capital mistake in choosing a small town. Under that condition of my parole which required me to report in my true character to the town marshal I assured myself that I might as well have published my story in the county newspaper. Before the end of the week half of my customers on the delivery route were beginning to look askance at me, and when the Saturday night came I was discharged. I knew perfectly well what was coming when the boss, a big-bodied, good-natured man who had made his money as a farmer and was now losing it as the town grocer, called me into his little box of an office at the back of the shop.
"Say, Weyburn; when I asked you where you had been working before you came here, you didn't tell me the truth," was the way he began on me.
"I told you I had worked in a bank in Glendale," I protested; "which was and is the truth."
"I know; but you didn't tell me that you'd put in the last three years in the pen, and were out on parole."
"No, I didn't tell you that. But I would have told you if you had asked me."
"I can't stand for it," he grumbled, chewing at the unlighted cigar which was his Saturday night indulgence. "And if I could, the customers wouldn't. I suppose as many as a dozen women have been to me in the last few days. They say they can't afford to be watchin' the back door every time you come 'round with the groceries. You see how it is."
I saw; but I was still foolish enough to try to stem the pitiless tide.
"Would it make any difference if I were to say that I was as innocent of the crime for which I was convicted as any of these frightened women?" I suggested.
"They all say that," was the colorless retort. "The point is, Weyburn, that you was convicted. There ain't no gettin' 'round that. You've worn the stripes, and you'll just have to make up your mind to live it down before you can expect people to forget it."
If I hadn't been the wretched victim of this paradox it might have provoked a smile.
"How am I ever going to live it down, Mr. Bucks, if nobody will give me a chance?" I asked.
"I know," he agreed readily enough. "But I'm losin' money here, every day, as it is, and I can't afford to make experiments. I'm sorry for you, honestly, Weyburn; but you see how it is."
"Yes, I see," I returned. "You think I ought to be given a chance, but you prefer to have somebody else give it to me. I don't blame you. Perhaps under similar conditions I'd do the same thing myself. Pay me and I'll disappear."
He did pay me, and tried to give me two dollars more than the agreed weekly wage, generously putting it upon the ground of the lack of notice. I shall always be glad that I still had pride enough left to refuse the charity. Even at this early twisting of the thumb-screws I was beginning to realize that self-respect would be the first thing to go by the board, and the fight to save it was almost instinctive.
Before leaving Bucks I tried to find out how he had learned my story; this though I was definitely charging the exposure to the town marshal as being the only person who could have spread it abroad. To my surprise, the grocer defended the marshal promptly and warmly.
"That shows how little you know Cal Giddings," he retorted. "He's the last man on top of earth to go 'round givin' you a black eye of that sort."
"May I ask what reason you have for thinking so?" I inquired.
"Sure you may. I've known Cal ever since we was little kids together. I've seen him every day this week, and he knew you was workin' for me. If he'd 'a' told anybody, it would 'a' been me; you can bet your hat on that."
"Then where did you hear the story?" I persisted.
"Why, I dunno just where I did hear it first. Everybody in town seems to know it," he asserted; and with this unsatisfying answer I was obliged to be contented.
The next attempt was made in a small industrial city on the opposite side of the State. This time I went to the chief of police as soon as I arrived, and after making the required report, I had it out with him in plain speech.
"I am going to try to get work here in your city," I said, "and I'd like to know beforehand how much leeway you are going to give me."
The portly thief-taker leaned back in his chair and regarded me with a coldly appraisive eye. He was a coarse-featured man with a face that would have fitted admirably in any rogues' gallery in the land.
"You're in bad, young fellow," he growled. "We've got plenty and more than enough of your kind in this town, without takin' on any more."
"But I am keeping my parole," I pleaded. "I have come to you like a man the first thing, and have made my report according to the conditions. Somebody has got to give me a chance."
"You'll earn it, damn' good and plenty, if you stay here to get it," was the gruff response. "What kind of a job are you lookin' for?"
It was hard to confide in such a man, even casually, but I had no choice.
"I am willing to take anything I can get, but my experience has been mostly in office work," I told him; adding: "I suppose I might call myself a fairly expert bookkeeper."
"Umph!" he grunted, shifting his cigar from one corner of the hard-bitted mouth to the other. "That means that you want to try for a job where you can work the till-tapping game again."
Not having as yet learned my lesson line by line, I was incautious enough to say: "I have yet to work it the first time."
"Like hell you have! See here, young fellow—you needn't spring that kind of talk on me. I know you and your kind up one side and down the other. You say you've put three years in 'stir' and that settles it." At this point he broke off short, righted his chair with a snap and reached for a bill-spindle on his desk. After a glance at one of the impaled memoranda he sat back again, chewing his cigar and staring into vacancy. A full minute elapsed before he deigned to become once more aware of my presence. Then he whirled upon me to rap out an explosive question.
"What did you say your name was?" and when I told him: "Aw right; you come back here this afternoon and we'll see whether you stay or move on. That's all. Now get out. I'm busy."
I went away and killed time as I could until the middle of the afternoon. Upon returning to police headquarters I found the hard-faced chief tilted in his chair with his feet on his desk, looking as if he hadn't moved since my visit of the forenoon. When he saw who it was cutting off the afternoon sunlight he straightened up with a growl, rummaged in a file of papers and jerked out a typewritten sheet which he glanced over as one who reads only the headings.
"James Bertrand Weyburn, eh?" he rasped. "I know all about you now, and you may as well can all that didn't-do-it stuff. Forget it and come down to business. You say you want to hit the straight-and-narrow: how would a job in a coal yard fit you?—keepin' books and weighin'-in the coal cars?"
I told him, humbly enough, that I was too nearly a beggar to be a chooser; that I'd be only too glad to get a chance at anything at which I might earn a living.
"Aw right," was the curt rejoinder. "You hike over to the Consolidated Coal Company's yard on the West Side, and tell Mullins, the head book-keeper, that I sent you, see? Tell him to call me on the 'phone if he wants to know anything more about you. That's all. Pull your freight out of here and get busy—if you don't want to get the 'move on' out of this burg."
Notwithstanding this crabbed speech, matching all the other things this man had said to me, I left police headquarters with a warm spot in my heart, thinking that I had lighted upon a diamond in the rough and hadn't had discernment enough to recognize it.
Yet there was a small mystery thrusting itself into this second interview with the chief. What was the content of the typewritten sheet he had consulted, and who had written it? If it had been a telegram I might have concluded that he had wired the warden of the penitentiary for a corroboration of my story. But it was not a telegram.
I was still puzzling over the mystery half an hour later when I found the coal yard and the bookkeeper, Mullins, a red-faced Irishman who winked solemnly when I told him that Chief Callahan had sent me.
"Know anything at all about the railroad end of the coal business?" was the first inquiry shot at me; but it was not made until after the book-keeper had shut himself into the telephone booth, presumably for a wire talk with Callahan.
I shook my head. "None of the details. But I can learn."
"Maybe you can, and maybe you can't. We'll try you out on the railroad desk, and Peters 'll show you what you don't know. Peel your coat and jump in. Hours eight to six; pay, sixty dollars a month: more bimeby if you're worth it."
Robert Louis Stevenson's cheerful little opening verse:
"Light foot and tight foot, And green grass spread; Early in the morning, And hope is on ahead,"
was ringing in my ears when I squared myself at the railroad desk and attacked the first big bunch of "flimsies," as the tissue copies of the waybills are called. It was almost unbelievable that my luck had turned so soon, and yet the fact seemed undeniable. I had a job to which I had been recommended by the one man in the city who knew my record. No questions had been asked, and the inference seemed to be that none were going to be asked.
I was all of a busy week getting a firm working hold upon the routine of my desk, and during that time I didn't exchange a dozen words with Mullins, who appeared to be the head and front of Consolidated Coal, locally, at least, and whose word, in the office and about the yards, was law. None the less, the little mystery connected with this easy finding of a job in a strange city persisted, and it kept me from dwelling too pointedly upon the object for which I meant to live and work; namely, the squaring of accounts with Abel Geddis and Abner Withers.
Singularly enough, it took me, trained accountant as I was, a full month to find out what I had been let in for, and why the job I was holding down had been given to an ex-convict. It was my duty to check the railroad waybills on consignments of coal, to correct the weights, and to make claims for overcharges and shortages. I made these claims as I had been told to make them, taking the figures of the weights from Peters, who, in turn, took them from the scale men in the yard. It was Peters who gave the snap away one night when we two were working overtime in the otherwise deserted offices.
"Say, Weyburn; you've got about the coldest nerve of any fellow I've ever run up against," he said, looking up from his place across the flat-topped desk.
"What makes you say that, Tommy?" I asked.
"Because it's so. I've been watching you. You've been sitting on the lid for an even month, now, and never batting an eye when these railroad fellows come at you and make their little roar about the overcharges. Believe me, it takes nerve to do that—and carry it off as if you were reading 'em a verse out o' the Bible. Blaisdell, the lad who was here before you, went batty and talked in his sleep. Told me once he couldn't see anything but stripes, any way he looked."
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said, with a sudden sinking of the heart. "Why should it take nerve to tell a railroad agent he's been overcharging us?"
Peters's laugh was a cackle. "You're the traffic man of this outfit: do you know the rates on coal from the mines to Western Central common points?"
"Of course I do."
"Got 'em all down in the printed tariff, so you can't help knowing 'em, eh? Consolidated Coal pays these rates, doesn't it?—all according to Hoyle and the Interstate Commerce laws?"
"I suppose we pay them. I check the bills as they are presented."
"Exactly. But every little so-while you have to make a whaling big claim on the railroad company for overcharges, and maybe you've noticed that these claims are always paid—or maybe you haven't?"
I was beginning to see the hole in the millstone.
"I make the claims on the weights as you give them to me, Peters. Do you mean to tell me that you've been giving me false figures?"
The yard clerk stuck his tongue in his cheek. "I'm not telling you anything. You know as well as I do that it's against the law to give or receive rebates. But if you're not a heap greener than you look, you know that we're getting our cut rates, just the same. All we need is a man right here at your desk who has the nerve to make out the claims, and is fly enough to do a little bluffing and ask no questions. You're all right, Bertie."
"But the figures of the weights," I insisted. "You are the man who gives them to me, and you are responsible if they are wrong."
"Not in a thousand years!" was the prompt retort. "I never put anything on paper—you're the man that does that—and if the Interstate Commerce people should break in, I'd have the best little forgettery of any clock-watcher in the works. Nix for me, Weyburn; you are the chap with the figures, and the only man in the shop who has them down in black on white. When the roar comes, it'll be up to you, and Mullins will throw up his hands and accuse you of having a private graft of some sort with the railroad clerks in the claim office. That's about what he'll do."
My overtime companion had finished his job and was putting on his coat. I let him go without further talk, but after he had gone, I stayed long enough to check over the files of the yard-master's blotter. When the checking was completed I knew perfectly well why I had been hired so promptly, and why Mullins had been willing to take on an ex-convict. My basing figures, which Peters had been giving me verbally, were all wrong. The majority of the claims I had been making from day to day were fraudulent, and in paying them the railroad company was merely rebating the coal rates for Consolidated Coal.
It was easy to see where I stood. A scapegoat was necessary, and with a prison record behind me I had about as much show as a rat in a trap. If there should be an investigation, Mullins would swear that I had entire charge of the claim department. And having no written data to fall back upon, I should be helpless.
The date of this disheartening discovery chanced to be the 25th of the month—our regular pay-day, and I had my month's salary in my pocket when I left the office about eleven o'clock to go to my boarding-house. At the nearest street corner I met the patrolman on the beat.
"Hello, cully!" he growled as I was passing him; and then with a hand on my arm he stopped me. "You're forgettin' somethin', ain't you?"
"I guess not," I answered.
"I guess yes," he retorted. "It's pay-day at the works, and you gotta come across."
Here was the remainder of the conspiracy made plain as day. The crooked chief of police had turned me over to the crooked coal company to do crooked work, and I was to be held up for a graft on my salary. With a swift return of the blood-boiling which had once helped me to manhandle the deputy, Simmons, I faced the patrolman.
"And if I don't come across—what then?"
The policeman grinned good-naturedly. "You're goin' to 'produce' all right. You're a paroled man, and you can't afford to have the chief get it in for you."
It was just here that the three nerve-breaking years got in their work. I couldn't face the grafter down, and—I confess it with shame—I was horribly afraid.
"How much?" I asked, and my tongue was dry in my mouth.
"This is the first mont', and we'll let you down easy. You fork over a ten-spot for the campaign fund and we'll call it square. Next mont' it'll be more."
I paid the blackmail with trembling hands, and when the patrolman was out of sight around the corner I ran to reach my boarding place, intent only upon flight, instant and secret, from this moral cesspool of a city. I remembered that there was a westbound train passing through at midnight, and by hurrying I hoped to be able to catch it.
The Downward Path
I had left the board money and a note for my landlady on the mantel in the darkened dining-room, had reached the railroad station, and was about to buy a ticket to the farthest corner of the State, when I suddenly remembered that I was running away with an additional handicap to be added to all the others. Leaving the coal company and the city without notice or explanation, I was making it impossible to keep my record clear in the monthly report to the prison authorities.
With a sinking heart I realized that I must wait and fight it out with Mullins to some sort of a conclusion which would give me a clean slate. There must be nothing that I could not explain clearly to any one who might ask. I had a job, and I must be able to give my reason for quitting it. With this new entanglement to put leaden shoes on my feet, I retraced my steps through the eight weary blocks to the boarding-house, dodging through back streets and walking because I hadn't the nerve to face the cheerful throng of theater-goers at that hour crowding the street-cars.
I think Mullins knew or suspected what was coming when I went to him the next morning and told him I wished to have a talk with him. Without a word he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me into the little private office which was used at odd times by the district manager.
"I'm quitting this morning, Mr. Mullins," I began, when the door was shut. "If my work has been satisfactory, I should like to have a letter of recommendation."
The bookkeeper smoked a corn-cob pipe, and he stopped to refill and light it before he opened on me.
"What's wrong?" he demanded. For an Irishman he was always exceedingly sparing of his words.
"Suppose we say that the climate doesn't agree with me here."
"You're no sick man!" he shot back; and then: "Want more pay?"
"No; I want a letter of recommendation."
"We never give 'em."
"So I have heard. But this time, Mr. Mullins, you are going to make an exception and break your rule."
"Not for you, we won't."
"Why not for me?"
"Because we're knowing your record. You're fixing to go back to the pen, where you came from."
"You knew my record when you hired me. Chief Callahan gave it to you, and I knew that he did. But that is neither here nor there; I want my letter, and I want you to say in it that I am leaving to look for a more favorable climate."
"And if I don't give it to you?—if I tell you to go straight plumb to hell?"
"In that case I shall take all the chances—all of them, mind you—-and write a letter to the Interstate Commerce Commission."
If the man had had a gun in his hands I believe he would have killed me. There was manslaughter in his little gray, pig-like eyes. But he recovered himself quickly.
"If you're that kind of a gink, I'm damned glad to get rid of you at any price," he rasped; and then went to the district manager's desk and wrote me the letter, "To Whom it may Concern," practically as I dictated it.
That ended it, and when the letter was signed and flung across the desk at me I lost no time in getting out of the noxious atmosphere of the place. But before I was well out of the yard it occurred to me that I had still left a loaded weapon in Mullins's hands. Though the threat of exposure might tie him and his grafting coal company up, he could still appeal to Callahan, who would doubtless find an excuse for arresting me before I could leave town. And once in the hands of the chief crook I should be lost.
Under the spur of this new menace I returned quickly to the coal office, with some inchoate idea of trying to bully the scoundrelly chief of police through the hold I had acquired upon the coal company. The office was empty when I reached it, and at first I thought Mullins had gone out. But at a second glance I saw that he was in the telephone closet, the door of which he had left ajar. Overhearing my own name barked into the transmitter, I listened without scruple.
"——Yes, Weyburn; that's what I'm telling you. He's flew the coop. . . . Yes, he knows something—too damned much. . . . No, I wouldn't snag him here; he might talk too loud and get somebody to believe him—some fool in a Federal grand jury, for instance. Let him go—with a plain-clothes man to find out where he heads for—and then wire that outfit that piped him off when he came here. That'll settle him."
There may have been more of it, but I did not wait to hear. Speed was my best chance now, and I slipped out noiselessly and ran for the railroad station. If I should be lucky enough to find a train ready to leave, I might yet hope to escape whatever trap it might be that the bookkeeper and his official accomplice were going to set for me.
Reaching the station I found that the first train through would be a westbound, and that it was not due for half an hour. The wait was painfully trying. I did not dare to buy a ticket for fear Callahan might have telephoned the ticket office. As the passengers for the expected train straggled in I sought vainly to identify the spy who was undoubtedly among them; and when the train thundered up to the platform I made haste to board it and to lose myself quickly in the crowded smoking-car. Later, when the conductor made his round, I paid a cash fare to the end of the division, forbearing to draw a full breath of relief until the cesspool city had faded to a smoky blur on the horizon.
With time to think, I began to puzzle anxiously over the new development of mystery opened up by the overheard telephone talk. Who or what was the "outfit" that had been meddling in my sorry affair?—that was to be wired when my new destination should be ascertained? One by one the suspicious circumstances remarshaled themselves; the feeling that I had been spied upon, the speedy publicity which my story had attained in the town where I had made my earliest attempt at wage-earning, the memorandum which Chief Callahan had consulted before sending me to the crooked coal company. It seemed singular to me afterward that the one answer to all of these small mysteries should not have suggested itself at once. But it did not.
The end of the conductor's run—the point which I had paid fare—came at midday at the capital of the State, where there was a stop long enough to enable the train's people—or those who chose to evade the dining-car—to seek a lunch counter. I went with the others and had a frugal sandwich and a cup of coffee, hastening afterward to the station ticket office to buy a ticket to a town well over toward the western boundary of my prison State, and chosen haphazard from its location on the wall-map beside the ticket window. A little later, upon resuming my seat in the train, I had a small shock. Sitting just across the aisle, and once more barricaded behind his hand-baggage and buried in a newspaper, was the round-faced salesman who had been my traveling companion on the day of my release from prison.
Naturally, all the suspicions I had been harboring for the past few hours leaped alive again at the sight of this man. But at the second train stop in the westward flight they were promptly disconnected from my vis-a-vis across the aisle when the salesman gathered his belongings and disappeared; left the train—as I made sure by looking out of the window and seeing him cross the station platform. In the short run from the capital he had not so much as looked in my direction, emerging from his newspaper only once for a word with the conductor at the moment of ticket-collecting.
After he was gone I was able to smile grimly and call it a coincidence, wondering meanwhile, if one of the consequences of my hideously disarranged life was to be a lapse into chittering cowardice; an endless starting aside at shadows.
The new field of endeavor, chosen blindly at the ticket window in the capital, proved to be a small manufacturing city. Here the chief of police, to whom I reported on the evening of my arrival, was of a type exactly opposite to the grafting brute from whose jurisdiction I had fled; a promoted town-marshal, like John Runnels of Glendale; a shrewd-eyed, kindly old man who heard my story patiently and gave me a word of encouragement that was like a draft of cold water in the desert.
"You're goin' to get a square deal in this town, my boy," he said, after I had enlarged upon my story sufficiently to make it include my late experience with Callahan and Mullins. "It ain't any part of my job to bruise the broken reed n'r quench the smokin' flax. You don't look like a thief, and, anyways, if you're tryin' to make an honest livin', that settles all the old scores—or it ort to. Go find you a job, if you can. What you've told me stays right in here"—tapping his broad chest—"leastwise, it won't be used against you as long as you walk straight."
Under such kindly auspices it did seem as if I ought to be able to dig a quiet little rifle-pit in the field of respectability and good repute and to hold it against all comers. But, oddly enough, I couldn't do it—not to save my life. My experience had all been in office work, and since business was good in the small city, I had little difficulty in finding employment. Yet in each case—and there were five of them, one after another—I secured work only to lose it almost immediately. By some means my story had got out, and it spread through the town like an epidemic. After the fifth failure I went back to the fatherly old chief of police to confess defeat and to notify him that I was leaving town.
In this interview he made me tell him more about my trial and conviction, and when I finished he was shaking his head. "There's something sort o' queer about this pull-down of yours, Weyburn," he commented. "I gave you my word not to talk unless you went back on me, and I've kept it. You hain't told anybody else?"
"Not a soul."
"Still, it's been told—not once, but a heap o' times. Have you tried chasin' it back to its startin' point?"
"Yes; but it is no good. It seems to be in the air."
"Well, it's a dum shame. It looks as if you had somebody houndin' you out o' sheer spite. Is there anybody back behind that would do that?"
I suppose I was bat-blind; but the suggestion, even when it was added to the mysterious entanglements that were tripping me at every step, failed to open my eyes. Truly, Abel Geddis and Abner Withers had used me ruthlessly as their criminal stop-gap, but since I had paid the penalty and still bore the criminal odium, I could postulate no possible reason why they should reach out across the three-year interval to add cruel persecution to injury.
"No," I said, after a reflective pause. "There are only the two old men I have named. And now that it is all over, I can see that they were only shoving me into the breach to save themselves."
He nodded, half-doubtfully, I thought; and then: "You're goin' to try again somewheres else?"
I replied that there was nothing else to do; whereupon this white-haired old angel, who seemed so vastly out of place as the head of even a small city's police department, made an astounding proposal.
"Get your bit of dunnage—I s'pose you hain't got very much, have you?—and come around here about dark this evenin'. I'll have my buggy ready and we'll drive over to Altamont, so you can take the train there instead of here. If there's anybody follerin' you up and blacklistin' you, maybe that'll throw 'em off the track."
It was a splendid bit of kindness; and when I could swallow the lump it brought into my throat I accepted joyfully. And as the disappearance was planned, so it was carried out. In the dusk of the evening the good old man drove me the ten miles across to the neighboring village, and after thanking him out of a full heart I boarded a train and began my wanderings afresh.
A Good Samaritan
After such a disheartening experience in a community where I had had the help and countenance of a just and charitable head of the police department, I went back to the smaller places. Merely because it seemed foolish to take the time to learn a new trade when I already had one, I still sought office work. There was little difficulty in finding such employment—at humble wages; the unattainable thing was the keeping of it. Though I could never succeed in running it down and bringing it to bay, a pitiless Nemesis seemed to dog me from town to town. Gossiping marshals there may have been, now and then, to spread my story; but I had twice been given proof that another agency must be at work—a mysterious persecution that I could neither fight nor outwit, nor account for upon any reasonable hypothesis.
So the hopeless and one-sided battle went on as I fled from post to pillar up and down and back and forth in the "permitted" area, doing a bit of extra bookkeeping here and another there. The result was always the same. Work of that kind necessarily carried more or less responsibility, and in consequence I was never retained more than a few days at a time.
It was borne in upon me more and more that I must sink lower, into some walk in life in which no questions were asked. This conviction impressed itself upon me with greater emphasis at each succeeding failure, and the decision to drop into the ranks of the unidentified was finally reached in a small city in the agricultural section of the State where I had been employed for a few days in a hardware and implement store as shipping clerk. Once more I was discharged, peremptorily, and with a reproachful reprimand for having thrust myself, unplacarded, upon well-behaved people.
"I don't admit your right to say such things to me, Mr. Haddon," I protested, after the reproach had been well rubbed in. "I have given you good service for small pay, and there was no reason why I should have furnished you with an autobiography when you didn't ask it. In the circumstances it seems that I am the one to be aggrieved, but I'll waive the right to defend myself if you'll tell me where you got your information."
The implement dealer was a thin, ascetic person, with cold gray eyes and two distinct sets of manners; one for his customers and another for his employees; and the look he gave me was meant to be withering.
"I don't recognize your right to question me, at all," he objected, with the air of one who brushes an annoying insect from his coat-sleeve. "It is enough to say that my source of information is entirely reliable. By your own act you have placed yourself outside of the pale. If you break a natural law, Nature exacts the just penalty. It is the same in the moral field."