Help via Ko-Fi


By Hugh Pendexter
Author of "The Chelsea Vase," "The Crimson Track" etc.

THE growth of the thing in his mind had been gradual. When it had obtruded upon his consciousness at first he had drawn back in mingled fear and anger. By degrees, however, he tolerated the thought, only always at a distance, and concluded by allowing it to make a rendezvous of his idle meditations, receiving it much as one might welcome an unwholesome but highly fascinating acquaintance. All the time he knew its real name was Theft.

For three years Parsly had served as station agent and telegraph-operator at the Junction. Each day he had observed the transient bustling by the long platform, the spectacle never varying. Long vestibuled trains halted impatiently, and always the same curious or apathetic faces peered out at him from the Pullmans.

It was the branch line, tapping the lumber country, that contributed humanism, consisting of a nodding acquaintance with timber operators and forlorn commercial travelers. The first were always in a hurry to make the big city connection; the latter lingered in his company for the sake of gaining an audience while they cursed the country.

The last because the Junction was not the liveliest place in the world to put in an hour or two of waiting. Situated where the engineering problem had been the simplest, it was surrounded by blueberry plains, dotted at intervals with scrub pine. As the locomotives annually set the pines afire, the immediate foreground continuously presented a dead, charred appearance. Far-off, the objective point of the Pullmans, loomed the cool silhouettes of mountains, guardians of inland lakes and famous fishing.

More than once Parsly compared himself with Robinson Crusoe in his isolation; only he had no man Friday to enliven his dull routine. He saw much of the passing world but was never of it. Thus, at the end of three years, the hurrying by of the heavy trains aroused a species of resentment. Every one was at liberty to take flight but him. Then again, fifty dollars a month for his combined duties was hardly a compensating solace.

It was the matter of salary that caused the idea to germinate while he was sullenly working the semaphore one day. He had just received from the night branch some four hundred dollars express money which he must deliver to the agent on the morning city-passenger. Having just received his monthly wages he could not help but contrast its meager total with the bulking roll in his hip-pocket.

If he had four hundred dollars, all his own, he would throw up the job and use it in one delicious round of travel. By the time it was exhausted he could obtain another position in a pleasing environment. In logical sequence he decided he might as well allow his imagination a wider range and play at taking a vacation with the largest sum ever entrusted to his care for a single night. He remembered this to be an even thousand dollars, sent down by a big operator in payment for horses in the lumber camps.

A thousand dollars offered his fancy vastly more possibilities to work with. The four hundred became insignificant. As his duties permitted him much time for reflection, he carried the thought back to his dingy office and entertained it by consulting maps in the railroad folders. In this fashion he took a hurried excursion across the continent and spied out the land. Then he became critical and weighed and balanced different localities.

The Southwest, free from cold, gray Autumnal rains, howling snows and Spring inundations, finally appealed to him as being ideal. Of course, there might be two thousand dollars entrusted to him any night, especially now that it was Autumn and the lumbermen were stocking up for the Winter campaign.

It was at that precise point that his cheek reddened and he felt a touch of alarm as he angrily told himself such imagining was immoral, for it was based on the suggestion that he steal the money. He condemned the suggestion wrathfully as he walked a quarter of a mile to the lonely home where he boarded, and yet he was more downcast than ever over his colorless place in life.

On returning to the station to close up for the night, which meant a weary wait for the up-passenger to pull in, he returned to the suggestion abruptly and recklessly. It was the sight of the porters making up the berths, the comradeship in the smoking compartment, that plunged him into full revolt; only now he proceeded on the theory the money was legitimately his.

"Well, I guess I've earned it. What if I should take it, providing I could get away with it? How would I spend it?"

This surrender eased him much. Of course he wouldn't take it, not a penny; but it's impossible to picture a career of spending until the imagination has logically furnished the requisite possession. Now he had mentally satisfied his imagination as to possession, although the technique was illegal. Fortunately there is no law punishing a man for inwardly discussing the possible assets of a crime.

Of course, Parsly merely intended to pursue his day-dreams unhampered by any irritating self-criticism. He had systematically arranged his data and could spend a million a day, should he choose. That was where he erred. His imagination became a hard taskmaster, very exacting. Once he accepted the suggestion that the money was to come to him through theft, his methodical mind insisted on reviewing the possibilities of detection before permitting him to enjoy the fruits.

"Wouldn't you be caught and arrested before you could make a beginning?" was the cautious query he was forced to put to himself.

Such nagging is very annoying, and to satisfy his mysterious Pyrrhonist and continue with his Spanish architecture, he set himself about planning bow the trick could be done without his being detected.

This was a hopeless morass at first, and very' unpleasant; for instead of picturing innocent expenditures he found himself sweating and struggling with the problem of how he could keep the money once he secured it. The more he labored the more nimble became his other self in raising pertinent objections, exploding seemingly sound theories and ridiculing his most astute hypotheses.

To merely appropriate the money and disappear was quickly shown to be the height of idiocy. That spelled a life of slinking and fear, the flying from phantoms. It ,took some thought to clear the foreground of discarded theories and plans and approach the realm of finesse; but at last he seemed to be building on a firmer foundation.

Probably the frequent raids by yeggmen on rural post-offices and isolated railroad stations stimulated this office of his imagination. For in reading the paper, presented him gratis each evening by' the newsboy on the up-passenger, he noted the yeggmen always securely tied whoever stood between them and loot, cut the tell-tale wires and escaped.

Then came the great idea; and slapping the paper he glanced apprehensively around the small office, and whispered: "If I faked a holdup the yeggs would get the credit and I'd get the dough. It would be a cinch, if a man wanted to play crooked."

Stay! Was it so easy? The various precautions necessary for counterfeiting a robbery, each simple in itself, quickly loomed into mountains. Then he decided on just how the furniture should be broken and overturned to approximate realism; just when the wires should be cut; whether the station door should be left open or closed, and the condition of his clothing and pockets. As there was no safe in the office the agent carried the money's upon his person. At first he imagined his pockets turned inside out, then repudiated the thought as being too clumsy.

But what about the tying-up portion of the programme? Could a man tie himself so as to convince his rescuers that his predicament was genuine? Of course, there was a chance, rather a good one, too, of his landlord, foreman of the section crew, coming to his aid and cutting the cords without making any' particular observations. Still, only perfection of detail would satisfy his exacting critic.

Now, Parsly, if slow of thought at times, was dogged in his persistence once he grappled with a problem. He now gave his spare time to studying ropes and knots. The newspapers had charged up the various robberies to Fresno Red and his gang, and had dwelt at length on the method used in each case in tying up watchman or agent. Invariably one end of the rope was made fast about the feet and ankles of the captive, then passed up and around the waist, the hands being caught and tied behind the back; the loose end finally being made fast about the captive's neck in a slip-noose.

It was done very quickly, each victim had averred, and so hampered a man that the more he struggled the more he endangered his life by self-strangulation. It was a method worthy of the redoubtable Fresno Red, and one Parsly now attacked to satisfy his insistence on correct detail.

THAT night he surreptitiously carried a piece of new rope home. He had already discovered that new rope would not slip like old, smoothly wort rope. In the secrecy of his small chamber he essayed the simple task of tying his own feet. His heart beat rapidly as he pulled the knot tight; then he laughed vacuously and told himself it was all a game. It ended where it began, merely a pastime. He did not attempt to duplicate the yeggmen's knots further that night.

He would not concede that he stood in fear of the trooping suggestions now besetting him and eagerly offering aid. Yet he fought hard to put the thoughts from his mind during the morning hours and felt extremely virtuous as he handed the down agent the customary parcel of money.

That night he relaxed and deftly tied his feet, passed the line about his waist and clumsily wound it around his wrists. He remained awake more than an hour trying to solve the rest of the problem—how to fasten the rope about his wrists so it would be impossible to free himself and then secure the end about his neck. He decided it couldn't be done, and fell asleep.

Toward morning, when but half awake, he heard a voice advise—

"Tie the rope first about the neck."

He popped up to a sitting posture and stared wildly about the dark chamber. He knew' it was a suggestion from his inner self, yet so distinctly did he hear the words it seemed as if they must have been voiced aloud. Throughout the early morning he brooded over the suggestion. At first he could not discern any sense in it. Subconsciously, however, he had often noticed the lumberman's trick of using a clove-hitch— two half-hitches—and gradually the recollection thrust itself above the threshold of consciousness. He believed he had succeeded.

He must make the rope fast about his neck while standing, then secure it about his ankles with practically' no slack, continuing the loose end to his waist and tying it, taking care to have it pass outside the rope running from neck to heels. Then by throwing back his head and heels he would obtain enough slack to make the two double loops, or half-hitches, through which he could work his wrists.

The last operation, he realized, would demand great care, as he must thrust his hands in from opposite directions until wrist overlapped wrist. If it would work he would dismiss the matter and resume the pleasing visions of spending the money.

The morning's paper contained a glaring account of a daring yegg robbery at the Centerville station. The agent had been trussed up and some fifteen hundred dollars taken.

"Those guy's certainly got the nerve," commented the newsboy as the agent was reading the item. "Didn't even gag Roberts. Just corded him up like a bale of hay% copped his roll and beat it. Roberts is so scared he's working his notice."

That afternoon Parsly was curious to examine all baggage fastened with ropes. Several parcels of sample dowels, sent by express from the up-country mill, held his attention the closest. They were tied with new rope and the clove-hitch held tightly, even when he worked an end loose. Just before he closed up for supper the branch train brought in a hundred-odd dollars, but the agent confidentially assured:

"Tomorrer'll be a record breaker. Two parties I know of are going to send down a thousand per. Together with the other money you'll have close to three thousand bones to nurse over night. The danged company ought to put a safe in your office."

Off duty for the night, he hastened to his room where the supreme test awaited him. If he succeeded there was nothing to prevent a man from robbing himself and leaving no clues. When from the open door he could catch the sound of his landlord's heavy, regular breathing, he removed his shoes, seated himself on the edge of the bed, and began experimenting with the cord.

He fastened the noose about his neck and stood up and noted where the rope in a direct line touched the floor. Then seating himself he tied it tightly about his ankles and brought the loose end up to and around his waist. There was scarcely any slack when he straightened out his legs. At first he feared he had drawn the cord too tight and, anxiously turning on his face, threw back his head and heels.

With a thrill of elation he found the slack would enable him, by an effort, to form the hitch. After a moment's fumbling he succeeded, and even wriggled his hands through the loops until the tips of the fingers rested on the upper forearm. It wearied him, and with a sigh of physical relief he extended his legs.

In an instant his tongue felt too large for his mouth, and with a gasp of horror he decided he was choking to death. He did not lose his nerve as he remembered the remedy, and he drew back his legs. But although this gave a bit of slack to the rope he could not induce the hitch to loosen. From the satisfaction of having proven his theory he quickly glided into the fear that he had calculated too nicely.

Had the rope been old and smooth, or had his hands been imprisoned palm to palm, finger tip to finger tip, he might have secured a leverage and by working them apart have succeeded in wrenching one free. But the new rope refused to give, and for a minute he lay quiet, panting for breath, and taking great care to bring no strain on his neck.

Down-stairs the old clock was ponderously ticking off the seconds; and he remained a prisoner. His heart chilled as he feared he must summon the foreman to come to his rescue. But how could he explain his peculiar plight? What suspicions might not his predicament arouse?

This dread quickly gave way before one more chance. The noose seemed to be tightening about his neck, and he remembered the foreman was a heavy sleeper. His wife occupied a room with her small children at the other end of the house. He doubted his ability to call help; if he did not he might slowly strangle to death.

Already the cold sweat was trickling into his eyes and it required a mighty effort of the will to restrain himself from thrashing about. He knew, however, that the moment he lost control of his nerves and moved incautiously his wind would be shut off. Gritting his teeth he drew his heels far back like an acrobat. He was lying face down with the bedclothes half smothering him. Then he gently picked at the rope with his finger tips. Useless. The cords held his wrists like bands of iron.

Finally he managed to work the cord between the fingers of his left hand and exert a pressure upward, hoping to loosen the hitch. His essay was barren of results for some moments, and it was not until he was about to collapse that he felt his right hand moving more freely. With an inarticulate cry of triumph he wrenched his wrist smartly, and instantly felt the cord renew its grip like a sentient thing. It was like a cat playing with a mouse.

Breathing in dry sobs he slowly sought to recover the lost ground and persevered until he again was pushing upward on the cord. For the second time he felt the right hand move a bit; this time he worked it back and forth most gently and at last managed to pull it free. Even then it required some minutes to remove the rope from his throat.

"—— the thing!" he choked, sinking back exhausted. "It nearly got me!"

That night he dreamed of the money brought in by the branch train; only there were cars and cars loaded with it, and it was all in gold, and men were removing it with huge scoops, just as they shovel out yellow corn.

By morning he had regained his normal tone and even felt inclined to laugh at himself. After all, had he not done what he set out to accomplish—to prove a man could effectually make himself a prisoner? Had he been engaged in a bona fide robbery he would not have attempted to free himself. His success in escaping detection would be his utter inability to do so. In that case, of course, he would expect to endure the torture till help reached him.

What odds if a man suffered a few hours of physical agony, if it resulted in supplying him with several thousand dollars? He now clearly appreciated that had his experiment been less successful he would have been grievously disappointed; the problem would have remained an obstacle to his imagination, and his dangerous, although alluring, fancies needs must be postponed. On the whole he felt rather proud of his achievement.

ALL day the great idea kept pounding through his head. He had it in his power to obtain more than two thousand, possibly three thousand, dollars without being suspected. His temples throbbed and ached as the thought assailed him. Once or twice during the afternoon he was called to the baggage-room to check a trunk. Each time his gaze involuntarily sought the coil of new rope hanging behind the door.

It was well known to students of crime that yeggmen pick up their tools on the premises of the place robbed, traveling unhampered by the burglar's usual outfit. How' natural that they should appropriate a piece of this very cord to bind him with! That would necessitate the shattering of the lock, but the door was old and weak and a well-delivered kick would smash it loose. He had no appetite for supper and heard but little of the foreman's gossip.

"I was saying I'd like to play you a game of crib tonight if you feel in trim," repeated the foreman.

"Crib? Oh, of course. Sure, Danny. I'll play crib. I'll be home right after the up-train pulls out. I'll be home in good season." eagerly promised Parsly, suddenly realizing the foreman might get impatient at waiting, might take alarm at his boarder s failure to reach home, and go in search of him. That would eliminate long, slow hours of torture on the office floor.

"Yes, I'll be home right after the nine o'clock goes up," he said. "I won't keep you waiting."

While returning through the woods it suddenly came home to him that he had planned to steal the money. For a moment he felt strongly moved and made a feeble pretense of denying the accusation. Then with a drawn face he muttered:

"—— it! Why sidestep? It's been in my nut for days. I'll never get another chance like this—so much dough and the yeggs near."

He sought to distract his mind by bitterly assailing the railroad and express companies and assuring himself the thought would never have occurred to him had he been paid something beyond a starvation wrage for a fourteen-hour day. It really wasn't robbery. Laws were made by men. It wTas reprisal. When it came to the ethics of it—only Parsly didn't know what the word meant—he'd earned the money, at least a part of it.

The night connived at his purpose, blowing up cold and desolate and on the verge of a storm. By the time the branch pulled in, the platform was streaming rivulets from the heavy downpour, and the express agent made the office on the run.

"Here's the stuff!" he yelped, tossing a package on the table. "Nothing to hold us and we're going right back. So long."

Parsly breathed more freely. Sometimes a mixup over freight, or a hot-box, kept the train, with the men careless of the passing minutes, as they had no schedule to make on the return run to Waverly, the first station, where they would hold the siding for the night.

Outside, the rain was falling with a thunderous clamor, smearing the window panes till it was impossible to make out the switch-lights directly in front of the station. Parsly rose, his eyes glittering. The money must be concealed safely till the morrow.

He had never read Poe's story of the purloined letter, yet instinct urged a simple hiding-place. He decided on the greasy canvas coat, hung back of the door. He wore it only when cleaning the switch-lamps The package fitted nicely into one capacious pocket. No one would ever find it there. Now to arrange the stage settings, the overturned furniture, the open door——

The door opened. Four men were crowding in through the miniature waterfall released from the loaded eaves. Parsly eyed them as one entranced, his gaze frozen with horror. It was no physical fear he dreaded, but for the moment it seemed as if his evil purpose had escaped him and now stood crystallized unto tangible shapes, each a unit of wickedness.

"Nail the mutt!" sharply ordered the leader, a man with a heavy shock of red hair.

One of the men twisted Parsly's arm behind him and thrust an iron wrist under his chin. Two others stood near, one holding a revolver, the other caressing a "life-preserver." The leader was glancing about the office.

All this occurred in a single motion, yet it seemed to cover ages to the stupefied agent. It was the red-headed man's prowling gaze that brought Parsly to his senses. They were yeggmen—Fresno Red and his gang. They were after the money and the leader was seeking the safe.

The man who had seized the agent was deciding he had never in all of his strong-arm jobs encountered so thoroughly frightened a victim as now, when Parsly's chin hugged in and his strong teeth bit deeply into his captor's wrist, causing him to scream with pain. At the same instant, the agent's long leg kicked out, overturning the table and the one lamp.

The room was plunged in darkness and the man with the revolver discharged his weapon, evoking a shriek of mortal agony, but not from the agent. Fresno Red called loudly for a light while he attempted to strike a match. Parsly had the advantage; he knew one of the robbers was dead or seriously wounded, and while every man was his enemy in the darkness, the yeggmen feared to injure a pal.

"Block the door and window!" roared Fresno Red.

During this brief leeway Parsly's groping hands found, the office stool and he swung it around his head in a deadly circle." By the sickening crunch he knew at least one of the enemy was off the active list. Then a match flared up for a second and the leader's revolver exploded, the agent experiencing a stinging sensation in the side.

For an instant Parsly felt strangely numb; then the stool rose like a flail and the man with the "life-preserver" sank to the floor.

Somehow the agent now felt a riotous elation. Fear was a very distant emotion. His veins were filled with molten lead instead of blood. He breathed hate rather than the smoky air. It was a monstrous thing that these murderers should seek to rob his employers.

With a wild howl of rage he plunged into the remaining two men, kicking and smashing like a maniac with the fragment of the stool. Out through the door they poured, another of the gang falling with a fractured skull. Then Parsly discovered he was alone.

He stood stupidly for a few moments, weaving back and forth. He aroused him, self as his dull ears caught a familiar sound.

A hand-car was being pumped down the grade. His mind cleared to supernormal lucidity. He saw his advantage. He had been brutally attacked and seriously wounded. The one man escaping would be charged with having stolen the money; they wrested it from him in the struggle. He had fought hard; he'd earned it. And yet, should he pull the lever close by his right hand, he could throw open the switch down the line and send Fresno Red crashing into the empty coal-cars on the siding.

"You'll never get a better chance! It simply can't be known and——"

"No!" he yelled, springing to the lever and pulling it back with his last ounce of strength.

"No,—— you! No!"

Within the next minute he heard a dull crash and knew the yegg leader had collided with the coal-cars. Then he concluded the wet platform would be an ideal place for a red-hot body to rest on.

"FOR the love of Mike! Parsly down and out! One man groaning and another dead in the office, one stiff out here! Good Heavens!" exclaimed the horrified foreman as he held up the lantern. He had come because Parsly had failed to keep his promise as to the game of cribbage.

As he read the full story in the four prostrate forms he collected his wits and dragged Parsly into the office, meanwhile begging him to "Wake up," and "Get back his nerve."

"What's the row?" feebly asked Parsly. Then he remembered.

"I've been shot. Find the instrument and see if the wires are O. K. Hold me up where I can reach it. I must send in the alarm. The leader is down on the siding somewhere. I shunted him off into the empties."

"The desperate devils was going to make sure," panted the foreman as he hunted for the instrument. "They fetched two coils of rope,"

THE papers made a great hero of Parsly. Fresno Red, who was found with a broken shoulder, gave him a brave record for being game. The railroad sent a superintendent to tell him he was in line for promotion and the express company guardedly considered presenting him with a reward.

"I don't want any money," growled Parsly as the agent sat by his bed in the little house.

"Cut that out. I did nothing but what's in the day's work. But I'd like the Centerville Job. Roberts, they say, is going to quit. That pays a hundred a month."

He was appointed two days later. Only now he hates the sight of coiled rope and looks upon express money as so much junk.