Cast Upon the Breakers/Chapter XXXI
Probably there was no one at the hotel who suspected Louis Wheeler of being a thief except Rodney and Mr. Pettigrew. His action in starting a contribution for John O'Donnell helped to make him popular. He was establishing a reputation quite new to him, and it was this fact probably that made him less prudent than he would otherwise have been.
As the loss had been made up, the boarders at the Miners' Rest ceased to talk of it. But Jefferson and his young assistant did not forget it.
"I am sure Wheeler is the thief, but I don't know how to bring it home to him," said Jefferson one day, when alone with Rodney.
"You might search him."
"Yes, but what good would that do? It might be found that he had money, but one gold coin is like another and it would be impossible to identify it as the stolen property. If O'Donnell had lost anything else except money it would be different. I wish he would come to my chamber."
"Perhaps he would if he thought you were a sound sleeper."
"That is an idea. I think I can make use of it.".
That evening when Wheeler was present Mr. Pettigrew managed to turn the conversation to the subject of sleeping.
"I am a very sound sleeper," he said. "I remember when I was at home sleeping many a time through a severe thunder storm."
"Don't you sometimes wake up in the middle of the night?" asked Rodney.
"Very seldom, if I am in good health."
"Its different with me," said another of the company. "A step on the floor or the opening of the door will wake me up at any time."
"I am glad I am not so easily roused."
"If I had a fish horn," said Rodney, laughing, "I should be tempted to come up in the night and give it a blast before your door."
"That might wake me up," said Mr. Pettigrew. "I wouldn't advise you to try it or the other boarders might get up an indignation meeting."
The same evening Jefferson Pettigrew took out a bag of gold and carelessly displayed it.
"Are you not afraid of being robbed, Mr. Pettigrew?" asked Rodney.
"Oh no. I never was robbed in my life."
"How much money have you there?"
"I don't know exactly. Perhaps six hundred dollars," said Pettigrew in an indifferent tone.
Among those who listened to this conversation with interest was Louis Wheeler. Rodney did not fail to see the covetous gleam of his eyes when the gold was displayed.
The fact was, that Wheeler was getting short of cash and at the time he took John O'Donnell's money--for he was the thief--he had but about twenty dollars left, and of this he contributed five to the relief of the man he had robbed.
His theft realized him two hundred dollars, but this would not last him long, as the expenses of living at the Miners' Rest were considerable. He was getting tired of Oreville, but wanted to secure some additional money before he left it. The problem was whom to make his second victim.
It would not have occurred to him to rob Jefferson Pettigrew, of whom he stood in wholesome fear, but for the admission that he was an unusually sound sleeper; even then he would have felt uncertain whether it would pay. But the display of the bag of money, and the statement that it contained six hundred dollars in gold proved a tempting bait.
"If I can capture that bag of gold," thought Wheeler, "I shall have enough money to set me up in some new place. There won't be much risk about it, for Pettigrew sleeps like a top. I will venture it."
Jefferson Pettigrew's chamber was on the same floor as his own. It was the third room from No. 17 which Mr. Wheeler occupied.
As a general thing the occupants of the Miners' Rest went to bed early. Mining is a fatiguing business, and those who follow it have little difficulty in dropping off to sleep. The only persons who were not engaged in this business were Louis Wheeler and Rodney Ropes. As a rule the hotel was closed at half past ten and before this all were in bed and sleeping soundly.
When Wheeler went to bed he said to himself, "This will probably be my last night in this tavern. I will go from here to Helena, and if things turn out right I may be able to make my stay there profitable. I shan't dare to stay here long after relieving Pettigrew of his bag of gold."
Unlike Jefferson Pettigrew, Wheeler was a light sleeper. He had done nothing to induce fatigue, and had no difficulty in keeping awake till half past eleven. Then lighting a candle, he examined his watch, and ascertained the time.
"It will be safe enough now," he said to himself.
He rose from his bed, and drew on his trousers. Then in his stocking feet he walked along the corridor till he stood in front of Jefferson Pettigrew's door. He was in doubt as to whether he would not be obliged to pick the lock, but on trying the door he found that it was not fastened. He opened it and stood within the chamber.
Cautiously he glanced at the bed. Mr. Pettigrew appeared to be sleeping soundly.
"It's all right" thought Louis Wheeler. "Now where is the bag of gold?"
It was not in open view, but a little search showed that the owner had put it under the bed.
"He isn't very sharp," thought Wheeler. "He is playing right into my hands. Door unlocked, and bag of gold under the bed. He certainly is a very unsuspicious man. However, that is all the better for me. Really there isn't much credit in stealing where all is made easy for you."
There seemed to be nothing to do but to take the gold from its place of deposit and carry it back to his own room. While there were a good many lodgers in the hotel, there seemed to be little risk about this, as every one was asleep.
Of course should the bag be found in his room that would betray him, but Mr. Wheeler proposed to empty the gold coins into his gripsack, and throw the bag out of the window into the back yard.
"Well, here goes!" said Wheeler cheerfully, as he lifted the bag, and prepared to leave the chamber. But at this critical moment an unexpected sound struck terror into his soul. It was the sound of a key being turned in the lock.
Nervously Wheeler hastened to the door and tried it. It would not open. Evidently it had been locked from the outside. What could it mean?
At the same time there was a series of knocks on the outside of the door. It was the signal that had been agreed upon between Mr. Pettigrew and Rodney. Jefferson had given his key to Rodney, who had remained up and on the watch for Mr. Wheeler's expected visit. He, too, was in his stocking feet.
As soon as he saw Wheeler enter his friend's chamber he stole up and locked the door on the outide. Then when he heard the thief trying to open the door he rained a shower of knocks on the panel.
Instantly Jefferson Pettigrew sprang out of bed and proceeded to act.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded, seizing Wheeler in his powerful grasp.
"Where am I?" asked Wheeler in a tone of apparent bewilderment.
"Oh, it's you, Mr. Wheeler?" said Jefferson. "Don't you know where you are?"
"Oh, it is my friend, Mr. Pettigrew. Is it possible I am in your room?"
"It is very possible. Now tell me why you are here?"
"I am really ashamed to find myself in this strange position. It is not the first time that I have got into trouble from walking in my sleep."
"Oh, you were walking in your sleep!"
"Yes, friend Petttigrew. It has been a habit of mine since I was a boy. But it seems very strange that I should have been led to your room. How could I get in? Wasn't the door locked?"
"It is locked now?"
"It is strange! I don't understand it," said Wheeler, passing his hand over his forehead.
"Perhaps you understand why you have that bag of gold in your hand."
"Can it be possible?" ejaculated Wheeler in well counterfeited surprise. "I don't know how to account for it."
"I think I can. Rodney, unlock the door and come in."
The key was turned in the lock, and Rodney entered with a lighted candle in his hand.
"You see, Rodney, that I have a late visitor. You will notice also that my bag of gold seems to have had an attraction for him."
"I am ashamed. I don't really know how to explain it except in this way. When you displayed the gold last night it drew my attention and I must have dreamed of it. It was this which drew me unconsciously to your door. It is certainly an interesting fact in mental science."
"It would have been a still more interesting fact if you had carried off the gold."
"I might even have done that in my unconsciousness, but of course I should have discovered it tomorrow morning and would have returned it to you."
"I don't feel by any means sure of that. Look here, Mr. Wheeler, if that is your name, you can't pull the wool over my eyes. You are a thief, neither more nor less."
"How can you misjudge me so, Mr. Pettigrew?"
"Because I know something of your past history. It is clear to me now that you were the person that stole John O'Donnell's money."
"Indeed, Mr. Pettigrew."
"It is useless to protest. How much of it have you left?"
Louis Wheeler was compelled to acknowledge the theft, and returned one hundred dollars to Jefferson Pettigrew.
"Now," said Jefferson, "I advise you to leave the hotel at once. If the boys find out that you are a thief you will stand a chance of being lynched. Get out!"
The next morning Jefferson Pettigrew told the other boarders that Louis Wheeler had had a sudden call East, and it was not for a week that he revealed to them the real reason of Wheeler's departure.