by Octavus Roy Cohen
Author of "The Fight," "The In-Curve" etc
LANKY BILL could well have passed muster as an undertaker; Boston Tommy as a kid show-vender of red lemonade. The former was sad to the point of extinction, deep-eyed, lantern-jawed, skinny-framed and big-footed. The latter was short, squat, square-jawed, genial and quick-witted—the very antithesis of his partner. Together they made as clever a team of crooks as operated south of the Mason and Dixon line. And at the present moment they felt a yearning to be very much farther south of that historic line.
At that, they were not close to it. They were transient residents of the city which first called the Mason and Dixon line into play. They had sought sanctuary in the sleepy confines of Charleston, South Carolina, after getting away with the sizeable bunch of lucre formerly stored in the vaults of the St. Croix bank.
St. Croix was a little town and it was less than sixty miles from Charleston as the crow flies. Lanky Bill and Boston Tommy had reached it on the warm trail of the money which now reposed in their pockets. As to the robbery itself, that had been mere child’s play to men who had heretofore reaped a nourishing harvest by means of iniquity in cities the size of Baltimore and Savannah. Their mistake had been in coming to Charleston, for in the sedate columns of the reverent News and Courier they had read many times and oft of their little haul and of the fact that “the local police entertain suspicions that the robbers have come to Charleston, and all outbound trains and steamers are being watched.”
It was sad news indeed; news to inspire melancholia in even so jovial an individual as Boston Tommy. For Lanky Bill and Boston Tommy desired nothing in this world quite so much as a sight of New York where they might seek real safety in their East-Side haunts.
They took warning from the News and Courier and did not attempt departure by any of the traveled routes. There were only two courses open, at that: the Union Depot on Columbus Street, where all roads enter, and the Clyde Line at the foot of Queen Street. Of course they entertained the idea of walking to Bennett’s or Summerville or even to Otranto, and there boarding a freight-train by means of the rods, but at that time the railroads had developed a sudden intense antipathy to stealers of rides and there was danger that they would be caught in this petty thievery, returned to Charleston and there held just long enough for the money which was the property of the Bank of St. Croix to be discovered on their persons. After which they realized that their costumes would be the fashionable black-and-white-stripe effect so popular with the innocent and hateful to the guilty. They had no great fondness for the South Carolina penitentiary.
But get away they must. Charleston is a small town, despite the fifty-eight thousand persons accorded it by the 1910 census, and a town where strangers must give their histories—even though those strangers be paying guests at one of the East Bay sailorman lodging-houses. And to make matters somewhat worse Boston Tommy had met temptation and succumbed to it. In brief, he had played the local pool champion a series of games at five dollars a game be fore a large and enthusiastic audience, and defeated him signally. Therefore, attention had been attracted to him.
When taken to task by Lanky Bill for the lapse, Tommy mournfully pleaded guilty and promised to do better in the future; and their fear was not decreased a whit by the knowledge that one of the spectators at the game had been a plain-clothes man.
THE month was May and the day was clear and hot and calm. Leaving the odoriferous restaurant in which they had breakfasted, they turned their steps southward along East Bay, past the Terry Fish Company’s wharves where the last of the mosquito fleet was putting out for the day’s fishing, and thence to the news-stand adjoining the Consolidated’s ferry wharf. There Lanky Bill purchased, with pleasing sang-froid a copy of the News and Courier.
With this acquisition, the comrades in evil retraced their steps to East Bay, walked northward a hundred yards and then strolled idly out on the pier which forms the north side of the Custom House wharf.
They seated themselves on the end of this wharf, swung their legs over the placid water of the river and lifted their eyes to mid-stream. Without a meeting of eyes, both sighed, and the right hand of each caressed the bulge which was formed by a package of money sewed on the shirt so it rested between that and a more personal garment. Lanky Bill broke the silence wheezily.
“There’s th’ Nesporeo!”
He gesticulated only with his eyebrows but Boston Tommy knew that he referred to the trim four-masted schooner which lay in midstream, half-way between their vantage-point and Castle Pinckney.
“The blue peter is flying,” commented Tommy dully.
“Yep.” Lanky Bill referred to the maritime page of the venerable paper which he held. “She clears today for Rio with naval stores.”
And again they sighed in chorus. Boston Tommy broke the oppressive silence.
“They tell me Rio’s a powerful swell place to spend a vacation. Red Roberts was there for a year after he croaked that swell duck on Riverside.”
“Yeh!” sarcastically. “And then he was fool enough to come back with a beard an’ his hair dyed black. Now he’s in Sing Sing.”
“He was foolish. If I ever hit Rio, it’s me for bein’ a Don for the rest of my life. This grubstake we got at St. Croix is——”
“S-s-sh! F’r the love of Mike, man, shut up! This burg is so gossipy that the wharf rats are li’ble to tell on us. There ain’t nothin’ ever happens here an’ every body in town is on the lookout for us after what this-paper printed about our bein’ here. What right they got to think we’re in Charleston, anyway? What right——”
“We’re here, ain’t we?”
“Sure, but we hadn’t ought to be.”
“Right you are. I wish we weren’t. Oh, lud—if we could only get berths on the Nesporeo!”
“If! If! Man, if we was in New York we wouldn’t give a hoot about anything. But we ain’t! This here paper says she’ll sail tomorrow with the early morning out going tide. If we could——”
“If!” grinned Tommy and Bill subsided abruptly.
They sat in silent reverie. The asthmatic Lawrence snorted out of her slip and panted laboriously across the harbor to the Mt. Pleasant shore, where her passengers disembarked for Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms. Then she puffed back again with much groaning of her overtaxed machinery.
The Lenape, pride of the Clyde Line fleet, steamed majestically in through the jetties for a stop-over before continuing to Jacksonville; the Apache, another ship of the same fleet, departed with much blowing of whistles for New York. The Carib, a Clyde freighter, left for Boston. Behind them, the East Bay spur of the railroad showed them a glimpse of freight-cars consigned from Pearlstine’s inland. Carriers, carriers everywhere and never a one to ride.
If only they might ship on the Nesporeo! But, as Bill had stated, under what excuse might they ship? Neither knew the quarter-deck from the forecastle, and certainly they couldn’t volunteer as cabin-boys.
A man, garbed in a suit of dark serge, with shirt and collar of white and cap which had once been the same color, descended the ladder of the midstream Nesporeo and entered a dinghy wherein were two dilapidated oarsmen. He sped shoreward. Boston Tommy clutched the arm of his companion in art and a hint of his old optimistic grin appeared for the briefest fraction of a second.
“Ten to one it’s Cap’n Dangree, comin’ ashore for his clearance papers.”
“No bet. Where do we get off?”
“It’s our last chance. With our roll—if we could just scrape an acquaintance with him, an’ y’d quit lookin’ like a wake——”
“You let me make that guy’s acquaintance an’ I’ll look happy as a starvin’ burlesque queen in a swell hash-house with a millionaire in tow. It’d be too good to be true.”
The dinghy purled shoreward, stopped at the stairway leading from water level to the top of the Custom House wharf, and the white-capped man crossed the street and ascended the interminable flight of stairs leading to the Custom House. The dinghy shot back toward the Nesporeo. The two malefactors rose.
“This is our chance,” suggested Tommy firmly. “He evidently ain’t goin’ right back to the ship, an’ if we could latch on to him an’ show him a few sights in this hell-bendin’ burg an’ get him about seven sheets in the wind——”
Which is said with all due apologies to ultra-respectable Charleston. But facts are facts. Up to a year or so ago there was much fun of a certain sort obtainable in the City by the Sea. Market Street, leading from the Custom House to Archdale, was studded with gambling-houses, blind tigers and other types of resort not quite as savory. I am informed that conditions have changed in the past year. Be that as it may, it existed as described up to a couple of years ago and was so at the time this story occurred.
At any rate, that they might not lose track of their prey they stationed themselves on the Market Street side of the Custom House where they commanded a view of both front and rear entrances.
At length their man appeared, on the East Bay side. He strolled idly down the steps as if he had not a thing to do and was eager to do it. Boston Tommy grabbed the arm of his accomplice, shoved a cigar into his mouth, clinched its twin sister between his own teeth and hustled toward the idle captain. He paused immediately before him and grinned his most bewitching grin.
“Say, cap’n, you got a match?”
“Sure!” The white-capped man’s voice boomed genially and he fished into his pocket. Then a blank expression came over his face and he drew forth a cigar, but no match. “No, dog-gone it, I haven’t. Think I’ll go over and get some.”
Quite as a matter of course the lanky one and the squat one accompanied him. Matches were had and cigars lighted. Boston Tommy-yawned wearily.
“Gee, ain’t it rotten to be a stranger in a town like this?”
“It is,” agreed the other feelingly.
“Me ’n’ my pal here drifted in three days ago, an’ have been waiting on an important letter. It come this morning an’ we’re leaving tomorrow for New York.”
“Is that so!” politely, “I hope you have a good trip.”
“You’re Captain Dangree of the Nesporeo ain’t you?” led the lanky one ingenuously.
“How’d you know?”
Lanky Bill smiled knowingly.
“Me ’n’ my partner here is lovers of sailin’-ships. We’re always cussing because steam ships has took all the romance outa the sea. We just love sailin’-ships. We’re crazy to take a trip in one some time—passengers, y’know.”
He paused with a grimace as Boston Tommy’s foot collided forcibly with his meatless shin.
“Throttle down!” hissed Tommy. “Y’ve done exceeded the speed limit.”
To the captain he said.
“Yeh! It must be grand to ride the waves in a sailin’-ship—where there ain’t no throbbin’ of engines. You ain’t goin’ to New York from here, are you?”
“No. Rio de Janeiro.”
Tommy’s face fell.
“Pshaw! If you’d have been headed for New York, me ’n’ my partner ’d paid passage an’ traveled with you.”
The captain smiled.
“That ain’t done, boys. The comp’ny don’t let us carry passengers. It puts us under different government regulations, an’ makes it harder on the company.”
“But they do do it,” insisted Tommy. “A friend of mine named Roberts—” He paused very suddenly indeed and gave vent to a fit of coughing. “He—er—shipped as a passenger.”
“Probably. But the usual way is for a passenger to sign up as a member of the ship’s crew. Just a formality, you know.”
“I see.” Tommy raised an expressive hand to his throat. “Gee whiz! this weather makes a guy thirsty, don’t it, now?”
“Believe me, Xantippe—she do,” assented Lanky Bill earnestly.
“Now that you mention it,” joined the captain.
“Say,” Bill grew confidential and looped his arm through that of the captain. “There’s a joint up the street here where they mix drinks to the queen’s taste. How about joinin’ us? We’re all strangers in a strange land—yo, ho! That’s real nautical, ain’t it?”
“Very,” dryly. “Sure, I’ll join you chaps. Haven’t a thing to do until tomorrow, an’ then I’ll be at sea for three weeks.”
The eyes of the conspirators met. Three weeks at sea! In three weeks the robbery would have been forgotten by all save a few inquisitive and tenacious detectives. And even the police didn’t know who had committed the crime. Thus far in their careers Lanky Bill and Boston Tommy had managed to keep their faces out of any rogues’ gallery.
THEY strolled up Market Street past Meeting, and turned into a place which combined the delights of bar, roulette, faro and craps. Bill treated first and then Tommy and then the captain.
After an hour or so Bill and Tommy treated twice each to the captain’s once. Then they secured a card-table and sat down to a friendly game of twenty-five-cent-limit draw. It hurt both Bill and Tommy to break pairs in order to avoid filling to good hands, but they did so nobly and succeeded in transferring some forty dollars from their pockets to those of the captain during a bibulous afternoon. By nine o’clock that night the captain was in an extremely mellow frame of mind. Tommy and Bill swore the captain was a great fellow, and the captain agreed.
Then he came back with a compliment in kind and wished that he might have them aboard with him during his three weeks at sea—so that he could play poker with them. His expressed wish was so close to their desires that they gasped and blanched. Was the golden egg to be dropped into their very hands at this eleventh hour? They had imbibed freely but not so freely that they had lost sight of the mission in hand.
The captain insisted on bucking the roulette-wheel and parted with fifteen of his forty-dollar winnings before his new-found friends steered him back to a poker-table. There they succeeded in losing sixty dollars very quickly. So quickly in fact that Boston Tommy excused himself for a minute and returned with five crisp new twenty-dollar bills, two of which he loaned to Lanky Bill. The captain drained his steenth cocktail, ordered straight whisky and shuffled.
They learned that the captain was going aboard at two a.m. The dinghy was to meet him at the Custom House wharf. And they must walk there with him; nothing else would do. They were princes—emperors—czars! The captain ran out of adjectives and stooped to endearing profanity.
At one a.m. they left the resort, and en route to the wharf had three drinks each from a bottle of the best bought by Bill. That and the warm night air finished the work for the captain. He became demonstrative. Then it was that Bill reverted to a topic of his love for sailing-ships.
The captain fell for the bait like a trout after a bluebottle fly. Nothing would do but that they go with him to Rio. They were the besht fell’rs he ever—hic—met. He cou’n’t—hic—loshe shush goo’ fr’en’s—hic.
He walked between them and they tearfully accepted his invitation. They stopped in a cigar store and purchased a box of the finest perfectos which they pressed upon him. They couldn’t think of never seeing him again. They promised him a fabulous sum for their passage-money. They were even considering remaining in Rio a while. They were men of wealth, they averred, and eager for travel; how eager they did not say.
The captain suggested that they lift their voices in song. Billy eyed a patrolman askance and quieted the vocal outburst. And finally they reached the Custom House wharf.
The night was very still, the moon very bright. In the moon path of silver they could plainly discern the silhouette of the Nesporeo as she rocked gently in midstream. They were both so happy that they hugged the captain.
“Boysh!” The captain was speaking with thick affection. “I—hic—lovsh you. Honesht. I coul’n’t part—hic—wish you. You go wish me to ship—hic— t’ni’. Huh?”
“Yesh cap’n, we’ll go wish you t’ni’.” Billy found it very hard indeed to keep the elation from his tones. “Heresh m’hand on it.”
“An’ heresh mine,” seconded Tommy. The captain clasped them both, and then …
THERE was a flash of steel in the moonlight and two ominous clicks. Lanky Bill and Boston Tommy leaped apart in sudden sobering terror. That is, they leaped apart for six inches, then a connecting chain held them.
They turned profanely to the captain and found him in possession of a wicked-looking little automatic which played alternately on the vitals of the one and then of the other.
“Now boys,” came the captain’s voice, surprisingly quiet for one who had imbibed as freely as they imagined he had done, “take my advice and don’t force me to use this little persuader. I was suspicious of you from the first—but when you were so crazy to get to Rio—I was sure. But I guess you’ll travel by rail to Columbia and the pen. I hate to do it, but——”
“An’ you ain’t Captain Dangree?”
“No. But I’d seen you two fellows hanging around watching that ship and I figured that you’d try to make your getaway on it, so I concocted this little scheme, and—well, it worked. Here’s what I am,” and he turned back his coat to disclose a shining badge.
Lanky Bill and Boston Tommy joined sighs. Tommy spoke.
“You win, cap. Lead us to it.”
And they started toward the station house. Only once did either of them speak, and that was when Lanky Bill turned.
“Say, cap—how about slippin’ us one of them cigars we gave you, huh?” he requested funereally.