Gentlemen: A Story of the Road
Two gen tlemen of the road slouched along the slimy ties in the di rection of the water tank. An all-day r a i n had given place at dusk to a searching wind, and the men bent into i t, shoulders humped, hands driven deep in pockets, silent ly. Now and again its shrill scream drop ped to a low whine above which could presently b e heard the steady drip of water.
“Gosh,” muttered one, “I never knowed three miles so long! Seems a couple o’ years since we left Danton.”
The other shivered and withdrew even further into his clothes. He looked like some peculiar species of tur-
tle with his head inside the shell.
“ ’Tis a right far piece,” his tones were muffled. “Nothin’ colder than hearin’ water drippin’ in a winter wind; I’m tryin’ to imagine it’s cawfee.”
They halted at the tank for the second time that night. Buz flung out his arms in great circles and stamped about on the grass which squeaked as his huge boots alternately sucked up and pressed out the moisture. His fingers were too stiff to light a match; already the coffee and sinkers he had eaten at a Hamburger joint lay like a frozen lump against his ribs, and he would have given much for a long stiff pull at a dark brown bottle.
The Philadelphia Kid was scraping about in his endeavor to find a dry enough place to sit down. It was one of the best things he did—sitting down. At last he turned grumblingly to his partner.
“Blamed cold fer ridin’ on the outside, to-night,” he said. “Wisht we could chum in with a real human ‘shack.’ The inside of a caboose’d look right welcome! I’m wet clean th’oo, so wet I gotta mind to light a fire.”
“I call that kinder takin’ chances, Kid,” protested the other, blowing on his fingers. “ ’Member what we seen a while ago.”
He pointed to one of the supports of the water tank and the Kid struck a match better to inspect the legend rudely carved there. They had seen it upon disembarking from the cattle car, at dusk, but had made straight for town and food in spite of its warning. Even a tramp must take risks for food.
The inscription was:
Buz paused in his Marathon long enough to look over the Kid’s shoulder and comment: “Tuffy Bangs sure is some guy! Wouldn’t s’prise me none whatever, if we wuz to catch him some’eres along the line. He’s travelin’ east an’ he blew by here—is to-day the 12th, Kid?”
“Then he wuz here yestiddy.”
The Kid studied the picture-writing earnestly.
“Don’t say whether he wuz passin’ th’oo, or whether he laid up a spell in Danton.” He took out his knife and began to carve a letter below Tuffy’s message.
Buz laughed. “Any one’d think you wuz a white fur rabbit, Kid, to hear you talk! Reckon a live ’un like Bangs is goin’ to lay around a burg with two watchful eyes on the lookout fer strangers and waitin’ to land ’em in the cooler?”
The cryptic marking on the post told the tramps that Danton’s civic a u t h or ities were not lighti n g up the “W elcome” sign for strangers. They had therefore made a cautious way to the stand of Galipolus who c orroborated Tuffy’s warning with a few elaborations. It seemed that several daring second - storey raids, successfully pulled off, had made the citizens shy of transi-
ents except those personally conducted by the Y.M.C.A., or the local Order of Moose.
“Polis got nobodee,” explained the Greek, grinning as he poured their coffee, “so somebodee gotta be he-goat.”
Having no desire to be transformed by the long arm of the law into this butting farm-yard dependent, the partners hastily washed down the sinkers, grabbed a couple of sandwiches and skirted the town, back to the tank, there to await the coming of the east-bound train. Under the circumstances it could not come too soon.
“I sure do wisht we could catch Tuffy,” Buz continued. “Gee, but he’s some kid! We beat it from Dee-troit to the coast— him an’ me, onct—Gosh, you never seen such a fellow for gettin’ pies. Seemed as if the dames couldn’t refuse him ! An’ honest, Kid, I’m givin’ you no dope, he had that cute a way with dawgs, I never had my pants onct bit into!”
He chuckled and was about to resume his reminiscences, when the vibration of the track announced the on-coming train.
Immediately Tuffy and his charms were forgotten. The two men took up positions behind the nearest and largest trees, revolving a point at a time so as to keep well out of the radius of light and a conscientious brakeman’s vision. They crouched against the slippery bark and waited.
A little farther away—perhaps fifty yards nearer Danton—another figure crouched on the opposite side of the track, unaware that he was to have companions on his journey. For he, too, waited the coming and halting of the east-bound train, and an inconspicuous means of getting away from town. He shook with cold and his teeth rattled in his head, despite the fact that he was warmly dressed in clothes of a different cut from those belonging to Buz and his companion. Beside, he was perfectly dry.
The engine’s headlight split the blackness; a whistle tore through the silence and shamed the noisy howling of the wind. The two men edged round the trees and the figure farther off melted into a fence post for the moment, quivering there and holding his breath.
Slower and slower moved the freight. It stopped, and the autocrat of the caboose swung off and uncoupled the engine so that it could shunt unhindered a length ahead and stand beneath the tank. He walked the distance from forward car to the rear, making grotesque shadows with his lantern on the trickling tree trunks, then as the engine lumbered back, he called sharply to the man ahead. A few laconic sounds were bandied back and forth, there was the click of a pin being shot into place; a quiver ran down the line of cars, as with a cough, a snort and a hissing jet of steam, the engine gathered speed until it settled down to a regular chug-a-chug, and thirty per.
Cautiously Buz raised his head above the top of a car and looked rearward. Silhouetted against the murky blue of the night sky another head protruded from an opening about two lengths away. The outline of the hat proclaimed its wearer to be an unexpected traveler, and Buz agilely ducked.
Comfort is largely a matter of habit. To the ordinary person accustomed to Morris chairs and leather upholstered spine-benders, concentrated thinking would be impossible hanging from the ladder of a swaying box car. No so with Buz. He hooked an arm in one rung, found leverage for his feet upon another, and resting a part of his anatomy upon a third gave himself up to deep reflection.
It would not likely be the ‘shack,’ for a brakeman would have no particular object in leaving the warmth of his palatial caboose. His vigilance in these enlightened days is not required as of yore; he has no need to sally forth at all hours upon the peremptory toot of a whistle. A down-grade holds no horror for him, today, for his up-to-date train is equipped with air-brakes, and he can slumber peacefully in the caboose dreaming of those by-gone years when constant racing up and down a swaying running-board was the order for a bleak and frosty night. Beside, the hat was not that of a shack.
“It’s a strong arm, damn him,” muttered Buz. “Plainclothes and loaded for bear, I bet.”
This morose reflection was somewhat palliated by that which followed.
“Well, they can’t find nothin’ on us, any way.”
He waited patiently a long time, watching the vague forms race by. The trees ran along like a low mountain range and the telegraph poles jumped up at regular intervals for all the world like giant fingers pointing at him. Then, wearied of inaction, Buz climbed to the top once more and reconnoitred. The coast was clear, so he wriggled up and along the intervening space, after the manner of a serpent. He had negotiated nearly the entire distance between his original position and the space from which the unfamiliar hat emerged, when it rose again suddenly, and turned directly toward him.
Buz sat up, tense; he prepared to dispute his right to travel, with anything short of a squad of bluecoats, but to his astonishment, the head went down more swiftly than it had come up. Evidently he had given the owner of it a bad moment.
“If it ain’t a Strong Arm, and it ain’t the shack,” he mused, “there’s only one guess left—it’s another Bo. Gosh, I wisht it’d be Tuffy!”
Covering the rest of the distance boldly, he peered down between the cars. The huddle figure there, suggested a white face, and terrified eyes; the clinging hands which showed white against a dark background told of bitten finger nails and bloodless lips. The whole attitude argued an unfamiliarity with freights.
“Hi, you,” called Buz. “Where you goin’?”
An answer was mumbled up to him.
“Come on up,” he invited, signalling the Kid, whose head appeared just then from the rear of the train. He swung along easily and presently dropped to a sitting posture beside his pal. Buz pointed downward and the Kid gave a whistle. They pulled the boy who clung desperately to the ladder, up to the top, and sat him between them. They had to hold him on. He was as awkward and unhappy on No. 749 as Buz would have been mounted upon the hump of a staggering camel.
“What’s your monniker?” shouted the Kid in the boy’s ear.
He shrank away without answering. Conversation was not easy; the rumbling and grinding of a freight always have to be taken into consideration. Therefore, the laconic speech and sign-language of tramps.
With no spoken word, the Kid signalled his partner, the question:
“What is it?”
And Buz understanding the peculiar jerk of his pal’s head, returned the dumb answer:
Every experienced railroad man will assert that he can tell when the train is about to stop quite some time before there is any appreciable difference in the rate of speed ; the Gentlemen of the Road also recognized this sensation and, feeling it upon them, immediately following their signals, they slid down between the two cars even before a bobbing light flashed from the rear. The brakeman was preparing to make his way to the front of the train.
Force of habit prompted him to stop and lower his lantern at regular intervals. The boy who was the last down saw this move and it frightened him.
“He’ll catch us,” he cried wildly.
“What if he does?” demanded Buz, brazenly. “It won’t be the first time for either of us.”
“We can’t be no more’n a couply miles from Hawkeston, anyway,” said Philadelphia Kid.
He and his partner were swinging out from the car ready to jump if necessary. The boy trying to imitate them was in imminent peril of losing his hold, and his life.
A light flashed above them and a chunk of coal struck the Kid on his head.
“Hi, you bums, git off there,” called a voice.
“All right. But you can’t expect us to jump yet; we’re liable to break our necks,” replied Buz in a conversational effort to gain time.
“So much the better,” came the reply. “Quick, now, I ain’t goin’ to stan’ no foolin’. ”
And the shack who evidently knew his business sat down not only to see that his orders were carried out but to be a little more convenient to the tramps with the toe of his boot.
The Philadelphia Kid was nothing if not a good jumper. He had practised the art long and faithfully. He was rather proud of his ability to remove himself unaided by hand or boot from a swiftly moving train. Therefore, he bent himself low, swayed out testingly a couple of times, then gracefully stepped from the train. His feet had hardly touched the ground before a bundle of clothes hurtled past him, and rolled drunkenly into the ditch.
“Haw, haw!” shouted Buz. swinging successfully off. And even the uncompromising shack joined in the hilarious uproar.
When the boy was helped to his feet, the train was some distance ahead and, even in the event of their catching it, the possibility of placating the shack or crew was small.
“The kind of guy who’s bound to rise in his profesh,” mocked the Kid, satirically. “Be president of the road some day, all on ’count of his conscientious discharge of duty. Huh!”
So, philosophers that they were, they prepared to make themselves comfortable on the road for the balance of the night.
They set the boy to gathering firewood, and soon had a good blaze going. His fall into the ditch had not added to his comfort, and he was now almost as wet as the tramps, themselves. But, although shivering with cold he made no effort to draw near to the welcoming warmth; instead he kept as far as possible out of the fire’s glow.
Buz sought in the mysterious recesses of his clothing and finally extracted what appeared to be a bundle of old papers. The Kid followed suit; then they unwrapped to the boy’s astonished gaze two healthy meat sandwiches. Nor was this all. With the finnikiness of a New York epicure they seasoned this refreshment with a mixture of salt and pepper also carried somewhere about their persons. It might be noted in passing that these condiments form an infallible part of a tramp’s outfit; never is he found without them.
Seeing that the boy was unprepared for the feast, they shared their food with him. At first he refused it, but once having tasted it he ate hungrily—as though eating had escaped his memory for many hours past. They sized him up with the unerring judgment of astute readers of men.
A small, fair boy, obviously of the upper class, obviously accustomed to the best that money can buy, he was the sort of lad who could resist everything except temptation. Pleasures which are supposed to be the perquisites of manhood had left their marks upon him; dissipation was no stranger, and yet he could scarcely have been more than twenty. It was apparent that his nerve was utterly broken, if he ever had any. He had reached the hysterical state to which some youthful persons come, when they pray— but are afraid—to die!
Suddenly out of a long silence, punctuated only by his noisy chewing, Buz asked, “Say, what you goin’ to do with all that money, boy?”
Startled horror told him that he had made a correct guess. More, the lad, taken unawares, clapped his hand to his breast pocket. Then recovering himself, he felt inside his coat for a mauve silk handkerchief, and with admirable, though tardy, self-possession he blew his nose before asking.
“That wad you’ve got in your pocket.”
“Humph!” he said. “You’re in the wrong pew.
I’ve got no wad,
I’m dead broke, or I wouldn’t be riding on a freight.
Here . . . you two ... let go of me . . . Help!”
There was no help. His cry died in his throat as the two men went through his pockets. Then, while the Kid sat heavily upon him, Buz opened the wallet and in the flickering firelight, counted out two thousand dollars.
“Good Lord, baby,” he turned a wondering glance toward the helpless, recumbent figure,
“Where in the world did you get it? It’s a wonder that you didn’t bring the safe along, too, to keep it in !”
The captive lay inert. Not only his nerve but his strength was gone. He did not answer.
“Looks good to me,” remarked the Kid, cheerfully. “Ain’t seen such a wad for a considerable time. Let’s send him back for more, Buz.”
Under cover of like facetiousness, the partners exchanged signs in their uncanny, silent way, and signalled for im-
mediate flight. Buz rose and stretched himself elaborately; the Kid doubled his knees preparatory to a sudden rise. Simultaneously, they bolted, making with singleness of purpose for a clump of bushes a few yards away, and from behind which they could easily repel an anticipated attack.
But none came. Instead, the boy arose, looked despairingly after them, then as though not caring what they did, he walked closer into the glancing light and unclasped an ugly-looking knife. No sooner had the gleam of the blade flashed, than Buz, with an oath, covered the distance in a second, and grasped the boy in a firm grip.
“My God,” he cried, angrily, “would you cut your fool throat before our very eyes and get us hung for murder? Have you forgotten that the blamed shack seen you with us?” His voice rose high and he finished with an oath.
“Aw, give him a quarter, Buz,” suggested the Kid with an ugly scowl “Or you might give him a tap on the nut that’ll keep him quiet till we mosey on a bit.”
“Y'es, yes, kill me,” begged the boy.
“I should have thrown myself from the train, but I hadn’t the nerve. But I could let you do it. . . . for God’s sake, don’t refuse!”
For five minutes he prayed to them with a fierce earnestness that he had never employed to the rightful Recipient of prayer. He would even give them a written confession exonerating them, he said.
From his disjointed ravings they pieced together a story—such an old grey-whis-
kered story; rust and cobwebs clung all over it. Yet, it’s grim tragedy is always new, and though Buz and the Kid recognized it before half of it was told, they were held by a something, they knew not what, that forced them to stay near the boy, and to listen.
“So your Pa ain’t had no time to train you, since your Ma died, has he, sonny?” Buz laid his hand on the boy’s arm with a grip which might have been friendly, or the reverse. He hardly cared. “You just grew up with the rest of the boys, I reckon. An’ you wuz one of them wild young bloods who didn’t miss much in the way of sparklin’ suppers an’ joyous riotin’, eh? That’s what comes of havin’ too much money lyin’ around, without workin’ for it! Figger out what you’d do, Philadelphy Kid, if your pa was Henry Needham, of the First National. Wouldn’t it be a cinch? Just the same with little Harvey, here, that Pa don’t realize has growed up. He walks in an’ helps himself to two thousand bucks an’ jumps a freight.” He suddenly dropped his jocular manner and inquired sternly, “Who’s it for, boy? Cards, horses, or— a woman?”
The miserable boy mumbled something from behind his hands, which the men had to bend close to hear.
“Oh, I know the breed, damn ’em,” cursed Buz. “Older than you, wasn’t she? But a looker, with a voice like oil, and lots of pet names to hand out when you walked right in the front door, familiar-like, and called ‘Hello!’ It’d make you feel right smart and husky to take her out—to the Races or to the Movies —and to spend your money on her. She’d send you to the City Hotel for a couple of cold quarts—” He stopped and looked into the blazing eyes which stared at h i m, fascinated, from a drawn, white face.
“Well,” he rapped out, sharply, “what happened then?”
Too utterly spent to question, to withhold; too utterly broken even to wonder at the tramp’s knowledge, Harvey whispered,
“We used to play cards in the evenings; sometimes roulette. There were quite a lot of strangers coming to town, and they usually knew her. They’d play too. . . . I didn’t always lose!” cried the boy fiingContinued on Page 82. ing a contradiction to the pitying glance on Philadelphia Kid’s fire-lit face, “And often when I did, she’d stake me—or she’d I try to make it right with whoever held i my I. O. U. They never pressed me—till —till—”
Continued from Page 25.
“Till to-day,” snarled Buz. “Well : whadyer do?”
“I took it. ... I took it and—when ; I went to the house—to give—it to—them —POLICEMEN WERE THERE!”
“Why didn’t you put it back?” Buz flung at the miserable boy.
“Dad was working late at the Bank; others were there too. By morning they’ll know—oh God, they’ll know!” He burst into convulsive sobbing.
Buz sat by and watched him; watched him with eyes that did not see, for he was looking into the memory of other days when the velvet of a woman’s arms and the fragrance of a woman’s kiss were part of his unstained life. Then, the temptation. The vault at midnight. The scorching of the money against his icy, trembling fingers.
The escape only to find her gone—gone with another man. The capture — and the trial! She came to witness his disi grace; her eyes were cold, unfeeling. By 1 Heaven, she shrank from him as he was led away to stripes and fifteen years ....
I He stood erect, listening.
“Son,” he said, “we are goin’ to catch j the next rattler back—all of us.”
“I can’t—I can’t! I couldn’t face it!”
Something dropped from Buz in that instant; something acquired by long years of ‘hitting the gait.’ A new note crept into his voice, his language, his manner, as he gently argued with the desperate boy.
“Be a sport, lad. Take your medicine. It won’t be nice, but you can do it now. By and by—it will be too late.”
“I can’t,” groaned Harvey. “You don’t understand. . . . People will have to
know. . . . They will cut me . . . and I am a gentleman. . . .”
“I do understand. It is because you are a gentleman that you must go back. A gentleman can do what another would not dare. If someone had taken me back. . .”
A muffled whistle throbbed along the night to them, warning them of the approach of the west-bound train.
Starting to meet it on the run, Buz was relieved to discover an empty box car well to the front of the train. Swinging himself in at the open door, he braced his shoulder and made ready to seize the human cargo which was coming. For with that certainty which characterized all their unspoken thoughts, Buz knew that the Kid would heave the boy up to him as the train sped by.
He was not mistaken. Dragging the still protesting fugitive along, the Kid waited the psychic moment, then with a sudden jerk at his collar, a strong boost from the ground, Harvey was flung into the opening where he and Buzz fell to the floor together.
Presently the Kid’s head appeared upside-down at the top of the door. He had accomplished another of his famed athletic tricks, by catching to the end of the train after disposing of Harvey, running along the tops of the cars and finally letting himself down a perpendicular side and into the doorway beside his pal.
Dawn was pushing the darkness into the west when the train lumbered into Danton. Its weird trio of passengers had left its shelter at the water tank and were making their way to Henry Needham’s handsome dwelling through old Deacon Collins’ orchard.
No nightmare ever shocked the president of Danton’s First National as did the sight of his son Harvey, on that chill November morning, bearing unmistakable traces of bodily and mental distress, and supported by two stern-faced gentlemen of the road, in spite of the fact that he was alarmingly sober.
The boy staggered into the hall and led the way to a fine old library. He burst feverishly into the midst of the story. At its conclusion Buz laid a wad of bills upon the table beside a woman’s photograph. There they lay like an offering to the lad’s mother. Then he cleared his throat j and signaled the Kid.
“As long as we can do nothing further, ¡ sir,” he addressed the bowed head in a great leather chair, “perhaps we had better start on.”
‘A es,” agreed the Kid, awkwardly. “It’s about time for us to beat it.”
The man raised his head. He looked at t.he first speaker long and shrewdly.
“Gentlemen,” he began, and at the word the two tatterdemalion relicts of other days, straightened themselves and squared their shoulders, “gentlemen, it would be a travesty to try to thank you. But.... would you care to take my hand, and that of my son?”
To this day residents of Danton puzzle over the queer inscription carved upon the gate post of Henry Needham’s grounds.
It is the tramp’s insignia of Welcome!