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THE TRAIL DIVIDES
Inspired by his recent rivalry with Mr. Jefferson Locke, Anthony played the part of host more lavishly than even the present occasion required. He ordered elaborately, and it was not long before corks were popping and dishes rattling quite as if the young men were really hungry. Mr. Locke, however, insisted that his friends should partake of a kind of drink previously unheard of, and with this in view had a confidential chat with the waiter, to whom he unostentatiously handed a five-dollar retainer. No one witnessed this unusual generosity except Higgins, who commended it fondly; but his remarks went unheeded in the general clamor.
The meal was at its noisiest when the man whom Locke had so generously tipped spoke to him quietly. Whatever his words, they affected the listener strongly. Locke's face whitened, then grew muddy and yellow, his hands trembled, his lips went dry. He half arose from his chair, then cast a swift look about the room. His companions were too well occupied, however, to notice this by-play even when the waiter continued, in a low tone:
"He slipped me a ten-spot, so I thought it must be something worth while."
"He--he's alone, you say?"
"Seems to be. What shall I do, sir?"
Locke took something from his pocket and thrust it into the fellow's hand, while the look in his eyes changed to one of desperation.
"Step outside and wait. Don't let him come up. I'll call you in a minute."
Ringold was recounting his version of the first touchdown--how he had been forced inch by inch across the goal line to the tune of thirty thousand yelling throats and his companions were hanging upon his words, when their new friend interrupted in such a tone that Anthony inquired in surprise:
"What's wrong, old man? Are you sick?"
Locke shook his head. "I told you fellows I'd been followed this evening. Remember? Well, there's a man down-stairs who has given the waiter ten dollars to let him have his coat and apron so he can come in here."
"Who is he?"
The men stared at the speaker with a sudden new interest.
"I'm not sure. I--think it's part of a plan to rob me." He let his gaze roam from one face to another. "You see--I just came into a big piece of coin, and I've got it with me. I'm--I'm alone in New York, understand? They've followed me from St. Louis. Now, I want you boys to help me dodge this--"
Kirk Anthony rose suddenly, moving as lightly upon his feet as a dancer.
"You say he's below?"
Locke nodded. It was plain that he was quite unnerved.
Ringold rose in turn and lurched ponderously toward the door, but Kirk stepped in front of him with a sharp word:
"Wait! I'll manage this."
"Lemme go," expostulated the centre-rush. "Locke's a good fellow and this man wants to trim him."
"No, no! Sit down!" Ringold obeyed. "If he wants to join us, we'll have him come up."
"What?" cried Locke, leaping nervously from his chair. "Don't do that. I want to get out of here."
"Not a bit like it." Kirk's eyes were sparkling. "We'll give this fellow the third degree and find out who his pals are."
"Grand idea!" Higgins seconded with enthusiasm. "Grand!"
"Hold on! I can't do that. I've got to sail at ten o'clock. I don't dare get into trouble, don't you understand? It's important." Locke seemed in an extraordinary panic.
"Oh, we'll see that you catch your boat all right," Kirk assured him; and then before the other could interfere he rang for the waiter.
"Give that chap your coat and apron," he ordered, when the attendant answered, "and when I ring next send him up. Pass the word to Padden and the others not to notice any little disturbance. I'll answer for results."
"I'm going to get out," cried the man from St. Louis. "He mustn't see me."
"He'll see you sure if you leave now. You'll have to pass him. Stick here. We'll have some fun."
The white-faced man sank back into his chair, while Anthony directed sharply:
"Now, gentlemen, be seated. Here, Locke, your back to the door-- your face looks like a chalk-mine. There! Now don't be so nervous-- we'll cure this fellow's ambition as a gin-slinger. I'll change names with you for a minute. Now, Ringold, go ahead with your story." Then, as the giant took up his tale again: "Listen to him, fellows; look pleasant, please. Remember you're not sitting up with a corpse. A little more ginger, Ringie. Good!" He pushed the button twice, and a moment Later the door opened quietly to admit a medium-sized man in white coat and apron.
Had the young men been a little less exhilarated they might have suspected that Locke's story of having been dogged from St. Louis was a trifle exaggerated; for, instead of singling him out at first glance, the new-comer paused at a respectful distance inside the door and allowed his eyes to shift uncertainly from one to another as if in doubt as to which was his quarry. Anthony did not dream that it was his own resemblance to the Missourian that led to this confusion, but in fact, while he and Locke were totally unlike when closely compared, they were of a similar size and coloring, and the same general description would have fitted both.
Having allowed the intruder a moment in which to take in the room, Kirk leaned back in his chair and nodded for him to approach.
"Cigars!" he ordered. "Bring a box of Carolinas."
"Yes, sir. Are you Mr. Locke, sir?" inquired the new waiter.
"Yes," said Kirk.
"Telephone message for you, Mr. Locke," the waiter muttered.
"What's that?" Anthony queried, loud enough for the others to hear.
"Somebody calling you by 'phone. They're holding the wire outside. I'll show you the booth."
"Oh, will you?" Kirk Anthony's hands suddenly shot out and seized the masquerader by the throat. The man uttered a startled gasp, but simultaneously the iron grip of Marty Ringold fell upon his arms and doubled them behind him, while Kirk gibed:
"You'll get me outside and into a telephone booth, eh? My dear sir, that is old stuff."
The rest of the party were on their feet instantly, watching the struggle and crowding forward with angry exclamations. Ringold, with the man's two wrists locked securely in his own huge paw, was growling:
"Smooth way to do up a fellow, I call it."
"All the way from St. Louis for a telephone call, eh?" Anthony sank his thumbs into the stranger's throat, then, as the man's face grew black and his contortions diminished, added: "We're going to make a good waiter out of you."
Jefferson Locke broke in excitedly: "Choke him good! Choke him! That's right. Put him out for keeps. For God's sake, don't let him go!"
But it was not Kirk's idea to strangle his victim beyond a certain point. He relaxed his grip after a moment and, nodding to Ringold to do likewise, took the fellow's wrists himself, then swung him about until he faced the others. The man's lungs filled with fresh air, he began to struggle once more, and when his voice had returned he gasped:
"I'll get you for this. You'll do a trick--" He mumbled a name that did not sound at all like Jefferson Locke, whereupon the Missourian made a rush at him that required the full strength of Anthony's free hand to thwart.
"Here, stand back! I've got him!"
"I'll kill him!" chattered the other.
"Let me go," the stranger gasped. "I'll take you all in. I'm an officer."
"It's a lie!" shouted Locke. "He's a thief."
"I tell you I'm--an officer; I arrest this--"
The words were cut off abruptly by a loud exclamation from Higgins and a crash of glass. Kirk Anthony's face was drenched, his eyes were filled with a stinging liquid; he felt his prisoner sink limply back into his arms and beheld Higgins struggling in the grasp of big Marty Ringold, the foil-covered neck of a wine bottle in his fingers.
The foolish fellow had been hovering uncertainly round the edges of the crowd, longing to help his friends and crazily anxious to win glory by some deed of valor. At the first opening he had darted wildly into the fray, not realizing that the enemy was already helpless in the hands of his captors.
"I've got him!" he cried, joyously. "He's out!'
"Higgins!" Anthony exclaimed, sharply. "What the devil--" Then the dead weight in his arms, the lolling head and sagging jaw of the stranger, sobered him like a deluge of ice-water.
"You've done it this time," he muttered.
"Good God!" Locke cried. "Let's get away! He's hurt!"
"Here, you!" Anthony shot a command at the speaker that checked him half-way across the room. "Ringold, take the door and don't let anybody in or out." To Higgins he exclaimed, "You idiot, didn't you see I had his hands?"
"No. Had to get him," returned Higgins, with vinous dignity. "Wanted to rob my old friend, Mr.--What's his name?"
"We've got to leave quick before we get in bad," Locke reiterated, nervously, but Anthony retorted:
"We're in bad now. I want Padden." He stepped to the door and signaled a passing waiter. A moment later the proprietor knocked, and Ringold admitted him.
"What's the--" Padden started at sight of the motionless figure on the floor, and, kneeling beside it, made a quick examination, while Anthony explained the circumstances leading up to the assault.
"Thief, eh? I see."
"Is he badly hurt?" queried Locke, bending a pale face upon them.
"Huh! I guess he's due for the hospital," the owner of the Austrian Village announced. "He had his nerve, trying to turn a trick in my place. I thought I knew all the dips, but he's a stranger." With nimble fingers he ran through the fellow's pockets, then continued:
"I'm glad you got him, but you'd better get together and rehearse before the police--" He stopped abruptly once more, then looked up curiously.
"What is it?" questioned the man from Missouri.
Padden pointed silently to the lapel of the fellow's vest, which he had turned back. A nickeled badge was pinned upon it. "He's no thief; he's a detective--a plain-clothes man!"
"Wha'd I tell you!" Higgins exulted. "I can smell 'em!"
The crowd looked nonplussed, with the exception of Jefferson Locke, who became calmer than at any time since the waiter had first whispered into his ear.
"We didn't know who he was," he began, hurriedly, "You must square it for us, Padden. I don't care what it costs." He extended a bulky roll of bank-notes toward the gray-haired man. "These boys can't stand this sort of thing, and neither can I. I've got to sail at ten o'clock this morning."
"Looks to me like you've croaked him," said the proprietor, ignoring the proffered money.
"It's worth a thousand dollars to me not to miss my boat."
"Wait a minute." Padden emptied the unconscious man's pockets, among other things of some telegrams and a legally folded paper. The latter he opened and scanned swiftly, then turned his little eyes upon Locke without a word, whereupon that gentleman, with equal silence, took from his inside pocket a wallet, and selected a bill, the denomination of which he displayed to the; proprietor before folding it inside the bundle he held.
"Here! It may cost you something."
Padden nodded and accepted the money, saying:
"Oh, I guess I can fix it. I know the right doctor." He regained his feet, then warned the onlookers: "But you'll have to keep your traps closed, understand?"
"Will he die?" asked Ringold, fearfully, his back still against the door.
"Not a chance. But if he does he'll never know who hit him. You see, we picked him up in the alley and brought him in." Padden winked meaningly. "It happens right along in this part of town. Do you get me? I'll keep these." He indicated the badge and papers in his hand. "Now go out as if nothing had come off. Drop in again the next time you're in town. I'll take care of the supper checks."
As the partly sobered visitors struggled into their overcoats Padden drew Locke aside, and, nodding toward Higgins, who was still talkative, said:
"If you want to catch that ten o'clock boat you'd better stick close to your friend; I know him."
"Thanks!" Locke glanced at the prostrate figure, then inquired in a low tone: "On the level, will he make it?"
"Hard to tell. Just the same, if I was you I'd change my sailing-- he might come to."
"You chaps have done me a big favor to-night," said Locke, a little later, when he and his companions were safely out of the Austrian Village, "and I won't forget it, either. Now let's finish the evening the way we began it."
Anderson, Rankin, and Burroughs, to conceal their nervousness, pleaded bodily fatigue, while Anthony also declared that he had enjoyed himself sufficiently for one night and intended to go home and to bed. "That episode rather got on my nerves," he acknowledged.
"Mine, too," assented Locke. "That's why you mustn't leave me. I just won't let you. Remember, you agreed to see me off."
"'S'right, fellows," Higgins joined in. "We agreed to put him aboard and we must do it. Don't break up the party, Kirk."
"I don't want to go home," Ringold muttered.
"It's a breach of hospitality to go home," Higgins insisted. "Besides, after my bloody 'ncounter with that limb of the law I need a stimulant. You must look after me."
"I shall tuck you in your little bed," Kirk told him. But Higgins would hear to nothing of the sort, protesting that he was in honor bound to conduct his old friend Locke to the steamer, and Anthony feared that without his protection some harm might befall his irresponsible and impulsive companion. Candor requires it to be said that he did hesitate, arguing long with the limp-legged Higgins; but Locke was insistent, the others grew impatient of the delay, and in the end he allowed himself to be persuaded.
It is often through just such sudden, inconsequent decisions, influenced perhaps by the merest trifles, that a man's life is made great or small; just such narrow forkings of the trail may divert him into strange adventurings, or into worlds undreamed of. Kirk Anthony, twenty-six years old, with a heritage at hand, and with an average capacity for good or evil, chose the turning that led him swiftly from the world he knew into an alien land.
Numbed as they were by the excesses of the evening, it did not take the young men long to lose all clear and vivid remembrance of this recent experience; for the time had come when Nature was offering her last resistance, and their brains were badly awhirl. Of all the four, Jefferson Locke was the only one who retained his wits to the fullest--a circumstance that would have proved him the owner of a remarkably steady head had it not been for the fact that he had cunningly substituted water for gin each time it came his turn to drink. It was a commentary upon the state of his companions that they did not notice the limpid clearness of his beverage.
Dawn found them in an East Side basement drinking-place frequented by the lowest classes. Ringold was slumbering peacefully, half overflowing the wet surface of a table; Anthony had discovered musical talent in the bartender and was seated at a battered piano, laboriously experimenting with the accompaniment to an Irish ballad; Higgins and Locke were talking earnestly. It was the slackest, blackest hour in an all-night dive; the nocturnal habitues had slunk away, and the day's trade had not yet begun. Higgins, drawn and haggard beneath his drunken flush, was babbling incessantly; Locke, as usual, sat facing the entrance, his eyes watchful, his countenance alert. In spite of the fact that he had constantly plied his companion with liquor in the hope of stilling his tongue, Higgins seemed incapable of silence, and kept breaking forth into loud, garbled recitals of the scene at Padden's, which caused the Missourian to shiver with apprehension. To a sober eye it would have been patent that Locke was laboring under some strong excitement; for every door that opened caused him to start, every stranger that entered made him quake. He consulted his watch repeatedly, he flushed and paled and fidgeted, then lost himself in frowning meditation.
"Grandes' fellow I ever met," Higgins was saying for the hundredth time. "Got two faults, tha's all; he's modesht an' he's lazy--he won't work."
Locke stirred himself, and, leaning forward, said: "You and he are good friends, eh?"
"Would you like to play a joke on him?"
"Joke? Can't be done. He's wises' guy ever. I've tried it an' always get the wors' of it. Yes, sir, he's wise guy. Jus' got two faults: he won't work an'--"
"Look here! Why don't you make him work?"
"Huh?" Higgins turned a pair of bleared, unfocusable eyes upon the speaker.
"Why don't somebody make him work?"
The lean-faced youth laughed moistly.
"Tha's good joke."
"I mean it."
"Got too much money. 'S old man puts up reg'lar."
"Listen! It's a shame for a fine fellow like him to go to the dogs." Higgins nodded heavily in agreement. "Why don't you send him away where he'll have to rustle? That's the joke I meant."
"Huh?" Again the listener's mind failed to follow, and Locke repeated his words, concluding: "It would make a new man of him."
"Oh, he wouldn't work. Too lazy."
"He'd have to if he were broke."
"But he AIN'T broke. Didn't I tell you 's old man puts up reg'lar? Fine man, too, Misser Anthony; owns railroads."
"I'll tell you how we can work it. I've got a ticket for Central America in my pocket. The boat sails at ten. Let's send him down there."
Locke kept his temper with an effort. "To make a man of him. We'll go through his clothes and when he lands he'll be broke. He'll HAVE to work. Don't you see?"
"No." Anthony's friend did not see. "He don't want to go to Central America," he argued; "he's got a new autom'bile."
"But suppose we got him soused, went through his pockets, and then put him aboard the boat. He'd be at sea by the time he woke up; he couldn't get back; he'd have to work; don't you see? He'd be broke when he landed and have to rustle money to get back with. I think it's an awful funny idea."
The undeniable humor of such a situation finally dawned upon Higgins's mind, and he burst into a loud guffaw.
"Hey there! Shut up!" Anthony called from the piano. "Listen here! I've found the lost chord." He bore down with his huge hands upon the yellow keyboard, bringing forth a metallic crash that blended fearfully with the bartender's voice. "It's a great discovery."
"I'll get him full if you'll help manage him," Locke went on. "And here's the ticket." He tapped his pocket.
"Where'd you get it?"
"Bought it yesterday. It's first class and better, and he'll fit my description. We're about the same size."
"Ain't you goin'?"
"No. I've changed my mind. I may jump over to Paris. Come, are you on?"
Higgins giggled. "Darn' funny idea, if you can get him full."
"Wait." Locke rose and went to the bar, where he called loudly for the singer; then, when the bartender had deserted the piano, he spoke to Anthony: "Keep it up, old man, you're doing fine."
For some moments he talked earnestly to the man behind the bar; but his back was to Higgins, Anthony was occupied, and Ringold still slumbered; hence no one observed the transfer of another of those yellow bills of which he seemed to have an unlimited store.
Strangely enough, Mr. Jefferson Locke's plan worked without a hitch. Within ten minutes after Kirk Anthony had taken the drink handed him he declared himself sleepy, and rose from the piano, only to seek a chair, into which he flung himself heavily.
"It's all right," Locke told his drunken companion. "I've got a taxi waiting. We'll leave Ringold where he is."
Twenty-four hours later Adelbert Higgins undertook to recall what had happened to him after he left Muller's place on East Fourteenth Street, but his memory was tricky. He recollected a vaguely humorous discussion of some sort with a stranger, the details of which were almost entirely missing. He remembered that dawn had broken when he came out of the saloon, but beyond that he could not go with any degree of certainty. There was a hazy memory of an interminable ride in a closed vehicle of some sort, a dizzy panorama of moving buildings, bleak, wind-swept trees, frosty meadows, and land-locked lakes backed by what were either distant mountain ranges or apartment houses. This last, however, was all very blurred and indistinct.
As to who was with him on the ride, or what took place thereafter, he had no memory and no opportunity of learning, owing to certain unexpected and alarming occurrences which made it imperative for him to terminate his connection with his college, as big Marty Ringold had done earlier in the day, and begin to pack his belongings. Partly out of deference to the frantic appeals of his widowed mother, partly owing to the telephoned advice of Mr. Michael Padden, of Sixth Avenue, who said the injured man had recognized one of his assailants, he booked passage to Japan by the next steamer out of Vancouver. He left New York that afternoon by the Twentieth Century Limited, taking with him only one suit- case and a determination to see the world.
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