Read CHAPTER XIII of Copper Streak Trail, free online book, by Eugene Manlove Rhodes, on ReadCentral.com.

Mr. Francis Charles Boland, propped up on one elbow, sprawled upon a rug spread upon the grass under a giant willow tree at Mitchell House, deep in the Chronicles of Sir John Froissart. Mr. Ferdinand Sedgwick tip-toed unheard across the velvet sward. He prodded Frances Charles with his toe.

“Ouch!” said Francis Charles.

“You’ll catch your death of cold. Get up! Your company is desired.”

“Go ’way!”

“Miss Dexter wants you.”

“Don’t, either. She was coiled in the hammock ten minutes ago. Wearing a criminal néglige. Picturesque, but not posing. She slept; I heard her snore.”

“She’s awake now and wants you to make a fourth at bridge; you two against Elsie and me.”

“Botheration! Tell her you couldn’t find me.”

“I would hush the voice of conscience and do your bidding gladly, old thing, if it lay within the sphere of practical politics. But, unfortunately, she saw you.”

“Tell her to go to the devil!”

Ferdie considered this proposition and rejected it with regret.

“She wouldn’t do it. But you go on with your reading. I’ll tell her you’re disgruntled. She’ll understand. This will make the fourth day that you haven’t taken your accustomed stroll by the schoolhouse. We’re all interested, Frankie.”

“You banshee!” Francis withdrew the finger that had been keeping his place in the book. “I suppose I’ll have to go back with you.” He sat up, rather red as to his face.

“I bet she turned you down hard, old boy,” murmured Mr. Sedgwick sympathetically. “My own life has been very sad. It has been blighted forever, several times. Is she pretty? I haven’t seen her, myself, and the reports of the men-folks and the young ladies don’t tally. Funny thing, but scientific observation shows that when a girl says another girl is fine-looking-Hully Gee! And vice versa. Eh? What say?”

“Didn’t say anything. You probably overheard me thinking. If so, I beg your pardon.”

“I saw a fine old Western gentleman drive by here with old man Selden yesterday-looked like a Westerner, anyhow; big sombrero, leather face, and all that. I hope,” said Ferdie anxiously, “that it was not this venerable gentleman who put you on the blink. He was a fine old relic; but he looked rather patriarchal for the rôle of Lochinvar. Unless, of course, he has the money.”

“Yes, he’s a Western man, all right. I met them on the Vesper Bridge,” replied Boland absently, ignoring the banter. He got to his feet and spoke with dreamy animation. “Ferdie, that chap made me feel homesick with just one look at him. Best time I ever had was with that sort. Younger men I was running with, of course. Fine chaps; splendidly educated and perfect gentlemen when sober-I quote from an uncredited quotation from a copy of an imitation of a celebrated plagiarist. Would go back there and stay and stay, only for the lady mother. She’s used to the city.... By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.”

“Hi!” said Ferdie. “Party yellin’ at you from the road. Come out of your trance.”

Francis Charles looked up. A farmer had stopped his team by the front gate.

“Mr. Boland!” he trumpeted through his hands.

Boland answered the hail and started for the gate, Ferdie following; the agriculturist flourished a letter, dropped it in the R.F.D. box, and drove on.

“Oh, la, la! The thick plottens!” observed Ferdie.

Francis Charles tore open the letter, read it hastily, and turned with sparkling eyes to his friend. His friend, for his part, sighed profoundly.

“Oh Francis, Francis!” he chided.

“Here, you howling idiot; read it!” said Francis.

The idiot took the letter and read:

DEAR MR. BOLAND: I need your help. Mr. Johnson, a friend of Stanley’s-his best friend-is up here from Arizona upon business of the utmost importance, both to himself and Stanley.

I have only this moment had word that Mr. Johnson is in the most serious trouble. To be plain, he is in Vesper Jail. There has been foul play, part and parcel of a conspiracy directed against Stanley. Please come at once. I claim your promise.

Mary Selden

Ferdie handed it back.

“My friend’s friend is my friend? And so on, ad infinitum, like fleas with little fleas to bite ’em-that sort of thing-what? Does that let me in? I seem to qualify in a small-flealike way.”

“You bet you do, old chap! That’s the spirit! Do you rush up and present my profound apologies to the ladies-important business matter. I’ll be getting out the buzz wagon. You shall see Mary Selden. You shall also see how right well and featly our no-bel and intrepid young hero bore himself, just a-pitchin’ and a-rarin’, when inclination jibed with jooty!”

Two minutes later they took the curve by the big gate on two wheels. As they straightened into the river road, Mr. Sedgwick spread one hand over his heart, rolled his eyes heavenward and observed with fine dramatic effect:

“’I claim your pr-r-r-r-omise’!”

Mr. Johnson sat in a cell of Vesper Jail, charged with assault and battery in the nth degree; drunk and disorderly understood, but that charge unpreferred as yet. It is no part of legal method to bring one accused of intoxication before the magistrate at once, so that the judicial mind may see for itself. By this capital arrangement, the justly intoxicated may be acquitted for lack of convincing evidence, after they have had time to sober up; while the unjustly accused, who should go free on sight, are at the mercy of such evidence as the unjust accuser sees fit to bring or send.

The Messrs. Poole had executed their commission upon Vesper Bridge, pouncing upon Mr. Johnson as he passed between them, all unsuspecting. They might well have failed in their errand, however, had it not been that Mr. Johnson was, in a manner of speaking, in dishabille, having left his gun at the hotel. Even so, he improvised several new lines and some effective stage business before he was overpowered by numbers and weight.

The brothers Poole were regarded with much disfavor by Undersheriff Barton, who made the arrest; but their appearance bore out their story. It was plain that some one had battered them.

Mr. Johnson quite won the undersheriff’s esteem by his seemly bearing after the arrest. He accepted the situation with extreme composure, exhibiting small rancor toward his accusers, refraining from counter-comment to their heated descriptive analysis of himself; he troubled himself to make no denials.

“I’ll tell my yarn to the judge,” he said, and walked to jail with his captors in friendliest fashion.

These circumstances, coupled with the deputy’s experienced dislike for the complaining witnesses and a well-grounded unofficial joy at their battered state, won favor for the prisoner. The second floor of the jail was crowded with a noisy and noisome crew. Johnson was taken to the third floor, untenanted save for himself, and ushered into a quiet and pleasant corner cell, whence he might solace himself by a view of the street and the courthouse park. Further, the deputy ministered to Mr. Johnson’s hurts with water and court-plaster, and a beefsteak applied to a bruised and swollen eye. He volunteered his good offices as a witness in the moot matter of intoxication and in all ways gave him treatment befitting an honored guest.

“Now, what else?” he said. “You can’t get a hearing until to-morrow; the justice of the peace is out of town. Do you know anybody here? Can you give bail?”

“Ya-as, I reckon so. But I won’t worry about that till to-morrow. Night in jail don’t hurt any one.”

“If I can do anything for you, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Thank you kindly, I’ll take you up on that. Just let me think up a little.”

The upshot of his considerations was that the jailer carried to a tailor’s shop Johnson’s coat and vest, sadly mishandled during the brief affray on the bridge; the deputy dispatched a messenger to the Selden Farm with a note for Miss Mary Selden, and also made diligent inquiry as to Mr. Oscar Mitchell, reporting that Mr. Mitchell had taken the westbound flyer at four o’clock, together with Mr. Pelman, his clerk; both taking tickets to El Paso.

Later, a complaisant jailer brought to Pete a goodly supper from the Algonquin, clean bedding, cigars, magazines, and a lamp-the last item contrary to rule. He chatted with his prisoner during supper, cleared away the dishes, locked the cell door, with a cheerful wish for good night, and left Pete with his reflections.

Pete had hardly got to sleep when he was wakened by a queer, clinking noise. He sat up in the bed and listened.

The sound continued. It seemed to come from the window, from which the sash had been removed because of July heat. Pete went to investigate. He found, black and startling against the starlight beyond, a small rubber balloon, such as children love, bobbing up and down across the window; tied to it was a delicate silk fishline, which furnished the motive power. As this was pulled in or paid out the balloon scraped by the window, and a pocket-size cigar clipper, tied beneath at the end of a six-inch string, tinkled and scratched on the iron bars. Pete lit his lamp; the little balloon at once became stationary.

“This,” said Pete, grinning hugely, “is the doings of that Selden kid. She is certainly one fine small person!”

Pete turned the lamp low and placed it on the floor at his feet, so that it should not unduly shape him against the window; he pulled gently on the line. It gave; a guarded whistle came softly from the dark shadow of the jail. Pete detached the captive balloon, with a blessing, and pulled in the fishline. Knotted to it was a stout cord, and in the knot was a small piece of paper, rolled cigarette fashion. Pete untied the knot; he dropped his coil of fishline out of the window, first securing the stronger cord by a turn round his hand lest he should inadvertently drop that as well; he held the paper to the light, and read the message:

Waiting for you, with car, two blocks north. Destroy MS.

Pete pulled up the cord, hand over hand, and was presently rewarded by a small hacksaw, eminently suited for cutting bars; he drew in the slack again and this time came to the end of the cord, to which was fastened a strong rope. He drew this up noiselessly and laid the coils on the floor. Then he penciled a note, in turn:

Clear out. Will join you later.

He tied this missive on his cord, together with the cigar clipper, and lowered them from the window. There was a signaling tug at the cord; Pete dropped it.

Pete dressed himself; he placed a chair under the window; then he extinguished the lamp, took the saw, and prepared to saw out the bars. But it was destined to be otherwise. Even as he raised the saw, he stiffened in his tracks, listening; his blood tingled to his finger tips. He heard a footstep on the stair, faint, guarded, but unmistakable. It came on, slowly, stealthily.

Pete thrust saw and rope under his mattress and flung himself upon it, all dressed as he was, face to the wall, with one careless arm under his head, just as if he had dropped asleep unawares.

A few seconds later came a little click, startling to tense nerves, at the cell door; a slender shaft of light lanced the darkness, spreading to a mellow cone of radiance. It searched and probed; it rested upon the silent figure on the bed.

Sh-h-h!” said a sibilant whisper.

Peter muttered, rolled over uneasily, opened his eyes and leaped up, springing aside from that golden circle of light in well-simulated alarm.

“Hush-h!” said the whisper. “I’m going to let you out. Be quiet!”

Keys jingled softly in the dark; the lock turned gently and the door opened. In that brief flash of time Pete Johnson noted that there had been no hesitation about which key to use. His thought flew to the kindly undersheriff. His hand swept swiftly over the table; a match crackled.

“Smoke?” said Pete, extending the box with graceful courtesy.

“Fool!” snarled the visitor, and struck out the match.

But Pete had seen. The undersheriff was a man of medium stature; this large masked person was about the size of the larger of his lately made acquaintances, the brothers Poole.

“Come on!” whispered the rescuer huskily. “Mitchell sent me. He’ll take you away in his car.”

“Wait a minute! We’d just as well take these cigars,” answered Pete in the same slinking tone. “Here; take a handful. How’d you get in?”

“Held the jailer up with a gun. Got him tied and gagged. Shut up, will you? You can talk when you get safe out of this.” He tip-toed away, Pete following. The quivering searchlight crept along the hall; it picked out the stairs. Halfway down, Pete touched his guide on the shoulder.

“Wait!” Standing on the higher stair, he whispered in the larger man’s ear: “You got all the keys?”

“Yes.”

“Give ’em to me. I’ll let all the prisoners go. If there’s an alarm, it’ll make our chances for a get-away just so much better.”

The Samaritan hesitated.

“Aw, I’d like to, all right! But I guess we’d better not.”

He started on; the stair creaked horribly. In the hall below Pete overtook him and halted him again.

“Aw, come on-be a sport!” he urged. “Just open this one cell, here, and give that lad the keys. He can do the rest while we beat it. If you was in there, wouldn’t you want to get out?”

This appeal had its effect on the Samaritan. He unlocked the cell door, after a cautious trying of half a dozen keys. Apparently his scruples returned again; he stood irresolute in the cell doorway, turning the searchlight on its yet unawakened occupant.

Peter swooped down from behind. His hands gripped the rescuer’s ankles; he heaved swiftly, at the same time lunging forward with head and shoulders, with all the force of his small, seasoned body behind the effort. The Samaritan toppled over, sprawling on his face within the cell. With a heartfelt shriek the legal occupant leaped from his bunk and landed on the intruder’s shoulder blades. Peter slammed shut the door; the spring lock clicked.

The searchlight rolled, luminous, along the floor; its glowworm light showed Poole’s unmasked and twisted face. Pete snatched the bunch of keys and raced up the stairs, bending low to avoid a possible bullet; followed by disapproving words.

At the stairhead, beyond the range of a bullet’s flight, Peter paused. Pandemonium reigned below. The roused prisoners shouted rage, alarm, or joy, and whistled shrilly through their fingers, wild with excitement; and from the violated cell arose a prodigious crash of thudding fists, the smashing of a splintered chair, the sickening impact of locked bodies falling against the stone walls or upon the complaining bunk, accompanied by verbiage, and also by rattling of iron doors, hoots, cheers and catcalls from the other cells. Authority made no sign.

Peter crouched in the darkness above, smiling happily. From the duration of the conflict the combatants seemed to be equally matched. But the roar of battle grew presently feebler; curiosity stilled the audience, at least in part; it became evident, by language and the sound of tortured and whistling breath, that Poole was choking his opponent into submission and offering profuse apologies for his disturbance of privacy. Mingled with this explanation were derogatory opinions of some one, delivered with extraordinary bitterness. From the context it would seem that those remarks were meant to apply to Peter Johnson. Listening intently, Peter seemed to hear from the first floor a feeble drumming, as of one beating the floor with bound feet. Then the tumult broke out afresh.

Peter went back to his cell and lit his lamp. Leaving the door wide open, he coiled the rope neatly and placed it upon his table, laid the hacksaw beside it, undressed himself, blew out the light; and so lay down to pleasant dreams.