The Long Chance by Peter B. Kyne
The first intimation that Bob received of this laxity came in the shape of a sharp dig in the ribs from the index finger of a young man who demanded to know why Mr. McGraw didn't wake up and pay for his lodging. Bob turned his startled sleepy eyes up at the stranger. He had expected to confront a janitor, but his first glance informed him that he was mistaken. The individual before him evidently was a state employee; but for all that Bob could advance no excuse for his free and easy action in assaulting him with his index finger. No one except the janitor or the night watchman had a right to such familiarity with Mr. McGraw's ribs and he resented being told to wake up before he was ready.
"You'll have to get out of my way, friend" the stranger informed him.
"Not if I know it, old-timer" replied Bob. "I'm first in line, with orders to stick here and maintain my position at all hazards. I'll share the suit-case with you, but you mustn't try to crush in in advance of me."
The stranger eyed him curiously. "I'm an employee of the state land office" he said coolly. "Please permit me to get into the office."
Bob looked at his watch. It was just eight o'clock, and he knew that the land office did not open until nine. He wondered who this industrious individual might be and what reason he had for getting down to work an hour beforehand; and then; like a bolt from the blue, The Big Idea flashed into Bob McGraw's brain.
He yawned sleepily. "Great snakes!" he said, "I've been waiting here an hour for you. I beg your pardon, old-timer. I didn't recognize you at first, although I should have known you right off by that little mole on your left cheek."
He scrambled to his feet and picked up his suit-case, while the stranger looked at him sharply.
"Why are you here so early?" he demanded. Bob McGraw would have liked to ask him the same question but he refrained.
"There's been an inquisitive stranger investigating the old man and-- well, you know what a fox Carey is? At the last moment it didn't seem wise to come through on the original programme, so I came up instead. I'm used to taking chances and I'm going to be well paid for this."
Was it fancy, or did Bob really detect a more friendly light in the man's eyes? He decided that he had not overplayed his hand, so, fearful that he might, he remained discreetly silent and waited for the door to be opened. The stranger inserted the key in the lock and stepped into the room. Bob followed him uninvited, turned carefully and sprung the lock on the door. The deputy (for such Bob guessed him to be) passed through a gate in the counter and on into an inner office. He returned a moment later, pulling on his office coat. At the counter he paused and faced Bob. There was still a suspicious look in his alert intelligent eyes.
Bob drew the fifty applications from his suit-case and passed them over the counter. "Hurry with them" he said. "There isn't any time to lose. Did Carey tell you anything about that fellow McGraw, who filed on the Cottonwood lake water?"
The deputy nodded.
"He's dangerous" warned Mr. McGraw. "He's tumbled to the little combination and he'll upset the apple-cart if you don't beat him to it. He may attempt to bully the old man into a consolidation by threatening to mandamus your chief and force him to accept the filings. McGraw's dangerous and he's got big influence behind him. The old man's worried."
The deputy arched his eyebrows cynically. "Where do you come in?" he queried.
Bob drew back the lapel of his coat and showed the butt of his automatic gun nestling under his left arm.
"I'm playing a purely professional engagement, my friend. If McGraw should show up here this morning it is my business to take care of him."
The deputy's suspicions were allayed at last. He smiled in friendly fashion.
"Keep him away until nine-thirty and there's no danger" he said. He scooped up Bob's applications and skimmed through them. "Did you bring the coin?"
Bob placed twelve hundred and fifty dollars on the counter and shoved it toward the deputy.
"I won't wait for the receipts. It's too risky. Make them out as fast as you can and I'll call for them after the office opens." He grinned knowingly. "I'm going out in the corridor to keep inquisitive people away and give you time to work."
"You didn't bring the instruments of abandonment for the old filings--"
"I know it. Carey has them. He'll probably bring them over himself later in the day. Too risky--getting over here so early. There's a gumshoe man on his trail."
"All right" said the deputy, and hastened to his desk with the bundle of applications. Bob unlatched the door, peered cautiously up and down the deserted corridor, and apparently finding the coast clear stepped out into the hall.
For fifteen minutes he walked up and down the corridor without meeting any one more formidable than the janitor, and presently the janitor, having completed the sweeping of the corridor, betook himself and his brooms elsewhere. He came back a few minutes later, however, and disappeared in a small room at the end of the corridor, only to reappear again with a bucket of wet sawdust in his hand.
Bob McGraw walked to the main entrance of the State House and back again to the door of the land office. Still nobody came. He was approaching the main entrance to the State House a second time when he heard an automobile chugging through the capitol grounds and pause outside the main entrance. Half a minute later a man appeared at the head of the corridor and approached rapidly. As he came nearer Bob saw that he was about fifty years old. He wore a carefully trimmed imperial and a gold pince-nez and seemed to exude a general air of pomposity and power. He had glittering cold gray eyes and they snapped now with anger and apprehension as he half walked, half ran, down the corridor. Bob's keen glance, roving over the man for details, observed that he carried a small Gladstone bag in his right hand, but inasmuch as the front end of the bag carried no initials, Bob waited until the man had passed him and then cast a sidelong glance at the other end of it. In small gold letters across its base he read the initials: T. M. C.
"T. Morgan Carey!"
In a bound Bob was at the stranger's side and laid a firm detaining grip on the latter's arm. The man turned angrily and glared at Bob.
"Mr. T. Morgan Carey?" said Bob McGraw quietly, "you're wanted!"
The man trembled. Bob could feel a distinct quiver pass up the arm he was holding.
"Wha--what--who wants me?" he said.
"Your dear old Uncle Samuel. He'd like to have you explain a delicate matter in connection with the public domain. Give me the little grip and come along quietly. I think that would be the better way. If you make a row about it, of course I'll have to put the bracelets on you; and I'm sure neither of us wishes that to happen, Mr. Carey."
Bob spoke kindly, almost regretfully, but there was no mistaking the fact that he meant business. T. Morgan Carey's face was ghastly. He surrendered the grip without protest, the while he gazed at Bob like a trapped animal. Presently he managed to pull himself together sufficiently to demand in a trembling voice:
"But--why--I don't understand. Where's your authority? Have you a warrant for--this--this outrageous procedure?"
"I have no warrant for you, Mr. Carey. I--"
"Then let me pass about my business, sir. How dare--"
"Easy, easy! You are not arrested in the commonly accepted sense of that term, but if you play horse with me you will be. I came here this morning to find you and ask you to come quietly with me and answer a few questions; also to let me see what you're carrying in this grip. Come along now, Carey. You only make out a case against yourself by resisting. I suppose you are aware of the fact that a secret service agent requires no warrant to make an arrest. (Bob did not know that such was the case, but he made the statement at any rate.) You are temporarily--apprehended--upon information and belief. If you are worried about the publicity that may attach, I give you my word the newspapers shall not hear of this unless a formal charge is entered against you. Come with me if you please, Mr. Carey."
He drew Carey's right arm through his own strong left and marched him down the corridor. It had been his first intention to escort T. Morgan Carey to the office of the now defunct Desert Development Company and lock him up there for the good of his soul--but a more convenient means of marooning his enemy now presented itself. The door to the janitor's room was open; an electric light burned within, and from the keyhole of the half open door a bunch of keys was suspended.
Bob's brain worked with the rapidity of a camera-shutter. He threw Carey's bag into the room, whirled and clamped his right hand over Carey's mouth, while with his powerful left arm around the land- grabber's body he gently steered his victim into the room. Carey struggled desperately, but Bob held him powerless. Finding himself as helpless as a child in that grizzly-bear grip, he ceased his struggles. Instantly he was tripped up and laid gently on the floor, on his back, with Bob McGraw's one hundred and eighty pounds of bone and muscle camped on his torso, holding him down. With his right hand effectually silencing Carey's gurgling cries for help, and a knee on each arm to hold Carey still, with his left hand Bob drew a bandanna handkerchief from his pocket and gagged his man with as much ease as he would have muzzled a little dog. Then he searched through his victim's pockets until he found the land-grabber's handkerchief; whereupon he flopped Carey on his face and bound his hands behind him. It was but the work of an instant for Bob to tear off his own suspenders and bind Carey's ankles together. Next he rooted through a bin of waste paper and found some stout cord with which he bound Carey at the knees. Then, leaving his victim helpless on the floor, he picked up the little bag, turned off the light, stepped softly out, closed and locked the door behind him, slipped the bunch of keys into his pocket, and returned to the land office. He knocked, and presently the door of the private office further down the hall opened gently and the deputy glanced warily out. Seeing Bob at the main entrance he went around and let him in.
"I took a chance" Bob explained, "and went out after the balance of the dope. Any sign of the other gang around?"
"Not a soul."
"Good news. I had an idea Carey put those abandonment papers in this little bag" and he held up the bag in such a manner that the deputy could not fail to see the initials T. M. C. on one end. This had the effect of allaying any lingering suspicion which the deputy may have been entertaining, and without waiting to see the contents of the bag he hurried back to his desk to complete the work of filing Bob's fifty applications.
In the meantime Bob had opened the bag. It contained applications for seventy-odd sections of land in Owens River Valley, together with an equal number of instruments of abandonment of filings on land throughout the state.
It was as Bob had suspected. The corrupt deputy had informed Carey where the loss of school land would occur. Carey's dummy entrymen had tied up for him these bases of exchange for lieu lands by instantly applying for worthless lieu lands, and these applications had been held up in the land office unacted upon, in order that the bases might show of record as used; then, at the word from Carey, these filings on worthless land had been abandoned, in order that Carey might use the bases for the acquisition of the lands he really desired.
"I'm a fool for luck" murmured Bob McGraw, as he counted off fifty of these instruments of abandonment, closed the bag and set it in the corner with his suit-case. He approached the counter and tossed the lot over to the deputy.
"Here are the instruments of abandonment, old-timer," he said casually. "I had a notion Carey put them in that grip. Better get 'em on record right away and let those receipts for the filings slide until the office opens for business. I'll go outside and lean up against the door. Don't worry. I'll be first in line, and if the other gang should be at my heels I'll slip you over a bunch of dummies, to throw 'em off the scent, and you can hand me back the receipts for the real thing." He winked comically and went out into the corridor again.
Slowly the minutes dragged by. Bob looked at his watch. It was a quarter of nine. Five minutes passed and still the corridor was deserted. Two minutes more flitted by and then the janitor came around the corner from the next corridor, a bucket in one hand and a mop in the other. Bob grinned as he saw the man try the door of the room where T. Morgan Carey lay trussed up. He rattled the knob several times, then searched his pockets for his keys. Not finding them, he went away grumbling.
It was just nine o'clock when the janitor returned. Bob McGraw was close enough, to him now to see that he carried a key, which he slipped into the lock, opened the door and passed into the gloom of the room beyond. Bob trembled lest he step on T. Morgan Carey's face. While the janitor was fumbling for the electric switch, Bob stepped softly in after him, and as softly closed the door behind him, just as the janitor switched on the light. He turned at the slight sound of the closing door and found himself gazing down the long blue barrel of an automatic gun.
"No unnecessary noise, if you please" said Bob McGraw gently. "This is one of those rare occasions where silence is golden. Observe that man on the floor, my friend? He tried to make a noise and just see what happened to him."
The janitor's mouth had opened to emit a yell. He closed it now, slowly, and licked his lips.
"What do you want?" he demanded, and Bob McGraw realized instantly that in the janitor he had not met a poltroon.
"The pleasure of your society for half an hour" murmured Bob, and smiled. "I'm not going to hurt you if I can avoid it, but if you make a row I'll tap you back of the ear with the butt of this gun. The individual on the floor has been poking his nose into my business and I had to put him in storage for a while. Unfortunately you discovered him, so, much to our mutual displeasure, I must ask you to bear him company until nine-thirty, after which you may return to your janitorial labors. Don't worry. I'm not a hold-up man. Have a cigar. Also a five-spot to pay you in advance for the inconvenience I am subjecting you to."
The janitor's face became normal at once. He accepted the cigar and the five-dollar piece, seated himself on an upturned bucket and set himself patiently to await the moment of his liberation. He sat there grinning and blowing smoke at Bob McGraw.
At nine-thirty, Bob, judging that the deputy had had ample time in which to place his affairs in shape, decided to raise the siege. He put up his gun, unlatched the door and backed out, motioning to the janitor to accompany him. The latter obeyed with alacrity.
"Come on into the land office with me, old man" Bob invited him. "When my business is finished there I'll give you back your keys and ask you to unwrap the gentleman we just left."
They entered the land office together.
"Did that friend o' mine leave something with you for me?" Bob queried of the deputy, and flashed him a lightning wink.
"Waiting for you" responded the deputy, and handed Bob McGraw a large manila envelope. "All O. K." he added, and returned the wink.
"Sure you recorded those abandonments?" he queried. The deputy nodded.
"Then we're all O. K. on the matter of designating the basis, are we?"
Again the deputy nodded. Bob turned and handed the keys to the janitor.
"That being the case" he announced cheerfully but in a low tone of voice, "our friend, the janitor, will immediately proceed to release Mr. T. Morgan Carey and bring him into court. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Mr. Robert McGraw, and I have you by the short hair, you crooked little sneak. You should have looked up and down the corridor and noticed all the witnesses I had posted to observe you letting me into your office before it was officially opened. Oh, I'm not worried about what you can do now. It's only nine-thirty and I can easily prove that it is a physical impossibility for one man to do the work you've done this morning, and do it in one short half hour. You have entered fifty instruments of abandonment, so there are that number of bases open to permit of the exchange of fifty sections of lieu land, the filing receipts for which I hold in my hand. Old-timer, I dare you to attempt the job of falsifying a public record, even at the command of our esteemed old friend, T. Morgan Carey. By the way, here he is. Gracious, what a hurry we're in! Howdy, T. Morgan?"
T. Morgan Carey had fairly leaped into the room.
"You--you scoundrel!" he cried, and shook his fist at Bob McGraw. "I'll get you for this" he said in low trembling tones, "if it takes my last dollar."
"No, you won't" retorted the smiling Bob, "at least, not after you've had a heart-to-heart talk with your obliging friend here. I've waited here to square him with you, Carey. He isn't to blame. I just bluffed him out of his boots. You mustn't be hard on him, T. Morgan. You know how easily I bluffed you. Be reasonable. Charity covers a multitude of sins, and there's a lot of land still left in the lower part of Owens Valley, although my friends have had their pick of it. There's your little old bag with your applications still untouched, although I will admit that I was mean enough to help you file some of those instruments of abandonment from your dummy entrymen. I must hurry along now. Thank you so much--"
The janitor entered. In his hand he held Mr. McGraw's suspenders.
"You might need these" he interrupted, "more particular if you're goin' to do any runnin', an' I'll bet you are."
"Thank you" murmured Mr. McGraw. "You're very thoughtful," and quite calmly he proceeded to remove his coat and vest and replace the suspenders. When he was once more arrayed for the street he thrust his sun-tanned hand through the grilled window to the trembling deputy; he smiled his gay lazy whimsical inscrutable smile.
"Buenos dias, amigo" he said; and so astounded was the unhappy deputy that he actually accepted the proffered hand and shook it limply.
"You scoundrel!" hissed T. Morgan Carey, "you--" and then he applied to Bob the unpardonable epithet.
The devil leaped to life in Bob McGraw. His right arm shot out, his open palm landed with a resounding thwack on the side of Carey's head. As the land-grabber lurched from the impact of that terrific slap, McGraw's left palm straightened him up on the other ear, and he subsided incontinently into a corner.
But his natural lust for a fight had now reached high-water mark in Bob McGraw's soul. He whirled, reached that terrible right arm through the window and grasped the deputy by the collar. Right over the counter, through the window, he snaked him, landing him in a heap on the floor outside. He jerked the frightened official to his feet, cuffed him across the room and back again to the window.
"That," he said, "for your broken oath of office, and that! for your cheap office rule that has no foundation in law but serves to frighten away the weaklings that want to file on lieu land. I must designate the basis, must I? All right, you little crook. Watch me designate it."
He landed a remarkably accurate kick under the official coat-tails, picked the deputy up bodily and hurled him in a heap in the same corner where T. Morgan Carey sprawled, blinking (for his glasses had been shaken off in the melee) and weeping with fear and impotent rage.
For a moment Bob towered above them like a great avenging red angel. Then his anger left him as suddenly as it had come. Carey and the deputy presented such a pitiable sight, although ludicrous withal, that he was moved to shame to think that he had pitted his strength against such puny adversaries. He picked T. Morgan Carey out of the corner, set him on his feet, dusted him off, gave him his hat and restored to him his gold pince-nez. The deputy needed no aid from Bob McGraw, but hastened to the protection of his sanctuary back of the counter. Bob stood looking at Carey, smiling his old bantering debonair smile. He waited until Carey had recovered his composure.
"Carey," he said, "you will remember hereafter, I trust, that it is the early bird that gets the worm, that promptness is a virtue and lying in bed mornings a heinous crime. Now, the next time you run up against a Reuben like me you want to remember the old saying that a stump-tailed yellow dog is always the best for coons. An easy conscience is to be preferred to great riches, Carey. Be honest and you will stay out of jail. Before I go, permit me to introduce myself. I'm Bob McGraw, of No Place In Particular, and a lunatic by nature, breed and inclination. Mr. Man-who-flies-through-the-window, here are duplicate copies of my power of attorney from my fifty clients, authorizing and instructing the surveyor-general to transact all of his official business with them through me. Before I go I want to say that as a usual thing I try to be a gentleman; which, fact induces the utmost regret that I was forced to gag you and truss you up in that filthy little room. If I hurt you physically then I am sorry. I tried to do the unpleasant job gently. However, this is no parlor game that you and I are playing, and desperate circumstances sometimes necessitate desperate measures. As for the blows I struck you--that is too bad, because you're old enough to be my father, but you displayed excessively bad taste in your choice of expletive. Even then I merely slapped you. But I'm sorry it had to come to that."
He paused and gazed calmly about him for a moment.
"I guess that's all" he added innocently. "Good morning."
With a chuckle that mingled triumph, deviltry and the sheer joy of living, Mr. McGraw picked up his suit-case, backed to the door, opened it and fled along the corridor. On the driveway in front of the capitol he saw an automobile standing, throbbing. He ran to it and leaped into the tonneau.
"This is Carey's car, isn't it?" he demanded.
The chauffeur nodded. He would have saluted any one not so distinctly rural as Bob McGraw.
"You're to take me over to Stockton right away. Turn her wide open and fly. Great Scott, we're all in a hurry this morning. Git! Vamoose, and scorch the gravel."
Now, it is a curious psychological fact that when a robust authoritative-looking man gives an order with the air of one used to commanding, ninety-nine per cent of the people to whom he gives his orders will hasten to obey without pausing to question his authority. The chauffeur threw in his clutch and the car glided away, while Bob McGraw, glancing back, saw T. Morgan Carey and a uniformed, watchman dashing down the capitol steps.
They were too late. T. Morgan Carey shouted to his chauffeur, but it was not a day of silent motors, and legislation affecting muffler cut- outs was still in the dim and distant Not-Yet.
The car sped out of the capitol grounds and away into the heart of the city. Presently the houses grew more scattered, the traffic dwindled and the car leaped forward at a forty-mile-an-hour clip. They swung down a wide road that stretched south into the sunny San Joaquin, and the mellow piping of meadow larks and linnets came pleasantly in Mr. McGraw's ears; the pungent aroma of tar-weed, the thousand and one little smells of the wide free spaces that he loved floated across to him from the fields on each side of the road, as he sat erect in the tonneau and sniffed the air of freedom.
He had had his fill of cities and he was glad to leave them behind.