Chapter IX. Tricks That Were Vain
 

Ned eyed the bullying detective keenly. He did not believe that the cablegram had been demanded by another. That was only a pretext on the part of his enemies to make their attitude of delay appear more reasonable. If, as was claimed, the message was now claimed by two, the holders would certainly be justified in using great caution in delivering it.

He did not believe, either, that the telegraph officials had been nervy enough to resort to police protection. That would be to bring the matter into the courts, and he did not think those who were opposing him would care for that.

"You are not telling the truth," he said, coolly, to the detective. "No one here could honestly claim the message, because no one in Tientsin, previous to my arrival, knew there was such a message here, if I except the telegraph people and the man who sent it. If a claimant has shown up, he is acting under instructions from you."

"You are deceiving yourself!" snarled the other.

"Where is Captain Martin, of the marines?" asked Ned, not caring to dispute the point. "If you have arrested him, you'll be having his men after you before morning."

"You mean the men you left in the cornfield?"

"Certainly, the United States marines."

"Then you don't know that they have gone back to Taku?"

"No; neither do you," replied Ned. This was too cheap!

"But, they have," insisted the detective. "At least, they have disappeared from the camp in the cornfield."

"You seem pretty well posted as to our doings," said the boy.

"We are pretty well informed as to all crooks who come here," was the reply.

"What are you going to do about delivering the cablegram?" Ned asked, ignoring the insult.

"Wait until morning and deliver it to the American consul."

"In America," Ned said, with a provoking smile, "we elect men of your slant of mind to the Ananias club."

"You'll see," was the reply. "In the meantime, you are in custody."

Where was Jimmie? Had he escaped from the building, or was he detained in the room he had surreptitiously entered? If he had indeed escaped, would he have the good sense to hasten to the camp instead of trying to assist his chum single-handed?

Ned asked himself these questions, but could find no answer. He saw that the detective was not inclined, not yet desperate enough, to march him off to prison, however, and took courage from the fact. If he could secure a short delay all might yet be well.

Directly the assistant manager entered the room, frowning and red of face. Ned saw that something, perhaps something of importance to himself, was in progress on the outside.

"The American consul is out there," he exclaimed, storming about the little room.

"That's fine!" cried Ned. "I presume I can see him?"

The detective glared at the boy and shook his head.

"No, you can't," he declared. "You'll stay here."

"And in the meantime you'll tell him that I have gone away?"

"We'll tell him what we choose."

Ned made a quick dash for the door, tipped the assistant manager over a broken-backed chair which stood in the way, and passed into the outer office. The detective grabbed at him as he sped past, but the boy eluded the ham-like hands which were thrust forward.

There were three persons in the office, when Ned bolted into it. These were the operator, the American consul, and Hans! The German grinned in an apologetic way as Ned hastily greeted him.

The American consul was a pleasant-faced gentleman of middle age. He was dressed in rather sporty clothes, and there was just a hint of a swagger of importance in his walk and manner as he extended his hand to Ned. Dressler-Archibald Hewitt Dressler, to be exact--was a pretty fair sample of the keen, open-hearted corn-belt politician rewarded with a foreign appointment for rounding up the right crowd at the right time.

Ned was glad to see that the consul recognized him as the lad in whose interest he had been pulled out of bed. He took the official's outstretched hand and shook it warmly.

"I never was so glad to see any person in my life!" Ned exclaimed, while Hans stood by with that bland German smile on his face.

"Oh, we'll have this mess straightened out in no time," the consul said. "These people," with a gesture toward the operator, the assistant manager, and the detective, "are all right. They mean to do the fair and honorable thing, but they have troubles of their own. We'll have this all ironed out in no time."

"This kid is an impostor!" shouted the detective.

"No hard names, please," said the consul. "Let us get at the facts of the case. You claim to be Ned Nestor?" turning to the boy.

"That is my name, sir."

"And you claim a cablegram which is here? A cablegram in cipher--the cipher code of the Secret Service of the United States government?"

"Yes, it would naturally be in cipher."

"You have the key to the code?"

"Certainly."

"Be careful, young man," laughed the consul, "for I was in the Secret Service department before I came here, and know the code."

"I'm glad you do," replied Ned.

"Hand me the cablegram," ordered the consul, turning to the assistant manager.

The detective stepped forward with a frown on his face. He glared at the consul and at Ned for a moment, and then broke out:

"You can't have it unless you will promise not to reveal its contents to this impostor."

"Can't I?" said the consul, coolly. "Hand me the cablegram."

The operator and the assistant manager drew back. The consul stood for an instant regarding them angrily.

"One, two, three!" he said. "At the word three, pass it over!"

"Goot sphort, dot feller!" whispered Hans.

During the dead silence which followed Ned watched the face of the consul for some sign of weakening, but found none. He knew that he had come upon an official who would stand by his guns, no matter what took place.

There was a little crowd in front of the office, and half a dozen faces were pressed against the windows and the glass panel of the door. Ned thought he saw a face there he had last seen in the old house at Taku where he had been captured. The fellow carried a long cicatrice on his left cheek.

"What do you mean by coming in here and giving orders?" demanded the detective. "I'll put you out if the manager says the word."

Ned, standing close to Hans, felt the muscles of the German's great arm swell under the sleeve. Hans was evidently anticipating trouble.

"Will you deliver the cablegram?" asked the consul.

"I will not."

As the assistant manager spoke the detective reached his hand up to the electric light switch. Ned saw in an instant what his intention was. If the room should be suddenly thrown into darkness, the operator might escape with the cablegram.

The consul, too, saw what was meditated and sprang forward. The detective struck at him, but before his blow reached its intended mark, Hans struck and the detective went down as suddenly as if he had been hit with an ax. Then, from unseen places, from beneath counters and out of closets, came a horde of Chinamen. The room was full of them.

"Soak um!" cried Hans.

The German was about to adopt his own suggestion by passing a blow out to the nearest Chinaman when the consul stepped before him. For an instant the threatening natives stepped back. The attacking of the American consul was a thing to be seriously considered.

"Once more!" warned the consul. "Give me the cablegram."

At a motion from the assistant manager the brown men closed threateningly about the American again. There was malice in their eyes as they pressed closer and closer.

"This looks like another Boxer uprising!" exclaimed the consul. "Mr. Nestor," he added, "if you will assemble yourself at my back, and our German friend will stand by, we'll give 'em a run for their white alley. Hit hard and often."

There is no knowing what might have happened then had not an interruption fell. Ned saw the crowd at the door vanish, and the next instant the friendly popping of motorcycles rang a chorus in the air.

Then came the rattle of guns and sabers, and a line of bluecoats stood before the door. At their head stood Jimmie, wrinkling his freckled nose as if for dear life.

Ned sprang to the door and opened it.

"Quick!" he cried. "Don't let a man now in the room get away."

"Where is Captain Martin, the officer in charge?" asked one of the men.

"The Chinks can tell you," Ned answered. "Close up at the doors," he went on, gazing about excitedly, "so that no one can leave."

This was done instantly. In fact, the natives and the men of the telegraph office were not in a fighting mood now. The guns and sabers of the marines had brought them to a peace-loving state of mind!

They huddled about in the center of the room, the natives milling around like cattle in a storm. The assistant manager pushed out of the press and handed the consul the cablegram.

"Understand that I am doing this under protest," he said. "Your conduct in invading my office with armed men shall be reported."

"I shall welcome any investigation," the consul replied, with a smile, "because I want to know something of your motives in doing what you have done to-night. You know very well that the cablegram is of no importance to any person except the one to whom it is addressed. I can read the code, it is true, but you doubtless overlooked the fact that I have received such dispatches here. So, let us look at the matter in a reasonable light. What inducements were offered you to keep the cablegram away from this young man? Speak up!"

"You are insulting"' gasped the assistant manager.

"Come down to cases!" commanded the consul.

"I don't understand your Bowery slang."

"How much money was offered you to hold this message?"

There was no answer, but the operator glanced slyly in the direction of the consul with a frightened look in his eyes.

"Were you to withhold the message altogether, or were you merely to delay this young man?"

"You are insulting!" repeated the other.

"Who bribed you?" came the next question, snapped out like the crack of a lash.

"You have the message," the assistant manager said. "Get out."

"Only for the marines you'd put me out!" laughed the consul.

"Indeed I would!"

Hans made a threatening gesture toward the fellow and he hastened to the protection of the counter.

"My office is only a short distance away," said the consul, turning to Ned. "We may as well go there and size this extraordinary situation up. I hardly know what to make of it."

"There is one thing you, perhaps, do not understand," Ned said, "and that is that Captain Martin, in charge of this squad, has been taken into custody by order of the detective Hans knocked out a moment ago."

The consul's face turned red with anger. He seized the assistant manager by the shoulder and shook him, over the counter, as a dog shakes a rat.

"Where is he?" he demanded. "Tell your hirelings to bring him here, not soon, but now."

"He assaulted me!" complained the manager.

"Produce him! One, two, three. At the third word he comes!"

Obeying a motion from the frightened man, a native opened a door back of the counter and Captain Martin was pushed out into the room, smiling and evidently enjoying the situation.

"I could have butted out at any moment," he said, "for these Chinks are not fighters, but I heard what was going on out here and thought I'd let events shape themselves. If I had been out here a short time ago I am afraid I should have made trouble for myself and for you."

"It is nice to watch a game that you can't lose at," laughed the consul. "Come along, with your men, to my office. This lad wants a chance to read his message."

"Sure," was the reply. "I want to know how that Dutchman come to bring you here, and how my men managed to get here just in time. There are mysteries to explain. What?" he added, with a laugh.

"I guess we'll have to wait for explanations until we know what is in this message," Ned said. "Come along to the office, Mr. Consul, for we have lost a lot of time already."

"I am anxious to know what the message contains," said the consul.