Good Men and True; and, Hit the Line Hard/Hit the Line Hard/Chapter 7

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Chapter VII

THE rain drenched in long shudders. Here and there a late lamp blurred dimly at a pane; high-posted street lamps, at unequal and ineffectual distances, glowed red through the slant lines of rain, reflected faintly from puddle and gutter at their feet. Alone, bent, boring into the storm, Martin Bennett shouldered his way to Baca's door under the rushing night.

A gush of yellow struck across the dark—the door opened at his first summons; he was waited for. The master of the house helped him from his raincoat and ushered him I through crimson portières into a warm and lighted room. Three men sat before an open fire, where a table gleamed with glasses and bottles. There were two other doors, hung, like the first, with warm, bright colors, reflecting and tingeing the light from fire and lamp—a cheerful contrast to the raw, bleak night outside.

Here the good cheer ceased. The three faces, as they turned to scowl at the new comer, were sullen, distrustful and lowering.

Despite the raincoat, Bennett was sodden to his knees; his hands and face and feet were soaked and streaming. No friendly voice arose to remark on his plight; an ominous silence had prevailed since the street door had opened to him. He bent shivering to the fire. With no word the host filled and brought to him a stiff glass of liquor. Bennett drained it eagerly and a little color crept back into his pinched features.

Owen Quinliven broke silence then, with a growl deep in his throat.

"Thought you'd better come, eh?" His mustached lip bristled.

"The storm was so bad. I thought it might let up after a while," said Bennett miserably.

"Don't make that an excuse," said Beck with a cold sneer. "You might have slipped over to our place, a short block; or you could have had us meet you at your own office."

"Gentlemen! Gentlemen!" expostulated Baca, with a curling lip. "You do not understand. Mr. Bennett has his position to think of. Mr. Bennett is highly respectable. He could not let it be known that he had traffic with professional gamblers like Mr. Beck and the estimable Scanlon." He bowed ironically; the estimable Scanlon rolled a slow, wicked little eye, and Baca's cheek twitched as he went on: "I say nothing, as you observe, of myself or of our worthy friend Quinliven, who, as I perceive, is in a very bad temper."

Quinliven glowered at the speaker like a baited bull. He was a huge, burly man with a shaggy, brindled head, a bull neck, a russet face knotted with hard red lumps, and small, fiery, amber-colored eyes under a thick tangle of bushy brows. The veins swelled in his neck as he answered.

"Well, he'll have some traffic with me, and do it quick! Here I've talked young Drake into selling out and going home; I'm giving him twenty-five hundred dollars too much, standin' the loss out of my share—and me not getting a full share at all! All I get is the cattle, while the rest of you pull down nearly twelve thousand apiece, net cash. That part is all right though. That's my own proposition. I don't begrudge the little extra money to the boy, and I want him to get away from here for his own sake as well as for mine. This crawling, slimy Bennett thing is bound to have that boy killed." He glared at the steaming banker by the fire. "I don't see how that man got by with it so long. He wouldn't last long on the range. And now, after I've made the trade, Bennett hems and haws, and hangs fire about giving up the money."

"You don't understand," protested the wretched banker. "You'll get your share; but it would inconvenience me dreadfully to take that amount of money immediately from a little private bank like mine. In ninety days, or even sixty, I can so adjust my affairs as to settle with all of you."

"My heart bleeds for you," said Beck sympathetically. "For I'm going to inconvenience you a heap more. You'll adjust your affairs in less than ninety hours, or even sixty. I've been fooled with long enough. That pass book calls for a little over forty-six thousand dollars. We expected to get half. Instead we've got to split it four ways. Young Drake is going and I want my split right now."

"What about me?" cried the banker in wild and desperate indignation. "What do I get? Barely a fourth! And you two have Drake's money already—heaven knows how much!"

"Heaven don't," said Beck.

"But do I get any of that?" shouted the outraged banker.

"You do not," returned Beck. "In the first place, the men are different. You stepped out of your class when you started to mingle with the likes of us. Why should you bother to rob a perfect stranger anyhow? And you with money corded up! I don't understand it"

"Bennett!" cried the ranchman, "if I stood in your shoes, before I'd allow any man to use me like we're using you, I'd go to Drake and give that money up. I'd say: 'Young fellow, I meant to rob you; but my conscience troubles me, and so do my feet.' You ain't got the gall, and you're too big a hog. I dare you to!"

"And in the next place," continued the complacent gambler, ignoring the interruption, "there's not one scrap of paper to connect our money with Old Drake. Part of it is ours anyhow, that we've made honestly——"

"At poker," corrected Scanlon.

"At poker, I should say. But we've got your receipts, Mr. Banker. That's what makes you squirm! And they're where you can't get 'em; so it won't do you any good to get any of us murdered, the way you tried to do that boy."

"He tried it again yesterday," interposed Baca softly.

Quinliven brought his heavy hand crashing down on the table.

"You damned coward! I told you to drop that!" His red mustache prickled fiercely; above his eyes the red tufts knotted to bunches. He glanced round at his fellows. "Look here; there's no damn sense in hurting that kid, the way things stand. If Drake gets killed over this I'm going to see that Bennett swings for it if I have to swing with him—the yellow cur!"

The banker shriveled under his look.

"Your sentiments do you vast credit," observed Baca suavely. "I concur most heartily. But, my good fellow, why bawl your remarks?" He accompanied the query with a pleasant smile.

Scanlon raised his head to watch. The ranchman's fingers worked and quivered; for a moment it seemed as though he would leap on his tormentor; but he settled back.

"I'm with you," said Scanlon.

Then, noting that Beck did not commit himself to this self-denying ordinance, he filled a glass with wine and, as he drank it, observed his partner narrowly from the tail of his eye.

"You may rest easy, Mr. Quinliven," observed Baca, straddling with his back to the fire and his hands to the blaze. "There will be no need for you to carry out your chivalrous intention. I assure you that while I live I am perfectly capable of selecting a jury that will hang Mr. Bennett without the disastrous concomitant you mention; and I shall take great pleasure in doing so should need arise. I should hate to see you hanged, Quinliven—I should indeed! You distress me! But I fear——" He left the sentence unfinished, shaking his head sorrowfully. "Mr. Bennett, I am sure, will bear himself to conform with our wishes. However, I find myself in full accord with Mr. Bennett in the matter of the moneys now in the hands of Messrs. Beck and Scanlon, and wrongfully withheld from our little pool."

"That will be a plenty," said Beck. "For fear of mistakes I will now declare myself. We admit that we have a bundle of the Drake money and we announce that we are going to keep it. How much, is nobody's business but our own. In consideration of that fact, however, the two of us lay claim to only one full share of the Drake deposit. That gives us twelve thousand; Bennett as much; the Honorable Prosecuting Attorney the same; the Double Dee brand to Quinliven. That's final!"

"I suppose you know, Mr. Beck," said Baca, cupping his chin, "your little joint can be closed any time I lift a finger?"

"Baca," said Scanlon with level eyes, "you'll close nawthin'! We bought protection from you. We'll get what we bought. When you feel any doubts comin' on, don't talk to Beck about it. Talk to me! And," he added with venomous intensity, "one more word about any divvy on our poker roll and that pass book goes to Ducky Drake!" He tapped his breast. "I've got the pass book—not Beck."

"Well, well," said Baca indulgently, "have your own way. Far be it from me to question any gentleman's ultimatum, and so, perhaps, bring a discordant note into our charming evening. Let us pass on to the next subject. Is everybody happy? No! Mr. Bennett is not happy. Mr. Bennett is a very able man, as we all know—exemplar to the young—a rich man, merchant prince, and all that. And yet we can quite understand that he may be temporarily embarrassed for actual cash. I, for one, am willing to allow him a reasonable time. He cannot hide his real estate; so we shall be taking no risks. Doubtless we can stand off young Drake for the price of his cattle by giving him good security."

The silent Scanlon leaped up and snarled in unimaginable ferocity.

"If there's any more shilly-shally there'll be a Standing Room Only sign on the gates of hell and the devil sending out a hurry-up call for the police!" His voice swelled in breathless crescendo. "I'm sick of you—the whole pack and pilin'! I want to get so far away from here it'll take nine dollars to send me a postcard; so far east they'll give me change for a cent; so far north the sun don't go down till after dark." His eyes were ablaze with blistering scorn. "Gawd! Look at yourselves! Quinliven—the honorable, high-minded, grave-robbing pardner——"

"Here!" bellowed Quinliven savagely. "I came through with the cattle, straight as a die! That's as far as I was any pardner of Drake's. You don't know how that man treated me! It wasn't only me doing all the work but his cold, sneering, overbearing——"

"Shut up, you polled Angus bull!" yelled Scanlon with a howl of joyous truculence. "And Bennett—faugh! P-t-t-h!"

Scanlon spat in the fire, and wheeled on the other gambler. Beck's face was black with concentrated hate. The little man pointed a taunting finger.

"Look at Beck!" he jeered. "Guess what he knows I think of 'im! And I know him—he's me pardner! Fish mouth and mackerel eye—— Yah! And all three of you knuckle down to Baca! Year after year you let yourselves be bullyragged, browbeaten, lorded over by a jury-packing, witness-bribing shyster—a grafter, a crook, a dirty Mexican——"

Without hesitation or change of countenance Baca walked across the open space toward him.

"Not one step more!" said Scanlon.

Baca stopped in his tracks.

"You nervy little runt," he said, half in admiration, "you mean it! Well, I mean this, too. If I'm a crook—and there is much in favor of that contention—it is because my personal inclination lies that way, and not in the least because of my Mexican blood. I am quite clear on that point. Leave out the part about the dirty Mexican and I don't take that other step. Otherwise, I step! Choose!"

"I withdraw the Mexican!" said ScanIon ungrudgingly. "Dod! I believe you're the best of the rotten bunch!"

"Go on, then: 'Grafter, crook'——" prompted Baca.

"Why—er—really!" stammered Scanlon. Then he brightened. "‘There has been so much said, and, on the whole, so well said,’" he beamed, canting his head on one side with a flat, oily smile, "‘that that I will not further detain you.’"

He seated himself, with a toothy, self-satisfied expression; but the allusion was lost on all except the delighted Baca.

In glum silence, Quinliven reached for a bottle and glared at the little Irishman, who smiled evilly back at him.

"There is one more point," observed Baca in his best courtroom manner, "on which I touch with a certain delicacy and, as it were, with hesitation. I am reluctant to grieve further a spirit already distressed; but the fact is, gentlemen, our impulsive friend here"—he laid a gentle hand on Bennett's shoulder and Bennett squeaked—"undertook yesterday to employ this man Jones—Neighbor Jones—to murder our friend Drake. I take this most unkindly."

He teetered on his tiptoes; he twirled his eyeglasses; his hand made a pleasant jingle with key ring and coin; his face expressed a keen sense of well-being and social benevolence.

"As a matter of abstract principle, even before we had learned to love our young friend Drake, we decided that such a step was unnecessary and inexpedient; and so informed Mr. Bennett. But the idea of slaying Mr. Drake seems to have become an obsession with Mr. Bennett—or, as English Ben would put it, a fad. As English Ben would say, again, Mr. Bennett is a beastly blighter."

He adjusted the eyeglasses and beamed round on his cowed and sullen confederates, goaded, for his delight, to madness and desperation; and on the one uncowed co-devil, the mordant and cynical Scanlon.

"Our young Eastern friend has endeared himself to our hearts. I do not exaggerate when I say that we feel quite an avuncular interest in his fortunes. We are deeply hurt by Mr. Bennett's persistence; but let us not be severe. In this case retribution has been, as we might say, automatic, for the man Jones, by some means, has acquired an inkling of the posture in which our affairs lie in the little matter of the Drake estate; though I believe he suspects only Bennett and myself. Bennett, I judge, has talked too much. And—such is the wickedness and perfidy of the human mind—the man Jones makes a shameless demand on us for two thousand dollars, money current with the merchant, as the price of silence. Alas, that such things can be!"

His hands, now deep in his trousers pockets, expressed a lively abhorrence for the perfidy of the man Jones.

"This iniquitous demand is no better than blackmail and might be resisted in our courts of justice; but, inasmuch as Mr. Bennett's sanguinary disposition has brought on us this fresh complication, would it not be well to permit Mr. Bennett to pay this two thousand from his private pocket? I pause for a reply."

Bennett let out a screech between a howl and a shriek.

"This is infamous! You're robbing me! Oh, why did I ever have dealings with such desperadoes?"

"Why, indeed?" said Baca tranquilly. "I think, if you will permit me to criticize, that was a mistake in judgment on your part, Mr. Bennett. You have not the temperament for it."

"He pays!" said Scanlon, gloating.

"He pays!" echoed the rancher.

"You're robbing me!" Bennett crumpled to a wailing heap.

"We're not, ye black scut!" snapped Scanlon, perking the unfortunate banker upright by the collar. "But we will! We're now holding to the exact bargain we proposed and you agreed to; but if ever little Mickey S. has need or desire av the red, red gold or the green, green greenback, 'tis back here he will come to you. May Gawd have mercy on your soul! Sit up, ye spineless jellyfish—sit up!"

Beck, sitting mute in a cold fury of hate, raised his eyes.

"This Neighbor Jones—I had a letter about him to-day. He's caught on, someway, that we've been workin' him over in the shop; and he's layin' for us, I guess. That big lump that called himself the Kansas City Kid—'twas him that wrote the letter. Jones accused him of cheating and drove him out of town—took his gun, made him leave his clothes, and hike. That's a dangerous man, Baca. Now I think of it, young Drake quit us at the same time. Jones told him our game was crooked, likely."

"Them two was together all this forenoon—I seen 'em," contributed Quinliven. "Is Jones maybe fixing to give you the double cross?"

Baca considered with contracted brow.

"Possibly; but not necessarily so," he said. "Drake agreed to sell last night. Perhaps he merely got wise to himself—to use his own phrase—and decided to sell out and go home while the going was good. Jones would be his natural associate, the two having been bucking the game together; but Jones expects to get clear of his debt by sticking to me. He could gain nothing by telling Drake. We are too powerful. He knows there is no way to make us disgorge—disgorge is the word, I think, in this connection. I find Jones most amusing, myself. If he wearies me——"

"Don't you figure Jones for any easy mark," warned Scanlon. "If he tries to hand us something—look out! He is a bad actor."

"Leave him to me," said Baca with a tightening of the lips. "I'll take measures to improve his acting. Never mind Jones. We have now satisfactorily adjusted the preliminaries, have we not? It is established, I believe, that Mr. Scanlon and myself constitute a clear majority of this meeting. Any objection? In that case, let us now get down to the sad and sordid business before us. It is the sense of the meeting, as I take it, that Mr. Bennett shall bring to this room, by ten o'clock to-morrow—no; to-morrow is Sunday—by ten o'clock on Monday, the purchase money for the Double Dee cattle."

"Oh-h!" It was a mournful howl, a dog's hopeless plaint to the moon; emitted, however, by one of the gentlemen present.

"Objection overruled. You will, also, Mr. Bennett, provide twenty-four thousand dollars to satisfy the other equities, here held in the Drake estate."

Scanlon held up a finger.

"Cash, you moind! No checks or drafts, to be headed off. Coin or greenbacks! I will not be chipracked by this slippery ould man. He is the human greased pig."

By a prodigious effort Bennett pulled himself together; his face was very pale.

"To provide that much cash, without warning, is impossible. I should have nothing left to do the bank's business with; in fact, I have not half that amount of actual cash in the safe."

He stood up and grasped the back of a chair—his knuckles were white as he gripped; his voice grew firmer.

"I'll be open with you, gentlemen. I am too much extended; I am bitterly cramped for ready money. Give me time to turn round; don't force me to take this money out of the business now. Once let the ordinary loans be refused to a few customers; let the rumor of it go abroad; let my Eastern creditors once hear of it—and I must inevitably stand a heavy loss. They will demand immediate payment, and that I cannot make without sacrifice."

"What would your creditors think if they knew what we know?" answered Beck. "You'll make your sacrifice right now, within forty-eight hours, for your preferred creditors, here present."

"Baca! I appeal to you. Help me! I'll be honest. To pay out this sum will not ruin me, but it'll cripple me so that it may take me years to recover. At the very best I shall lose far more than the pitiful remnant of the Drake money you leave me. Give me time to turn round! Give me thirty days!"

"Thirty hours," said Beck; "Monday morning."

"I tell you it will cost me two dollars for every one I pay over to you now," the banker pleaded. "Let me give you certificates of deposit."

"That's what you gave Drake!" said Scanlon.

For the first time in the somber silence that followed they heard the loud clock on the mantel—tick, tock—tick, tock—tick, tock!

Baca spoke at last slowly and thoughtfully.

"Bennett, you have good standard securities in the El Paso National, pledged for a comparatively small amount, as I happen to know. You can sell them by wire and have the money here by the last train on Monday. That's what you'd better do. Personally I am not inclined——"

"Here is too much talk," said Scanlon. "Cash or smash!"

Bennett threw up his hand in a gesture of despair.

"I'll get it on Monday. Let me go home."

"There now! I knew you would do the right thing if we forced you to!" Baca went to the window. "It is not raining hard; so perhaps you had better go home, as you suggest, Mr. Bennett. You seem fatigued. But the rest of you will stay with me for the night, I trust. I have good beds; here is wine and fire; and we can have a quiet rubber. No stakes, of course." He twisted his mouth and cocked an eyebrow at Beck.

"I'm gone!" announced Beck. He brushed by without a glance at the others, jerked his hat and slicker from the rack, and flung out into the night.

"Now who would suspect the urbane and lovable Beck of being so sensitive?" asked Baca, rocking on his feet. "We shall not have our whist game after all. You two will stay, however? Yes? That's good!" said the host. "Have a glass of wine before you go, Bennett. No? Let me help you on with your raincoat, then. You have your rubbers?" He held the door open. "Good night!"