By Raymond S. Spears
JERRY RUFUS, for whom no useful occupation had ever been found, dropped out of Old Mississip' into Willow Slough, and floated down almost to Crane River. He landed his little green shanty-boat against Chicken Island, where he lurked till nightfall, because he feared some one up-town in Mendova would recognize him. While he waited, he pondered on the question of his opportunities in the town up the bank.
He questioned himself as to what his play should be? No actor gave the subject of his make-up greater attention than did Jerry Rufus, and now he decided on a bold front, for the reason that his natural gait was an impudent strut, and he liked to wear neat and well-made clothes.
Soon after dark, with the inspiration of an excellently tailored suit, with patent-leather shoes and a top-coat, a French cane with an electric flash in the handle, and a pince-nez perched cockily on his countenance, he pattered up-town, along North Main, turning into Cedar Avenue, and dined at the Oreacas, the famous Mendova restaurant.
Not a policeman recognized him, and he saw two plain-clothes bulls who would have known him had they been alert. He turned up Cypress Avenue, where he noticed a gloomy building with tightly drawn blinds. As a man entered, a flash of light swept the street—sure sign of a place of pleasure, and Jerry approached a lurker in a shadow and asked:
"Is it all right?"
"Surest thing yo' know, suh! Straightest game down thisaway way!"
"Two bucks lets yo' in—what line?"
"On the road——"
"Shake. Come in!"
The sentinel took Jerry down through the basement, where he was treated as a brother, and after a cup of delicious coffee among his own kind he went upstairs with one of them.
"Try my wheel," the man whispered.
"Good old pal!" Jerry nodded; "I need a run of luck!"
It was a lively place, with low music, darting boys, a crowd of men, mostly young, gathered around roulette-wheels and older men around card-tables, with a mixed crowd around the faster game of craps. Jerry shot half a dollar at the crap-table, as if unfamiliar with the game; he declined to enter a poker game—the ten-dollar limit was too high. In an hour he drifted around to the table of his new-found friend and tried his luck. He lost, then won more, and all the time he listened for a tip. Some one said:
"Well, co'nel, I hear you've bargained for Whipley's timber-brake?"
"Ya-as, we're going to buy it."
"Sho! Curious old man, Whipley! I've heard say he wouldn't ever take anything but gold into his hands, selling or anything. Never a check, greenback, bank-note—never anything but metal money."
"Ya-as, he's sure particular the kind of money he handles. In our deal"—Jerry could feel the speaker glancing around, and he blessed his acute hearing, as the voice dropped almost to a whisper—"we've got to pay him in gold—sho! A million dollars in yellow bucks in that little office of his!"
"What! Away back, there in the swamps on his plantation! What is he thinking about?"
"Notions—just notions! Somebody worked counterfeits off on him once. It took us five years to make that bargain. Why, I had to go to church with him—hue-e! Tell you about it some time!"
The talk turned to the game, and Jerry Rufus moved around with the crowd, to watch a young high-flier laying down the yellow chips and throwing them into the yawning mouth of the goddess of chance; Jerry could act natural there, and he knew how to play in and out. He sat in to a two-dollar limit game, playing opposite a dealer for the house, and astonished that worthy by his run of luck. There he managed to learn, in an aside, that the purchaser was Hoop, of Okal, Hoop & Hipper. Reading the angel-wing feathers on the backs of the cards as swiftly as the dealer, he more than held his own.
Jerry was a hundred dollars to the good when he withdrew from the house, but he thought less of the money than of the fact that the timber tract was going to be paid for in yellow boys—an exchange of fifty thousand acres of famous Mississippi bottoms for, as Jerry figured quickly, about a ton and a half of yellow bucks. His mind expanded with dreams of such financial independence as a million dollars implies! Jerry choked over the thought.
Jerry Rufus knew better than to go wandering around, town, wanted as he was. Accordingly, he tipped the friendly sentinel a five-spot, and dreaming in his little world of sudden hope, he scurried to his little shanty-boat, to figure on the long chance which luck had thrown his way with a careless fling.
He could not sleep for the thing that might be! Suppose a man could get a million—suppose he could get away with it! Why a man could afford to be honest if he had all that money! He could get the little home he had long calculated on, and he could go to a little pink-and-white girl that he knew and say:
"Come, you white gal! I got a little frame house with a bunch of roses on both sides the door, bigger'n any bunch a Johnny ever throwed across the footlights to you! I got buried in the garden a crop o' yellow roosters perched on sunbeams—Come on, gal!"
Would she come? Would she! Why, she'd, come and tuck her lily-white throat into the matrimonial slip-noose like she was trained to do it!
When he went fitfully to sleep at last his dreams were sweet. In the morning he bushed up his whiskers and shaded them a bit. Then he put on a reversible coat, green worsted outside, dark blue inside, neither side new or conspicuous. His other clothes were equally subdued, and when he sallied forth with a meal-bag over his arm, no one would ever have remembered seeing him before. He was like a peddler seeking something to feed his horse—something cheap.
He headed straight up Crane River for the Okal, Hooper & Hipper sawmill yard, and along the bank he came to the log dump, above which was the little shipyard. There on the ways was a motorboat, the Tupelo, on which two men were painting. Her bottom was bright red, her sides a dark gray, her trunk cabin a stain brown. Jerry recognized it as one of the West Point stock towboats.
"She's a fine boat!" he nodded. "She sure does look good!"
"She sure does. She's dressin' up for the biggest job any motor-boat ever done on Old Mississip'!" one of the men began. The other snapped:
"Shut up, you dad-blasted fool!"
Jerry looked the boat over calmly and then ambled on up the yard.
"Ho law!" he breathed. "They's about ready. How can I do it? How can I git that there million?"
Almost frantically he schemed, growing desperate as inspiration refused to give him a hint of what he should do. He knew it would take fifteen hours to reach Whipley's landing. The days were but eleven hours long. Part of the trip must be made in the night—but which part? A river pirate prefers the night for his operations—Jerry Rufus could see the veil of inspiration beginning to quiver, preparatory to the grand opening scene. His fingers twitched, his senses were all alert, his heart was throbbing so hard that it fairly ached—but withal he was obliged to saunter along with his lips tightly closed, lest some ejaculation interfere with his future by attracting present attention to him.
He went down to the levee to see what he could see, and there he saw a motor-boat. It was about thirty feet long, had a low cabin forward, an open cockpit aft, a dirty-white coat of paint. As he looked at it, startled by the feeling that some time he had seen that boat before, and trying to place it, he walked out on the temporary foot-bridge and looked into it.
"What! What!" he breathed as he saw the engine: "Twenty horse-power—towing bitts! Why, it's one of those West Point stock towboats! It's the dead split of the Tupelo!"
The present owner of this dirty craft was soon back from Main Street, where he had purchased some groceries and lubricating-oil.
"Howy!" Rufus greeted, rejoicing that he did not have his big front on. "Ain't it costly to run that engine?"
"Why, the dang-blasted thing takes eighteen gallons of gas a day, if yo' run hit!" the man answered angrily. "I thought I was gettin' somethin' to trip in!"
"I should think a shanty-boat would suit you better?" Jerry suggested, sitting on his heels, while the man filled a pipe.
"It would, but don't nobody want this thing, though——"
"Well, I'm a speculator in such things—what'll you take for it?"
"Why, I'd take four hundred," the man answered hopefully; "and then I'd buy me a shanty-boat——"
"I haven't four hundred, but I've a good shanty-boat up Ash Slough—if you was thinkin' of tradin'."
"Let's go see," the man exclaimed, and they went up to Ash Slough in the motorboat, and there they traded, Jerry giving two hundred dollars to boot.
Then Jerry painted the motor-boat which he had purchased, painted it as near like the Tupelo as he could. Then he bought twenty kegs from an old junkman, kegs that were like the kegs in which the gold had been to the bank. These kegs two darkies cleaned with turpentine and gasolene, and Jerry filled them with sand and gravel and headed them up.
He had some work to attend to uptown, and shortly after dark, down at the foot of Beat Avenue, where there were no spectators in the gloom, he shipped the kegs up-town on a mule-team dray, and had them left in a shed.
Then Jerry went to a small saloon near a large contracting truck garage. It was long after working hours, but there was a chauffeur waiting there, who was willing to take another drink, as he complained:
"Theh I was, all set up to go 'round teh see a frien' of mine—now I got to go totin' a load down to the levee to'd ten o'clock. 'Low the boss'll not gi' me a case, either! He's mean, mah boss is!"
"I suppose it's that Gum Bank job?" Jerry suggested carelessly.
"Yassuh, sho! I got to hang around, too, till hit'll be too late to see mah frien'. A man cayn't call on a lady afteh 'leven o'clock!"
"He shore cayn't!" Jerry sympathized.
"Ten o'clock!" Jerry breathed as he sauntered away. "They'll shore load off'n the plank stagin' by the float on the mud bar. Lawse! Lawse! That's way up above the levee lights—I cayn't believe hit!"
He raced then to another garage, and bargained for a truck to carry twenty kegs down to the levee and load them on a launch there.
"Send along three men to help load them!" Jerry said, "and get them down at 9.45 o'clock sharp!"
"All right, sir!" the garage manager assured him. "I'll send for them!"
Jerry Rufus, from the willows, saw the Tupelo swing down Crane River just before 9.45 o'clock, and five minutes later he steered into her wake with his own Tupelo. Just clear of the mud bar at the mouth of the river he stopped and held to a snag while he watched through the night glasses the work at the landing.
Breathlessly, he saw a truck come down the steep levee decline and he saw the men trot out on the stage with their loads. They came and went swiftly, and the Tupelo soon cast off and drove away downstream while the truck went up the levee. Jerry ran his Tupelo down and made fast to the stage. He primed the engine and set everything, even to the rudder, in readiness for a quick departure. He retied his ropes, while he waited, so that both ends were on board, and he would not have to jump to the float to cast off—trust a river rat to think of some such last refinement of preparation.
Then he waited, cold and shivering, watching for that other truck to come—and it came at last, with one light burning. It came down the levee and stopped at the end of the landing-stage.
"All right there?" a voice called softly.
"All right!" and then the first keg rolled into the cabin, as he added to the cabin: "Stow both sides so she won't lop over!"
One by one the kegs came, and before the twenty kegs were on board, Jerry's arms were aching.
"Twenty!" he called. "All right!"
In the dark Jerry slipped to the shore lines, and he was away before the truck had backed up. He choked as he shoved out into mid-stream, and instead of going down, turned up—headed away into that northern country where he had long since picked out his little farm, and where he knew a pink-and-white little girl would welcome him!
He had intended to carry the whole boatload with him right up to the upper Mississippi, but now he felt the folly of that. He believed that every motor-boat from New Orleans to St. Paul would be subject to search of sheriffs and town marshals and government-revenue service-boats, seeking the lost million—no use to resist them!"
Trust a river rat to adapt himself to a sadden shift of plan. He swung into Payto Bayou, thirty miles above town, and there, at 2 o'clock a.m., he dropped the kegs overboard, one by one, to the hard sand bottom, where they would await his pleasure in ten feet of water at the three-foot stage.
He ripped off the paper on which he had painted the name Tupelo, and he threw mud at the sides of the boat and painted the cabin white again. All this painting and changing was done between the wet dew of dawn and the warm sun of noon. He moved up the river then, leaving Payto Bayou's overarching trees and enjoying the fresh autumn sunshine. "I've made my getaway!" he told himself. "They can't prove a thing against me—if I don't handle no yellow bucks, what have they got on me? Hue-e-e! A million simoleons—I can wait a year, and live soft on what I can make working. Oh, I can work, now!"
He struck a job that afternoon. A drifter wanted a ninety-log raft swung down to Sawmill eddy, and he paid five dollars for the work. At the sawmill Jerry Rufus picked up three hundred pounds of junk, a heap of rubber boots which the man had discarded, and these he used to veil his real prosperity by stacking them upon his boat.
Jerry salvaged a gasolene-launch that a hunting sport sank in Point Pleasant crossing, the motor bringing him three hundred dollars. Jerry toiled on with all his might, so that he wouldn't have to do anything that would bring the authorities down on him. He worked all winter long, up and down the river, and never a question did he ask any man about things that might have happened. A junker minds his own business! He was so afraid of gold that he wouldn't touch a coin of that metal, lest he become a suspect. He demanded his pay in greenbacks or in silver. Men have been landed in Joliet or on the farm just because they happened to have a coin of gold or a sparkler or something like that. Jerry made up his mind that he would give no one a chance to frame anything up on him because of his reputation. He would neither take anything nor, through indiscreet remarks, questions, or otherwise, approach the suspicious.
Jerry reformed his behavior. He knew better than to turn any tricks that winter. He let go a chance to lift half a ton of government handy line on the Plum Point reach revetment works. He bought the machinery of a worn-out cotton-gin and barged it honestly, instead of stealing its loose brass, copper, and lead at night—and made more by his restraint than he would have made by night-hawking.
Jerry had capitalized himself at last; he had twenty kegs of cold assets down in Payto Bayou, and he figured that he could afford to work and toil honestly for a while, in order to come clear with what he had. Born an undersized, scrawny, weakling, half-starved baby, and cowed and unloved in an asylum, trained and schooled in further wickedness in a reformatory, he had held to one idea, a stake.
When he made his stake he would reform and turn square, would live on his income! Now he had his stake; he was working and living on his earnings. He went to see the girl of his ideals, and she was willing. She asked no questions about his prospects, for Jerry was a lovable rascal. Jerry had always supposed she would demand that he show his hand, prove that he had a stake, but she did nothing of the kind. When he told her of his little motor-boat, and his junking, rafting, drifting, and odd-jobbing, she was delighted.
"I'd love it!" she cried; "oh, this world is so mean I want to get away from it, down Old Mississip'!"
"Let's!"—he seized his opportunity, as usual.
They were married with never a word about the million which Jerry had prepared to tell about as his one best bait. Some day, he decided, when it was perfectly safe, he would make a draft on that bayou sand-bottom bank, but for the present he could not risk the gold-coin danger. He passed Payto Bayou with only a glance at it. He earned money, towing, junking, and even taking out parties of fishermen and picnickers, never once picking a pocket or clipping a shiner.
With his million to fall back upon, with no dread of poverty or pressing want, he turned his mind to the little things of business and work, and he earned something about every day, and averaged a good deal more than his expenses came to. He was surprised to find that after several months of married life he and his wife had saved more than two thousand dollars. This gave Jerry Rufus an idea. By working up a credit at various banks along the river towns, he could gradually bank his gold, little by little, along with his earnings. In a few years, by increasing his business he could safely slip into his income the million that was the making of him.
There was no hurry; he banked the savings in four banks. He bought and sold, odd-jobbed, and then he was inspired: he had dabbled in bucket-shop stocks; now he began to buy stocks on a wide margin, a hundred six-per-cent shares with twenty-per-cent margin. He bought the stock and the bank carried it for him. He accepted three gold coins in part payment for a raft of drift logs which he caught in a sudden high water. He banked them, with bills and silver. The cashier did not even look up questioningly.
What a jewel his wife was! She toiled with him, loved the wide river, helped heave the anchor, and learned to run the engine. She steered the boat while he handled the lines; she was as good as another man on board, when it came to working; she was a thousand times better than any man could be, with her gay little songs, her buoyant laugh, her housekeeping problems. She never forgot her gratitude to Jerry for coming and getting her when he did.
"You came just in time!" she would whisper. "I was about ready to give up!"
Something in her tone, in her remarks on that subject, made a cold fear clutch Jerry's heart, thinking what would happen if they ever caught him with that million. He would wake up in the night, half crying from a dream of a pursuit and imminent capture. He would feel that Nemesis was on his trail, for it was said that a man's wicked acts always bring their punishment, whatever becomes of a man's good works.
When in the twilight, as they swung down some long, dark reach, Jerry's wife would see only the loveliness of the soft darkness, the vast river opening up new vistas of sweet suspense. But Jerry saw that it was the vast portals of a pen opening up to let him in. He choked when he thought of that million lying waste in the bottom of Payto Bayou, but he would ask himself what he would gain with it? They had plenty to eat, plumb comfort in their little cruising junking-boat, and in the banks were increasing funds. In a year or two he would have the first hundred shares of stock paid for. From that they would have an independent income of six hundred dollars a year.
"We could live on that in a shanty-boat!" he told himself. "No hurry about it. Another year and I'll drop into Payto after that million. Hit's a plumb comfort to know I got it to fall back on."
One night they tied in Payto Bayou, and Jerry Rufus did not sleep at all. He shivered with conflicting apprehensions. The ghost of the million came to taunt him, and he could almost see the money dragging him forth into the full publicity of the world. The world would dub him one of the most remarkable crooks that ever lived; they would picture him and his wife—his wife, too!—as though she had had a share in the job, though she had done nothing to deserve the blame.
His wife could not imagine the cause of her husband's preoccupation. He could not tell her; he knew that she was true-blue and that she was on the square. She had made him pay a darky a half-dollar which she had promised but forgotten to give for a brass casting.
"I don't want any money that isn't earned right!" she said upon his easy remark that it didn't matter about the four bits.
It occurred to him that she might not rejoice in the million. She might despise it. She might say that they had enough without using that dirty money. She might even insist that he return it to the rightful owners!
They towed a light skiff behind the motor-boat, and in the morning Jerry made an excuse of going up the bayou to shoot some squirrels for dinner. He had a grappling-iron in the boat, and when he was opposite the bend that marked the sinking-place of the million, he dropped over the grapple, and after some effort snagged something which was half buried in the sand. He managed to bring it up.
"I neveh thought they'd sink!" he muttered. "The sand'll bury 'em. I'll have to drudge 'em up!"
He had caught one of the kegs that rested on the pile on the bottom. He raised it over the stern of the skiff and then pulled hastily ashore, where he sought the secrecy of a cane thicket.
"I can leave most of the kegful buried in a hollow tree," he said to himself as with a wrecking-iron he pried out the top of the keg.
"’Fore the Gawd!" he gasped as he stared at the revealed contents; "they ain't no million! I got my own kaigs! Jes' sand an' gravel!"
He stared blankly at his own hoax, his heart sinking within him. He had been banking on that money for years, working and slaving like a roustabout and keeping square, earning honest money, apparently in vain. His dread of hunger, weakness, inability to earn honest money returned.
"What'll I do?" he exclaimed fearfully; and then, as he sat weakly down, he grinned and said aloud: "Sho! I don't cyar; what dif'rence does it make? I've be'n working on sand, all right! I ain't a crook no mo'! I done got in by a square deal. I don't have to be a crook—I kin make a livin' 'thout bein' no crook!"
With that he heaved the keg of gravel into mid-bayou and returned to his boat.