Silent Sam and Other Stories of Our Day/The Reporter

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


 

THE REPORTER

 

 

THE REPORTER

I

THE committee of the Colorado Senate, sitting on the Las Animas election protest at the Capitol, had adjourned sine die, and the political reporter of the Denver World was free to look for "action" elsewhere. He was looking for it in the register of the Hotel Capitol, where he hoped to find the names of some Las Animas visitors who might be interviewed before they were called to go on the witness stand; but he was not looking very eagerly, for the Las Animas scandals were now an old story that was printed without leads among the jumps and tail-ends on page five.

His black bowler hat was raked down over his eyes; an unlighted cigarette hung from his lower lip; his hands were thrust deep into his trousers pockets. It was his opinion that nothing exciting had happened in Colorado since the Cripple Creek labor war—when he had been deported from the State by the military authorities—and his attitude of cynical ennui expressed the hope deferred that makes sad the heart of the prowling newspaper man.

He had a round, smooth face, dark-browed, and as inexpressive as the back of a playing-card. He was known as the best poker-player in the Denver Press Club, where men who have learned the game in mining camps "tear off" the worried amateur while they converse distractingly of other things. And his whole physical make-up, from his thick ankles to his big shoulders, was as round and strong and smooth as his face.

When a man came up behind him and dropped a hand heavily on one of his shoulders, he did not turn. He finished the page of the register at his leisure and then slanted his head around—to see a stranger, baldish, with white eyelashes and a sort of soggy, fat face.

"You 're a reporter," the man said.

Colburn did not deny it. He rather took it for granted that every one knew it. He returned to his register.

"Do you want to make a hundred dollars?" the stranger asked.

He did, but he did not say so. He had lost thirty-seven dollars, the night previous, playing "loose deuces." He slewed the register back into position for the hotel clerk, detached his cigarette from his lip, and dropped it into a brass spittoon.

The man accepted these movements as implying assent. "Come up to my room," he said.

They crossed the rotunda to the elevator, and Colburn walked in a manner of absent-minded indifference that was habitual with him when his mind was busiest. He had "sized up" the stranger as a mine promoter from the East who had a story he wished to plant on the investing public; and Colburn intended to put the hundred dollars in his pocket—or as much of it as he could get in advance—and drop the story into the wastepaper-basket.

The man wore suede spats. He dragged his right foot over the tessellated floor, limping. "My name 's Fisher," he said.

Colburn did not volunteer anything in reply.

"What paper do you work for?" he asked as they entered the elevator.

"Rocky Mountain Chronicle," Colburn lied.

"Thought you were with the World."

"So I was."

"Fourth floor."

Colburn studied the back of the elevator boy's head. The boy had had his neck shaved, and it made him look as if he wore a wig. Colburn allowed his face to express a slow esthetic distaste of that cut of the hair. He knew, of course, that Fisher was scrutinizing him in the mirror-panel of the car.

They reached the fourth floor in silence, and padded down the heavy hall-carpet of the corridor in silence; and Fisher threw open the door of a lighted sitting-room, gaudy with scarlet carpet and red walls; and Colburn entered without taking off his hat. It was a joke among his friends that he slept in his hat.

Fisher, having closed the door behind him, crossed the room to close the door of the bedroom also. Colburn seated himself in a rocking-chair and took a book of cigarette papers from his watch-pocket. He was tearing out a leaf when the man asked: "When did you leave the World?"

He finished making his cigarette before he replied—with an air of calling for a showdown—"What do you want?"

Fisher nodded. "I want you to interview a friend of mine."

"What about?"

"I want you to ask him four questions. If you get the right answers, I 'll give you a hundred dollars."

Colburn struck a match, lighted his cigarette, and blew out the match thoughtfully. "How 'll you know whether they 're right or not?"

"I 'll know."

"You know the answers, then?"

"Yep."

The reporter puffed up a screen of smoke before his eyes and took a sharp look at the man through it, rolling the burnt match reflectively between a spatulate thick thumb and forefinger that were brown with nicotine. Fisher was leaning forward, his elbows on the arms of his chair, his little whitish eyes glittering with a malignant eagerness, his mouth twitching and hesitating on a thin smile.

Colburn said: "Suppose you say the answers are n't right—when they are."

"I 'll play the game square."

"Nothing doing." He tossed the match on the carpet. "Not on those terms."

"What? What 's the matter with it? I 've got four questions. The fellow that knows the answers—he 's right across the hall. All you have to do is to go over there, and say you 're a reporter come to interview him, and get the answers. I 'll give you twenty-five bucks for each answer. Worth trying, ain't it?"

Colburn shook his head, his eyes on the floor. "He could pass me out any old talk. I 'd come back here and get the laugh. My time 's worth money."

"I 'll—" Fisher threw himself back in his chair and thrust out a leg to clear his trousers pocket. "I 'll give you twenty-five down."

"Well?"

He drew out a roll of bills and thumbed off two tens and a five, shakily. Colburn took them, as if deep in thought.

Fisher clucked a hoarse, excited cough to clear his throat. "You ask him what was the name of the island in the Snake River where he helped to stake out a claim in '98. Write it down."

"Go ahead." It was a point of professional pride with Colburn that he rarely took notes.

"Ask him how much he got when he skipped with the clean-up." He reflected a moment, with his eyes turned up to the electric lights, glowing in their burnished copper calyxes. He blinked, smiling and puckering up his lips like a man who has a pleasant taste in his mouth. "Ask him what was the name of the woman he hid behind."

Colburn tucked the money into his waistcoat pocket.

"And ask him why he did n't stop to bury her."

Colburn had been watching him under the brim of his hat. Suddenly he said—in the sharp voice of the reporter using the probe—"Why don't you shoot him up?"

Instantly, Fisher's face contracted in a spasm of hate that clenched his hands, and drew his legs in under him, and plucked him forward on the arms of his chair. "Him! G— — him! I want him to live just one day longer than I do. I want him to know I 'm on the other side, waiting for him. I—" He stopped, eyeing the reporter. "No, you don't," he said. "You 've got to get it from him."

Colburn returned to his indifference. "I don't contract to publish, you understand."

"Do as you—please about that.… And you 're not to tell him I sent you. See? You 're a reporter come to interview him."

"What 's his name?"

"He 's registered as 'Sims'—S. A. Sims.'"

"What 's his name?"

"Bell—Billy Bell."

Colburn raised himself to his feet. "Across the hall?"

The man limped eagerly to the door, and jerked it open. "There." He pointed. "In there."

Colburn slowly crossed the corridor and rapped on the panel. Some one called faintly: "Come in." As he opened the door before him, he heard the one behind him gently close.


II

Colburn divided all mankind into newspaper men and "outsiders"—whom he called "barbers " in his more contemptuous moods. The first were the writers, the second the written. The first lived on the second, despised them, exposed them, flattered them, used them, bled them, and made fools of them. There was some necessary fraternizing between the two, but no possibility of sincere friendship; and even in his most companionable moments Colburn did not forget that the outsider with whom he drank was a possible source of a news story—and watched for it.

The man Fisher whom he had just left was an outsider of a particularly odious type: he was the sort of barber who thinks he can buy a newspaper man, hoodwink him, and use him for "outside" purposes. But the man to whom Colburn entered now, as he opened the door, he recognized as the sort of outsider who fears a reporter as a criminal fears a court of law.

He was yellow, like a Chinaman—as yellow as his teeth—and there was an Oriental look about his lean, flat face, with his lips drawn back from his protruding incisors. He was a "lunger"; that was evident—to Colburn's practised Denver eye—from the wasted neck that left the cords standing in two ridges behind his pale ears. He was packing a battered suit-case, open on his bed; and he continued to pack it even after he had glanced at Colburn over his shoulder.

"I 'm from the World, Mr. Sims," Colburn said as he shut the door. "I 'd like to have a: few minutes' talk with you."

Sims shook his head quickly. "I 've nothing to say to the World." His voice was a breathy falsetto. He crammed his linen into the case.

"I understand," Colburn said, putting up his hat from his forehead, "that you had a mine in Idaho."

"Me? I had n't." He clapped down the top of the case and snapped the catches on it. "Nor anywhere else."

"On the Snake River," Colburn added.

Sims was bending down to his work. He did not straighten up, but after a perceptible pause he turned to the reporter the tail of a startled eye. Colburn's face shone in the light with a plump and interested geniality.

"You 've got the wrong man," Sims said hoarsely.

Colburn replied, without irony, in a tone merely of seeking further assurance of his mistake: "Oh! Is that so? Did n't you stake out a claim there, with a partner, on an island in '98?"

Sims reached his hat and his overcoat, and caught up his suit-case. "I 've got to catch a train. I 've got no time to talk to you. I 've got no time, I tell you. Let me out of here."

"I 'm sorry," Colburn said as he opened the door. "I wanted to give you a chance to put us right on that story. That thing 's pretty heavy, ain't it? Let me have it." And with all the calmness of his strength he took the suit-case forcibly from the trembling Sims. "What train do you want to catch?"

Sims struggled into his overcoat, hurrying along the hall, pulling his battered soft felt hat down on his ears.

"It 's none of your business," he kept saying, breathlessly. "It 's none of your damn business."

The hat was too big for him, and it made him look more than ever like a Chinaman—with a queue concealed. Colburn kept pace with him—and rang the elevator bell. In vain the man fumed and fretted. Colburn passed him into the car, a hand under his elbow, and said "Down" to the elevator boy. When they stepped out into the rotunda, Colburn led the way to the desk and said to the clerk: "Got Mr. Sims's bill, Jim? Hurry up. He wants to catch a train. If any one calls me up here, tell him I 've gone out." And when Sims had paid his bill, Colburn ushered him out to the street, hailed a taxicab, put him in it, ordered the driver to take them to the Union Depot, and got in beside Sims with the suit-case.

"This is a damn outrage," Sims broke out. "Get out of here. I 'll call a policeman."

Colburn shook his head. "Better get out of town without any more noise than you can help. He 's been drinking and he 's looking for you with a gun. That 's how we got the story. Turn up your collar. These cabs at night are great places to catch pneumonia in."

Sims squirmed and muttered unintelligibly. "Leave me alone," he stammered when Colburn put out a hand to help him turn up his collar at the back.

"What 's the matter?" Colburn soothed him. "I simply wanted to give you a chance. I don't believe in jumping into print with a story without hearing the other side of it. It makes no difference to me. I simply thought you might want to put yourself right."

Sims made no answer. Wrapped in his heavy overcoat, muffled up to the eyes, he sank back in the darkness of the cab, feebly obdurate. Colburn sat forward on the edge of the cushions to roll another cigarette by the light of the passing street-lamps. It was one of those chill Colorado nights that come down to Denver from the mountains when the sun has set, but Colburn was used to them; he did not even wear gloves. "Ever play loose deuces?" he asked. He added, in a moment: "You 'll be in time for the seven-forty-five."

"You go to—," Sims said. "You can't draw me. I 've had this game worked on me before."

Colburn sat back to reconsider his play. It was evident that Sims knew his hand, and he did not know Sims's. At such moments you would swear that there was a film drawn over his eyes.


III

"Well," Colburn said as he put Sims's suit-case on the seat of the Pullman, "I don't want to go back to the office with half the story. I know your name 's Bell, and he says you shot the woman and ran off with the clean-up. What I don't understand is why you did it."

Sims sat down, without answering, and looked out the window at the station lights, waiting for the train to start. Colburn promptly sat down beside him and stretched out his legs as if he intended to stay. Sims glanced around at him pathetically. "I did n't shoot her," he said. "He shot her himself. Now go away and leave me alone."

It was said in a manner of wearied and persecuted innocence; and Colburn, with his eyes on his feet, turned it over in his mind, dispassionately.

"You took the clean-up, though."

"I took my share of it."

"I see. You were partners in the mine. You 're not a Westerner."

Sims shook his head feebly. "Chicago."

"Neither is he."

"He 's my brother."

"Your brother!"

Sims's teeth bared between drawn lips, as if in the emotion of a bitter smile. It was about as interpretable as the grimace of a monkey. Colburn could make nothing of it, but he saw his opportunity to ask the first question on his list. "What was the name of the island?"

"Henry's," the man answered; and as if the name were as full of memories as a photograph in a family album, he stared at it from the hollows of his eyes, his chin sunken on a collar that was too large for his shrunken neck.

The car was jarred by a sudden bump as the two sections of the train—divided by a station crossing—were brought together and coupled for the journey. The covered platform echoed with cries of "All 'boad!" from the negro porters. Sims looked up, roused from his thoughts. Colburn made no move to leave.

"Go on," Sims said weakly. "There 's—there 's nothing in the story—for a newspaper. What do you want?"

Colburn drew from his inside pocket a bundle of old letters, forgotten memoranda, and such clutter of a reporter's work. "I don't suppose there is," he said, looking for his "annual." "But when a man 's sent out on a story, he has to come back with something. Personally, I don't care a cuss about the thing."

Sims watched him, in silence a moment. Then he asked in another voice: "Will you promise not to tell him which way I went—which train I took?"

"I sure will."

He sank back against the cushions. "What do you want to know?"

"Who was the woman?"

The car had begun to glide out of the station noiselessly. Sims let his chin sink upon his collar again. "Can't you leave her out of it?"

"Yes—but he won't."

"He don't care."

"No. Not that way. Was she his wife?"

"I guess. He brought her out from Chicago—when I wrote to him about the claim. I wanted him to help me work it. He treated her like a dog."

"They generally do—that sort," Colburn commented. "She was about half his size, I suppose."

"She was n't any more than a kid."

"Sure thing. The life was pretty rough on her, was n't it?"

"No," Sims said, with some interest. "No, She liked it. She 'd been shut up in a dirty little back street and she was crazy about it—about outdoors. She liked it. She did n't seem to mind the way he treated her. She was used to that. Her old man had been a bad one—from what she said—used to get drunk and beat her up."

Colburn was not interested in that part of the story. He interrupted: "What did he shoot her for?"

Sims drew a long tremulous breath, like a man on trial who is asked a question that involves his whole defense. "Well," he said, "I—I was sorry for her. She never looked to me for anything—any more than a dog would if the man that owned it kicked it. And at first I said to myself it was none of my business. But she—she looked after things for us like a mother—and I could n't stand it. I—"

Colburn put in: "You got her to run away?"

Sims nodded, swallowing dryly.

"And he caught you?"

"He was laying for us, I guess."

"How did he know?"

Sims shook his head. "I never found out. He must 've been watching us. We thought he 'd gone off to shoot something for dinner—and we saddled the pony and struck off on the trail to the railroad. It was a ninety-mile ride—if we 'd made it … He was laying for us in a bit of woods—took us head-on from behind a tree. The first shot rapped me on the shoulder, and then the next one fetched the horse and ditched us. I came down hard and it knocked me for a minute. I saw him coming at me, but I did n't have sense enough to pull my gun—till I saw Fan jump up and run toward him, screaming at him—and he just took and shot her through the head.… I fired low. Broke his ankle.… That was all there was to it."

"You got away?"

"Through the woods. I waited till I was sure she was dead. She never moved. I could have killed him if I 'd wanted to—from behind a tree. I could see him watching for me. He could n't get up."

Colburn stared at him. "Well, good—! What he kicking about?"

Sims was gazing at the blank plush of the car seat opposite him. "I got lung trouble," he said. "He knows I can't go East, And he hunts around till he finds me. That 's all he does. He 's about crazy with hate. When he can't do anything else, he sets a newspaper reporter after me. I don't want to do anything—but keep away from him."

"The dirty barber," Colburn muttered.

"At first he used to swear out a warrant and have me arrested and skip out before the trial, but he couldn't keep that up. Then he used to trail me up and try to scare me with a gun, but he did n't shoot—and I got on to it. Now he generally gets some newspaper reporter after me."

"How the — does he find out where you go?"

"He used to pay detectives, but now he does it himself. It gives him something to do, I guess. He knows I can't go far. I have to stay in hotels mostly. Boarding-houses won't let you in when you 're as bad as I am. I can't go off and live by myself. I 'm scared to get far from a doctor."

There was a long silence. The car rocked along the rails to a rhythm of "Clackety-Clack" and "clackety-clack." Suddenly Colburn said: "Look here. The Chief of Police is an old friend of mine. If you 'll come back to Denver, I 'll see that your brother gets out—and does n't bother you any more. And it won't go into the papers. I 'll get a warrant against him for murder, if we can't scare him any other way. He 'll never dare to put his nose inside the town again."

Sims sighed. "That 's all right. Thanks," he said.

"Well, will you do it?"

He studied the hollows between his knuckles, rubbing the back of one clenched hand with the thumb of the other. "What 's the use? Leave him alone. He 's in hell as it is." He looked around. "You don't think he 'd be doing this if he were n't suffering like the devil, do you? He knows how he treated her. He knows he 's got nothing against me. And I ain't going to give him anything. He murdered her, and he can't get away from it. That 's what 's the matter with him. Leave him alone. He 's getting all that 's coming to him."

"How about you?"

"I can stand it. Never mind me."

His tone was final. Colburn returned to Fisher's questions. How much did you get out of the 'clean-up'?"

"About two thousand," Sims answered irritably. "Is there anything else you want to know?"

There was not. He had the answers to his four queries. "I guess not," he said. "No."

"Will you go away, then, and leave me alone?"

Colburn rose, feeling in his pocket for his package of granulated tobacco. "Have a smoke?" he asked. Sims did not even look up. Colburn nodded, to himself, and went away to the smoking compartment.

The man's story had no news value; and no other value interested Colburn. He consulted his watch; it was 7.57. He consulted the railroad time-table; the first stop was Littleton, at. 8.09. He found that a train returning to Denver would pass through Littleton at 9.22; and it would get him back to Denver at 9.45. Good. If there was a night-game at the club—

He settled himself in his seat, with the newspaper man's ability to dismiss the troubles of the outside world from his mind and wait as patiently as an old dog for the next whistle of events. He would return from wiring the story of a hanging, with just such placidity. His sympathies had been only momentarily stirred. And he had no literary interest in the psychology of the story and no feeling for its merely human appeal.

When the train stopped at Littleton, he got out, and stood facing the little brick station while he reflected that from 8.09 to 9.22 would be a wait of one hour and thirteen minutes. He decided to go back by trolley. Then he walked up the platform to look in at Sims. The man was apparently asleep, peacefully exhausted, with his head thrown back and his face as waxy as death. The train bore him gently away, and Colburn remained looking at the other passengers as they were carried by.

He blinked and started—turning to follow a vanishing window with his eyes. For the fraction of a second he had seen Fisher's fat profile—the whitish eyes fixed in a malevolent stare ahead of him, as if through the walls of the intervening cars he could see his brother.

Fisher! He must have followed them.

The two red lights on the tail of the train swiftly receded in the darkness. One of them winked, like an eye, as a telegraph pole for an instant blotted it out. And Colburn had a vague feeling that it expressed a humorous contempt of him for standing on the platform while that train, with the tragedy that freighted it, dwindled and disappeared from him forever down the rails. Had he missed a story, after all? For a moment he wished that he had let Sims talk; and then his professional instinct for news assured him that a story eleven years old was not worth—

Pshaw! It was the money! Fisher had promised him one hundred dollars!

"Well, the dirty barber!" he muttered. "The dirty barber!"

And he felt relieved. His newspaper conscience was clear. It was only money he had failed to get.