The Whistles

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The Whistles  (1912) 
by James Barnes

Extracted from Collier's Weekly, 12 Oct 1912, pp. 17 and (bits of) 33, 34. Accompanying illustrations by Frederic Dorr Steele may be added later.

The Whistles


ON a certain evening in early April, 1909, an evening when winter had apparently struggled back to have a parting slap at the thermometer, Mr. "Pink" Hogan, proprietor of a dingy little saloon on upper First Avenue, frequented mostly by his compatriots, observed three customers, who were unknown to him personally, enter quietly by the side entrance. They were swarthy of complexion and spoke a foreign tongue, so Mr. Hogan classified them as "Wops," synonymous now on the East Side with the all-but-discarded term "Dago."

The three dark-complexioned gentlemen thus designated were discussing their beers at the corner of the bar near the cigar lighter, when through the door that opened on the avenue came two more strangers to the neighborhood. One was a short, stout man of sixty with a very red complexion and grizzled beard; the other was a thin-faced, keen-eyed, very well dressed individual of uncertain age, who was evidently at home in his surroundings, for, without preamble, he asked Mr. Hogan for the dice box.

When back of the bar in this particular locality, it is best not to be too inquisitive as to what goes on in front of it; so when the keen-faced young man and his companion had somehow scraped acquaintance with the three aliens, Mr. Hogan displayed little interest. When the five, accompanied by the dice box, adjourned to the back room, Mr. Hogan took their orders without comment and left them alone.

HAD Mr. Hogan's curiosity been awakened in the slightest degree, he might have been surprised at the fact that the keen-faced one and his somewhat elderly companion, although rattling the dice and occasionally calling out orders, were conversing fluently with the "Wops" in the foreign tongue.

In about an hour the party broke up, the three first comers leaving together by the front door, that opened on the avenue, and a few minutes later the strangely assorted pair also departed, this time by the side entrance.

At the corner, under the lamp-post, they stopped for a moment, and here occurs the first conversation that we are privileged to listen to.

"Smart sort of fellow, that Martinez," observed the younger man; "you've had dealings with him before, Captain Bickmore?"

"Yes, sure I have," replied the bearded man. "In 1901 I ran a cargo into Carupano with him, for the Mattos people; good pay they were, and on the nail—eight thousand stands of rifles, half a million cartridges, two quick-firing three-pounders, and a machine gun. Getting out of New York was a joke in those days compared to what it is now; why, we loaded up right over here in South Brooklyn; 'mining machinery and pianos,' that's what the cases were marked, and we cleared all proper and not a question asked—it was like robbing your blind grandmother."

"Well, it's different now," observed the younger man. "It's getting riskier and riskier. They've even got spies up at the factory; yes, and in most of the offices, too. It doesn't pay to carry certain correspondence on the books; once the Government gets a black mark against you, they watch you closer than ever. You ought to know that, Captain Bickmore."

"Sure I do, Mr. Fallon," laughed the grizzled man. "They have had their eyes on me and my son-in-law, Barry, ever since this last trouble broke out, and if I'd ever set foot on the deck of the San Blas they would have known it in Washington in an hour; if I'd been seen talking to Carlos Martinez in any public place, the newspapers would have had it in the next day's issue; but they don't know Martinez is in the country. I made the mistake one time of spinning a yarn to one of those newspaper fellows, and he printed it in one of the Sunday papers; no use a-tellin' 'em now that Barry and I have chucked all that and gone into the tugboat business; they won't believe it."

The younger man laughed.

"Well," he said, "this looks safe enough now. The San Blas has got her papers and clears for Trinidad day after to-morrow. I go on board to-morrow night. Barry takes the tow through and lays the barge alongside early the next morning, and his job is over."

"And ours begins," put in the captain. "I'll be glad when we've cleared the Hook." As he spoke he took out of his pocket a great gold watch and looked at the time. "Excuse me, Mr. Fallon," he said suddenly, "but you'll have to hurry if you're going to catch the twelve o'clock train for Bridgeport. I'm going back to Brooklyn, and, mark my word, the Penora and the barge will be tied up alongside day after to-morrow, and just before you sail I'll join you. Good night; Barry understands, sir. There'll be no hitch."

As they parted, Fallon, the agent, turned and saw the older man cross the avenue and disappear down one of the side streets. Then he hurried westward. Now if Captain Bickmore had not taken out that gold watch and held it in the glare of the corner light, what subsequently took place might never have happened.

He had gone but a few steps when he thought he heard some one hurrying to overtake him. Thinking it might be Fallon, he turned. Indistinctly he saw, right at his heels, two figures; the first had an arm uplifted and hand extended before him. Before Bickmore could speak, his throat was grasped; the raised arm descended viciously!

Once, when before the mast, he had been felled by the blow of a belaying pin—even as he reeled and half fell, Captain Bickmore recalled the sensation of that blow! He tried to shout, but again there came a crashing, sickening explosion in his brain, and he knew nothing more.

IN a vacant lot between a decrepit stable and a cast-iron fence that rose about the huge gas tanks, a patrolman on his beat discovered just after daylight the body of a man. A glance showed that his clothes were ripped, his pockets turned inside out, and even his shoes removed. A close inspection proved that he was still alive, for he was breathing stentoriously, although he failed to respond to the patrolman's rough restorative methods, that consisted of shaking the poor unfortunate and bellowing in his ears repeatedly: "Hey, wake up there! What's your name? Where do you live?" Even when the ambulance at last arrived and the latest victim of the "Gas House Gang" was trundled off to the hospital, there was no sign of consciousness.

After an hour's work in the operating room the patient was trundled to a cot in the emergency ward, where he lay breathing heavily but still unconscious, his case marked: "Shock; slight depressed fracture of the cerebellum." He was entered as "unknown" and his age approximated.

The notice of this occurrence did not occupy half an inch in the evening papers. Such things occur every day—you will find them entered on the police blotters without any unusual comments. When the hospital gets such a case the police apparently lose interest.

Although what is now about to be related may often have been denied, nevertheless it has the truth behind it—as those who are in the secret know. Most hospitals strive to keep down their mortality list in their yearly reports, and one way of doing it is to transfer the apparently friendless moribund to another hospital. The big, gray, stone building near the river front, whose support does not depend on voluntary contributions, receives most of them. If "the transfer" dies en route, why, of course, there is no entry made; a certain regular mode of procedure that there is no use of going into minutely follows in certain seasons. All medical schools are near the sources of supply—the big cities.

SHORTLY after the work in the operating room an inspection was held; without a dissenting voice the unknown was put down as a "goner" by the young surgeons, and the interne thought proper to transfer him to the city's care. So they put him once more in the ambulance and the driver drove away very slowly.

The "House" of the grim, gray building swore, as usual, at the driver, the orderly, and the whole staff of the "privately supported," but had to take in the unwelcome guest, who, to the driver's surprise, could still be referred to as a "he" and not as an "it."

There was no use of making any further examination and, swathed in his bandages, the patient was taken up to the east ward and placed in a cot. Here he remained in a state of coma all that day and night.

It was a very foggy morning. The great ferry slips extended themselves into indistinct vanishing points; the boats, as they replaced one another, slowly dissolved and emerged like huge stereopticon views thrown on a damp, gray wall.

There was a clangor of bells and an uproar of challenging toots and blares from Ward's Island to the Battery. The windows of the grim, gray building shook with the sound.

The nurse on duty in the east ward suddenly called the orderly's attention and pointed down the row of cots. The occupant of the last one had raised himself to a sitting position; before they could reach him, he lurched forward to his knees and grasped the railing at the foot of the cot. He turned his head slowly from side to side. From beneath the bandages the grizzled beard protruded and the firm lips could be seen compressed together.

"Port a little, Barry; it's the South Star. She's keeping to the main channel—right in the middle of it. . . . Darn it, doesn't she know we've got a tow. . . . Blow again."

As if obeying the order, there followed a long, warning whistle, followed by two short ones. Out of the confusion of sounds there came a deep-toned roaring blast as if in return.

"Got his helm to port," said the kneeling man, and he extended one hand over his head, as if reaching for the whistle pull. "Steady," he went on, "we must be close in; can you see the shore? Keep a taut line! . . . There's a big yacht just astern of him and dead ahead. Starboard, now! The tide's got the barge." Again the hand was extended over his head. "Give over, you big bully!" again he cried. "Can't you see we've got a tow? Full speed ahead; straighten her out! We've got to risk it!"

THE orderly seized the raving man by his shoulders. "Come, come," he said, "lie down and take it easy. Easy now."

"Don't talk to me; no time to talk. We're in a deuce of a fix! . . . Doesn't he see where he's going; he'll hit the barge, sure. Swing her over! Here—give me the wheel!"

He took a firmer grasp of the railing. "My God, the wheel's jammed!"

There sounded three low, jarring noises in quick succession from out in the river.

"No use in backing now." The words came in a groan. "He'll hit the barge. Stop her! Full speed astern! God help us all! She's crossed our bows!" The window frames, and it seemed as if the walls, too, of the gray building quivered. There was a tinkle of broken glass from the big window in the corridor—the blast of a tremendous explosion rent the enshrouding mist and echoed and reverberated from both shores. For an instant the whistles were stilled, and then above the pandemonium that broke loose could be heard the long-drawn, hoarse wailing of a siren calling for help. The kneeling figure relaxed and fell back on the bed. From everywhere nurses and doctors came running to the windows. The general supposition was that there had been a collision and the boilers of some steamship had blown up.

When silence had been restored the orderly directed the doctor's attention to the occupant of the last cot. He lay there quietly. As the doctor bent over him, the orderly went on explaining.

"It was just as if he saw something was going to happen, sir. He seemed to be right in the middle of it and collapsed just as the explosion took place."

The doctor lifted the bandages; the patient's eyes fluttered a little and opened.

"What's your name?" asked the doctor.

"Bickmore," came the reply. "Captain of tug Penora. Is Dan Barry saved? The South Star hit the barge we had in tow. Is she damaged—is the steamer sunk? Any lives lost?"

"No," said the doctor, reassuringly humoring a person evidently in delirium. "No lives were lost. It's all right."

"The San Blas won't get her cargo," murmured the captain, and relapsed into silence.

The doctor had made some notes on his writing pad.

"He's asleep," he said at last, turning to the orderly. "I think he'll pull through, now." Then he added: "A strange puzzle box, this thing we call a brain."

The papers had it all wrong in their early issues; the Penora, that luckily escaped destruction, was supposed to be towing a load of high explosives for use in the quarries up the Hudson. The South Star, whose bow had been completely wrecked, and her forward compartment flooded, comprised the greatest damage except for broken windows on the shores. It was not until a week later, when they had dredged out of the channel some half dozen B.L.R. guns, a few thousand repeating rifles, and a scow load of scattered ammunition, that the truth came out.

It was a matter of some debate as to whom the joke was on. Whether it could be charged to the account of the big manufacturing concern, whose bill for the illicit cargo had not been paid by the intermittent Central American Republic, for whom it was intended, or the captain of the South Star, who ran the risk of bumping pretty hard an innocent-looking barge rather than give over a few feet of what he considered was his "right of way." Perhaps, after all, the joke was on the doctor, who had diagnosed the correct reading of the whistles as "delirium induced by shock and a slight fracture of the cerebellum." Maybe it was on the other doctors of the "privately supported," who had not counted on the strength of the captain's constitution. He fully recovered his health and the gold watch turned up in a Second Avenue pawnshop.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1936, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 86 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.