Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

A Story of Stories by Theodore Dreiser

 

Take a smoky Western city. Call it Omaha or Kansas City or Denver, only let the Mississippi flow past it. Put in it two rival morning papers--two, and only two--the Star and the News, the staffs of which are rather keen to outwit each other. On the staff of the News, slightly the better of the two newspapers, put Mr. David Kolinsky, alias (yes, alias) David, or "Red" Collins (a little shift of nomenclature due to the facts that, first: he was a South Russian Jew who looked exactly like a red-headed Irishman--that is a peculiarity of South Russian Jews, I believe--and secondly: that it was more distingué, as it were, to be Irish in Omaha or Denver or Kansas City than it was to be a South Russian Jew). Give him a slithery, self-confident, race-track or tout manner. Put on him "loud" or showy clothes, a diamond ring, a ruby pin in his tie, a yellowish-green Fedora hat, yellow shoes, freckles, a sneering contemptuous "tough" smile, and you have Mr. "Red" Collins as Mr.--

But wait.

On the Star, slightly the lesser of these two great dailies that matutinally thrashed the city to a foam of interest, place Mr. Augustus Binns, no less, young (not over twenty-two), tall, college-y, rather graceful as young college men go, literary of course, highly ambitious, with gold eye-glasses, a wrist watch, a cane--in short, one of those ambitious young gentlemen of this rather un-happy go un-lucky scribbling world who has distinct ideals, to say nothing of dreams, as to what the newspaper and literary professions combined should bring him, and who, in addition, inherently despised all creatures of the "Red" Collins, or racetrack, gambler, amateur detective, police and political, type. Well may you ask, what was Mr. Collins, with his peculiar characteristics, doing on a paper of the importance and distinction of the News. A long story, my dears. Newspapers are peculiar institutions.

For this same paper not long since had harbored the truly elegant presence of Mr. Binns himself, and so excellent a writer and news gatherer was he that on more than one occasion he had been set to revise or rewrite the tales which Mr. "Red" Collins, who was then but tentatively connected with the paper as a "tipster," brought in. This in itself was a crime against art and literature, as Mr. Binns saw it, for, when you come right down to it, and in the strict meaning of the word, Mr. Collins was not a writer at all, could not write, in fact, could only "bring in" his stories, and most interesting ones they were, nearly all of them, whereas about the paper at all times were men who could--Mr. Binns, for instance. It insulted if not outraged Mr. Binns's sense of the fitness of things, for the News to hire such a person and let him flaunt the title of "reporter" or "representative," for he admired the News very much and was glad to be of it. But Collins! "Red" Collins!

The latter was one of those "hard life," but by no means hard luck, Jews who by reason of indomitable ambition and will had raised himself out of practically frightful conditions. He had never even seen a bath-tub until he was fifteen or sixteen. By turns he had been a bootblack, newsboy, race-track tout, stable boy, helper around a saloon, and what not. Of late years, and now, because he was reaching a true wisdom (he was between twenty-five and six), he had developed a sort of taste for gambling as well as politics of a low order, and was in addition a police hanger-on. He was really a sort of pariah in his way, only the sporting and political editors found him useful. They tolerated him, and paid him well for his tips because, forsooth, his tips were always good.

Batsford, the capable city editor of the News, a round, forceful, gross person who was more allied to Collins than to Binns in spirit, although he was like neither, was Binns's first superior in the newspaper world. He did not like Binns because, for one thing, of his wrist watch, secondly, his large gold glasses--much larger than they need have been--and thirdly, because of his cane, which he carried with considerable of an air. The truth is, Binns was Eastern and the city editor was Western, and besides, Binns had been more or less thrust upon him by his managing editor as a favor to some one else. But Binns could write, never doubt it, and proved it. He was a vigorous reporter with a fine feeling for words and, above all, a power to visualize and emotionalize whatever he saw, a thing which was of the utmost importance in this rather loose Western emotional atmosphere. He could handle any story which came to him with ease and distinction, and seemed usually to get all or nearly all the facts.

On the other hand, Collins, for all his garishness, and one might almost say, brutality of spirit, was what Batsford would have called a practical man. He knew life. He was by no means as artistic as Binns, but still--Batsford liked to know what was going on politically and criminally, and Collins could always tell him, whereas Binns never could. Also, by making Binns rewrite Collins's stories, he knew he could offend him horribly. The two were like oil and water, Mussulman and Christian.

When Batsford first told Collins to relate the facts of a certain tale to Binns and let him work it out, the former strolled over to the collegian, his lip curled up at one corner, his eye cynically fixed on him, and said, "The Chief says to give youse this dope and let youse work it out"

Youse!

Oh, for a large, bright broad ax!

Binns, however, always your stickler for duty and order, bent on him an equally cynical and yet enigmatic eye, hitched up his trousers slightly, adjusted his wrist watch and glasses, and began to take down the details of the story, worming them out of his rival with a delicacy and savoir faire worthy of a better cause.

Not long after, however, it was brought to the horrified ears of Mr. Binns that Mr. Collins had said he was a "stiff" and a "cheap ink-slinger," a la-de-da no less, that writers, one and all, college and otherwise, didn't count for much, anyhow, that they were all starving to death, and that they "grew on trees"--a phrase which particularly enraged Mr. Binns, for he interpreted it to mean that they were as numerous as the sands of the sea, as plentiful as mud.

By Allah! That such dogs should be allowed to take the beards of great writers into their hands thus!

Nevertheless and in spite of all this, the fortunes of Mr. Collins went forward apace, and that chiefly, as Mr. Binns frequently groaned, at his expense. Collins would come in, and after a long series of "I sez to him-s" and "He sez to me-s," which Mr. Binns (per the orders of Mr. Batsford) translated into the King's best Britannica, he having in the meanwhile to neglect some excellent tale of his own, would go forth again, free to point the next day to a column or column-and-a-half or a half-column story, and declare proudly, "My story."

Think of it! That swine!

There is an end to all things, however, even life and crime. In due time, as per a series of accidents and the groundless ill-will of Mr. Batsford, Mr. Binns was perforce, in self-respect, compelled to transfer his energies to the Star, a paper he had previously contemned as being not so good, but where he was now made very welcome because of his ability. Then, to his astonishment and disgust, one day while covering a police station known as the South Ninth, from which emanated many amazing police tales, whom should he encounter but "Red" Collins, no less, now a full-fledged reporter on the News, if you please, and "doing police." He had a grand and even contemptuous manner, barely deigning to notice Binns. Binns raged.

But he noticed at once that Collins was far more en rapport with the various sergeants and the captain, as well as all that was going on in this station, than ever he had dreamed of being. It was "Hello, Red," here and "Hi, sport," there, while Collins replied with various "Caps" and "Charlies." He gave himself all the airs of a newspaper man proper, swaggering about and talking of this, that, and the other story which he had written, some of them having been done by Binns himself. And what was more, Collins was soon closeted intimately with the captain in his room, strolling in and out of that sanctum as if it were his private demesne, and somehow giving Binns the impression of being in touch with realms and deeds of which he had never heard, and never would. It made Binns doubly apprehensive lest in these secret intimacies tales and mysteries should be unfolded which should have their first light in the pages of the News, and so leave him to be laughed at as one who could not get the news. In consequence, he watched the News more closely than ever for any evidence of such treachery on the part of the police, while at the same time he redoubled his interest in any such items as came to his attention. By reason of this, as well as by his greater skill in writing and his undeniable imagination, on more than one occasion he gave Mr. Collins a good drubbing, chancing to make good stories out of things which Mr. Collins had evidently dismissed as worthless. Au contraire, now and then a case appeared in the columns of the News with details which he had not been able to obtain, and concerning which the police had insisted that they knew nothing. It was thus that Mr. Collins secured his revenge--and very good revenge too, it was at times.

But Mr. Binns managed to hold his own, as, for instance, late one August afternoon when a negro girl in one of those crowded alleys which made up an interesting and even amazing portion of O-- was cut almost to shreds by an ex-lover who, following her from river-city to river-city and town to town, had finally come up with her here and had taken his revenge.

It was a glistering tale this. It appeared (but only after the greatest industry on the part of Mr. Binns) that some seven or eight months before [the O-- papers curiously were always interested in a tale of this kind] this same girl and the negro who had cut her had been living together as man and wife in Cairo, Illinois, and that later the lover (a coal passer or stevedore, working now on one boat and now on another plying the Mississippi between New Orleans and O--), who was plainly wildly fond of her, became suspicious and finally satisfying himself that his mistress, who was a real beauty after her kind, was faithless to him, set a trap to catch her. Returning suddenly one day when she imagined him to be away for a week or two of labor, and bursting in upon her, he found her with another man. Death would have been her portion as well as that of her lover had it not been for the interference of friends, which had permitted the pair to escape.

Lacerated by the double offenses of betrayal and desertion, he now set out to follow her, as the cutting on this occasion proved. Returning to his task as stevedore and working his way thus from one river-city to another, he arrived by turns in Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez and New Orleans, in each case making it a point to disguise himself as a peddler selling trinkets and charms, and in this capacity walking the crowded negro sections of all these cities calling his wares. Ambling up one of these stuffy, stifling alleys, finally, in O-- which bordered on this same police station and where so many negroes lived, he encountered this late August afternoon his quondam but now faithless love. In answer to his cry of "Rings! Pins! Buckles! Trinkets!" his false love, apparently not recognizing his voice, put her head out of a doorway. On the instant the damage was done. Dropping his tray, he was upon her in a flash with his razor, cris-crossing and slashing her until she was marred beyond recognition. With fiendish cruelty he cut her cheeks, lips, arms, legs, back, and sides, so much so that when Binns arrived at the City Hospital where she had been taken, he found her unconscious and her life despaired of. On the other hand, the lover had made good his escape, as had her paramour.

Curiously, this story captured the fancy of Mr. Binns as it did that of his city editor later, completely. It was such a thing as he could do, and do well. With almost deft literary art he turned it into a rather striking black tragedy. Into it, after convincing his rather fussy city editor that it was worth the telling, he had crowded a bit of the flavor of the hot waterfronts of Cairo, Memphis, Natchez, and New Orleans, the sing-song sleepiness of the stevedores at their lazy labors, the idle, dreamy character of the slow-moving boats, this rickety alley, with its semi-barbaric curtain-hung shacks and its swarming, idle, crooning, shuffling negro life. Even an old negro refrain appropriate to a trinket peddler, and the low, bold negro life two such truants might enjoy, were pictured. An old negro mammy with a yellow-dotted kerchief over her head who kept talking of "disha Gawge" and "disha Sam" and "disha Marquatta" (the girl), had moved him to a poetic frenzy. Naturally it made a colorful tale, and his city editor felt called upon to compliment him on it.

But in the News, owing possibly to Collins's inability to grasp the full significance, the romance, of such a story as this, it received but a scant stick--a low dive cutting affray. His was not the type of mind that could see the color here, but once seen he could realize wherein he had been beaten, and it infuriated him.

"You think you're a helluva feller, dontcha?" he snarled the next day on sight, his lip a-curl with scorn and rage. "You think you've pulled off sompin swell. Say, I've been up against you wordy boys before, and I can work all around you. All you guys can do is get a few facts and then pad 'em up. You never get the real stuff, never," and he even snapped his fingers under the nose of the surprised Mr. Binns. "Wait'll we get a real case some time, you and me, and then I'll show you sompin. Wait and see."

"My good fellow," Mr. Binns was about to begin, but the cold, hard, revengeful glare in the eyes of Mr. Collins quite took his breath away. Then and there Mr. Collins put a strange haunting fear of himself into Mr. Binns's mind. There was something so savage about him, so like that of an angry hornet or snake that it left him all but speechless. "Is that so?" he managed to say after a time. "You think you will, do you? That's easy enough to say, now that you're beaten, but I guess I'll be right there when the time comes."

"Aw, go to hell!" growled Collins savagely, and he walked off, leaving Mr. Binns smiling pleasantly, albeit vacantly, and at the same time wondering just what it was Mr. Collins was going to do to him, and when.

The sequel to this was somewhat more interesting.

As Mr. Binns came in one morning fresh from his bath and breakfast, his new city editor called him into his office. Mr. Waxby, in contrast with Mr. Batsford, was a small, waspish, and yet affable and capable man whom Binns could not say he admired as a man or a gentleman, but who, he was sure, was a much better city editor than Batsford, and who appreciated him, Binns, as Batsford never had, i.e., at his true worth. Batsford had annoyed him with such a dog as Collins, whereas Waxby had almost coddled him. And what a nose for news!

Mr. Waxby eyed him rather solemnly and enigmatically on this occasion, and then observed: "Do you remember, Binns, that big M.P. train robbery that took place out here near Dolesville about six months ago?"

"Yes, sir."

"And do you remember that the Governor of this state and his military staff, all in uniform, as well as a half dozen other big-wigs, were on board, and that they all reported that there had been seven lusty bandits, all heavily armed, some of whom went through the train and robbed the passengers while others compelled the engineer and fireman to get down, uncouple the engine, and then blow open the express car door and safe for them and carry out the money, about twenty or thirty thousand dollars all told?"

Binns remembered it well. He had been on the News at the time, and the full-page spread had attracted his keenest attention. It was illustrative, as he thought, of the character of this region--raw and still daring. It smacked so much of the lawlessness of the forties, when pack-train and stage-coach robberies were the rule and not the exception. It had caused his hair to tingle at the roots at times so real was it. Never had he been so close, as it were, to anything so dramatic.

"Yes, sir, I remember it very well," he replied.

"And do you remember how the newspapers laughed over the fact that the Governor and his military staff had crawled into their berths and didn't come out again until the train had started?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well now, Binns, just read this," and here Mr. Waxby handed him a telegram, the while his eyes gleamed with a keen humorous light, and Mr. Binns read:

 

"Medicine Flats, M. K.

"Lem Rollins arrested here to-day confesses to single-handed robbery of M. P. express west of Dolesville February 2d last. Money recovered. Rollins being brought to O-- via C. T. & A. this p. m. Should arrive six-thirty."

 

"Apparently," cackled Mr. Waxby, "there was nothing to that seven-bandit story at all, Binns. There weren't any seven robbers, but just one, and they've caught him, and he's confessed," and here he burst into more laughter.

"No, Binns," went on Waxby, "if this is really true, it is a wonderful story. You don't often find one man holding up a whole train anywhere and getting away with twenty or thirty thousand dollars. It's amazing. I've decided that we won't wait for him to arrive, but that you're to go out and meet him. According to this time-table you can take a local that leaves here at two-fifteen and get to Pacific fifteen minutes ahead of the express on which he is coming in, and you've just about time to make it. That will give you all of an hour and a half in which to interview him. It's just possible that the News and the other papers won't get wind of this in time to send a man. Think of the opportunity it gives you to study him! No seven robbers, remember, but just one! And the Governor and his whole staff on board! Make him tell what he thinks of the Governor and his staff. Make him talk. Ha! ha! You'll have him all to yourself. Think of that! And they crawled into their berths! Ha! Ha! Gee whiz, you've got the chance of a lifetime!"

Mr. Binns stared at the telegram. He recalled the detailed descriptions of the actions of the seven robbers, how some of them had prowled up and down outside the train, while others went through it rifling the passengers, and still others, forward, overawed the engineer and fireman, broke open and robbed the express car safe in the face of an armed messenger as well as mailman and trainmen, and how they had then decamped into the dark. How could one man have done it? It couldn't be true!

Nevertheless he arose, duly impressed. It would be no easy task to get just the right touch, but he felt that he might. If only the train weren't over-run with other reporters! He stuffed some notepaper into his pocket and bustled down to the Union Station--if Mr. Binns could be said to bustle. Here he encountered his first hitch.

On inquiring for a ticket to Pacific, the slightly disturbing response of "Which road?" was made.

"Are there two?" asked Mr. Binns.

"Yes--M.P. and C.T. & A."

"They both go to Pacific, do they?"

"Yes."

"Which train leaves first?"

"C.T. & A. It's waiting now."

Mr. Binns hesitated, but there was no time to lose. It didn't make any difference, so long as he connected with the incoming express, as the time-table showed that this did. He paid for his ticket and got aboard, but now an irritating thought came to him. Supposing other reporters from either the News or one of the three afternoon papers were aboard, especially the News! If there were not he would have this fine task all to himself, and what a beat! But if there were others? He walked forward to the smoker, which was the next car in front, and there, to his intense disgust and nervous dissatisfaction, he spied, of all people, the one man he would least have expected to find on an assignment of this kind, the one man he least wanted to see--Mr. Collins, no less, red-headed, serene, determined, a cigar between his teeth, crouched low in his seat smoking and reading a paper as calmly as though he were not bent upon the most important task of the year.

"Pshaw!" exclaimed Mr. Binns irritably and even bitterly.

He returned to his seat nervous and ill composed, all the more so because he now recalled Collins's venomous threat, "Wait'll we get a real case some time, you and me." The low creature! Why, he couldn't even write a decent sentence. Why should he fear him so? But just the same he did fear him--why, he could scarcely say. Collins was so raw, savage, brutal, in his mood and plans.

But why, in heaven's name, he now asked himself as he meditated in his seat as to ways and means, should a man like Batsford send a man like Collins, who couldn't even write, to interpret a story and a character of this kind? How could he hope to dig out the odd psychology of this very queer case? Plainly he was too crude, too unintellectual to get it straight. Nevertheless, here he was, and now, plainly, he would have this awful creature to contend with. And Collins was so bitter toward him. He would leave no trick unturned to beat him! These country detectives and sheriff and railroad men, whoever they were or wherever they came from, would be sure, on the instant, to make friends with Collins, as they always did, and do their best to serve him. They seemed to like that sort of man, worse luck. They might even, at Collins's instigation, refuse to let him interview the bandit at all! If so, then what? But Collins would get something somehow, you might be sure, secret details which they might not relate to him. It made him nervous. Even if he got a chance he would have to interview this wonderful bandit in front of this awful creature, this one man whom he most despised, and who would deprive him of most of the benefit of all his questions by writing as though he had thought of and asked all of them himself. Think of it!

The dreary local sped on, and as it drew nearer and nearer to Pacific, Binns became more and more nervous. For him the whole charm of this beautiful September landscape through which he was speeding now was all spoiled. When the train finally drew up at Pacific he jumped down, all alive with the determination not to be outdone in any way, and yet nervous and worried to a degree. Let Collins do his worst, he thought. He would show him. Still--just then he saw the latter jumping down. At the same time, Collins spied him, and on the instant his face clouded over. He seemed fairly to bristle with an angry animal rage, and he glared as though he would like to kill Binns, at the same time looking around to see who else might get off. "My enemy!" was written all over him. Seeing no one, he ran up to the station-agent and apparently asked when the train from the West was due. Binns decided at once not to trail, but instead sought information from his own conductor, who assured him that the East-bound express would probably be on time five minutes later, and would certainly stop here.

"We take the siding here," he said. "You'll hear the whistle in a few minutes."

"It always stops here, does it?" asked Binns anxiously.

"Always."

As they talked, Collins came back to the platform's edge and stood looking up the track. At the same time this train pulled out, and a few minutes later the whistle of the express was heard. Now for a real contest, thought Binns. Somewhere in one of those cars would be this astounding bandit surrounded by detectives, and his duty, in spite of the indignity of it, would be to clamber aboard and get there first, explain who he was, ingratiate himself into the good graces of the captors and the prisoner, and begin his questioning, vanquishing Collins as best he might--perhaps by the ease with which he should take charge. In a few moments the express was rolling into the station, and then Binns saw his enemy leap aboard and, with that iron effrontery and savageness which always irritated Binns so much, race through the forward cars to find the prisoner. Binns was about to essay the rear cars, but just then the conductor, a portly, genial-looking soul, stepped down beside him.

"Is Lem Rollins, the train robber they are bringing in from Bald Knob, on here?" he inquired. "I'm from the Star, and I've been sent out to interview him."

"You're on the wrong road, brother," smiled the conductor. "He's not on this train. Those detective fellows have fooled you newspaper men, I'm afraid. They're bringing him in over the M.P., as I understand it. They took him across from Bald Knob to Wahaba and caught the train there--but I'll tell you," and here he took out a large open-face silver watch and consulted it, "you might be able to catch him yet if you run for it. It's only across the field there. You see that little yellow station over there? Well, that's the depot. It's due now, but sometimes it's a little late. You'll have to run for it, though. You haven't a minute to spare."

Binns was all aquiver on the instant. Suppose, in spite of Collins's zeal and savagery, he should outwit him yet by catching this other train while he was searching this one! All the gameness of his youth and profession rose up in him. Without stopping to thank his informer, he leaped like a hare along the little path which cut diagonally across this lone field and which was evidently well worn by human feet. As he ran he wondered whether the genial conductor could possibly have lied to him to throw him off the track, and also if his enemy, seeing him running, had discovered his error by now and was following, granting that the conductor had told him the truth. He looked back occasionally, taking off his coat and glasses as he ran, and even throwing away his cane. Apparently Collins was still searching the other train. And now Binns at the same time, looking eagerly forward toward the other station, saw a semaphore arm which stood at right angles to the station lower itself for a clear track for some train. At the same time he also spied a mail-bag hanging out on a take-post arm, indicating that whatever this train was and whichever way it might be going, it was not going to stop here. He turned, still uncertain as to whether he had made a mistake in not searching the other train. Supposing the conductor had deliberately fooled him! Suppose Collins had made some preliminary arrangements of which he knew nothing? Suppose he had! Supposing the burglar were really on there, and even now Collins was busy with the opening questions of his interview, while he was here, behind! Oh Lord, what a beat! And he would have no reasonable explanation to offer except that he had been outwitted. What would happen to him? He slowed up in his running, chill beads of sweat bursting out on his face as he did so, but then, looking backward, he saw the train begin to move and from it, as if shot out of a gun, the significant form of Collins leap down and begin to run along this same path. Then, by George, the robber was not on it, after all! The conductor had told him the truth! Ha! Collins would now attempt to make this other train. He had been told that the bandit was coming in on this. Binns could see him speeding along the path at top speed, his hat off, his hands waving nervously about. But by now Binns had reached the station a good three minutes ahead of his rival.

Desperately he ran into it, a tiny thing, sticking his eager perspiring face in at the open office window, and calling to the stout, truculent little occupant of it:

"When is the East-bound M.P. express due here?"

"Now," replied the agent surlily.

"Does it stop?"

"No, it don't stop."

"Can it be stopped?"

"No, it cannot!"

"You mean to say you have no right to stop it?"

"I mean I won't stop it."

As they spoke there came the ominous shriek of the express's whistle tearing on toward them. For the moment he was almost willing that Collins should join him if only he could make the train and gain this interview. He must have it. Waxby expected him to get it. Think of what a beat he would have if he won--what Waxby would think if he failed!

"Would five dollars stop it?" he asked desperately, diving into his pocket.

"No."

"Will ten?"

"It might," the agent replied crustily, and rose to his feet.

"Stop it," urged Binns feverishly, handing over the bill.

The agent took it, and grabbing a tablet of yellow order blanks which lay before him, scribbled something on the face of one and ran outside, holding it up at arm's length as he did so. At the same time he called to Binns:

"Run on down the track! Run after it. She won't stop here--she can't. She'll go a thousand feet before she can slow up. Get on down there, and after you're on I'll let 'er go."

He waved the yellow paper desperately, while Binns, all tense with excitement and desire, began running as fast as he could in the direction indicated. Now, if he were lucky, he would make it, and Collins would be left behind--think of it! He could get them to go ahead, maybe, before Collins could get aboard. Oh, my! As he ran and thought, he heard the grinding wheels of the express rushing up behind him. In a thought, as it were, it was alongside and past, its wheels shrieking and emitting sparks. True enough, it was stopping! He would be able to get on! Oh, glory! And maybe Collins wouldn't be able to! Wouldn't that be wonderful? It was far ahead of him now, but almost stock-still, and he was running like mad. As he ran he could hear the final gritty screech of the wheels against the brakes as the train came to a full stop farther on, and then coming up and climbing aboard, breathless and gasping painfully, he looked back, only to see that his rival had taken a diagonal course across the common, and was now not more than a hundred feet behind. He would make the train if he kept this up. It could scarcely be started quickly enough to leave him behind, even if Binns paid for it. Instead of setting himself to the stern task of keeping Mr. Collins off the train, however, as assuredly Mr. Collins would have done--with his fists or his feet, if necessary, or his money--Mr. Binns now hesitated, uncertain what to do. On the rear platform with him was a brakeman newly stepped forth and, coming out of the door, the conductor.

"Let her go!" he cried to the conductor. "Let her go! It's all right! Go on!"

"Don't that other fellow want to get on?" asked the latter curiously.

"No, no, no!" Binns exclaimed irritably and yet pleading. "Don't let him on! He hasn't any right on here. I arranged to stop this train. I'm from the Star. I'll pay you if you don't let him on. It's the train robber I want. Go ahead," but even as he spoke Mr. Collins came up, panting and wet, but with a leer of triumph and joy over his rival's discomfiture written all over his face as he pulled himself up the steps.

"You thought you'd leave me behind, didn't you?" he sneered as he pushed his way upward. "Well, I fooled you this time, didn't I?"

Now was the crucial moment of Mr. Binns's career had his courage been equal to it, but it was not. He had the opportunity to do the one thing which might have wrested victory from defeat--that is, push Mr. Collins off and keep him off. The train was beginning to move. But instead of employing this raw force which Mr. Collins would assuredly have employed, he hesitated and debated, unable in his super-refinement to make up his mind, while Mr. Collins, not to be daunted or parleyed with, dashed into the car in search of the robber. In the sudden immensity of his discomfiture, Binns now followed him with scarcely a thought for the moment, only to see Collins bustling up to the bandit in the third car ahead who, handcuffed to a country sheriff and surrounded by several detectives, was staring idly at the passengers.

"Gee, sport," the latter was saying as Mr. Binns sat down, patting the burglar familiarly on the knee and fixing him with that basilisk gaze of his which was intended to soothe and flatter the victim, "that was a great trick you pulled off. The paper'll be crazy to find out how you did it. My paper, the News, wants a whole page of it. It wants your picture, too. Say, you didn't really do it all alone, did you? Well, that's what I call swell work, eh, Cap?" and now he turned his ingratiating leer on the country sheriff and the detectives. In a moment or two more he was telling them all what an intimate friend he was of "Billy" Desmond, the chief of detectives of O-- and Mr. So-and-So, the chief of police, as well as various other dignitaries of that world.

Plainly, admitted Binns to himself, he was beaten now, as much so as this burglar, he thought. His great opportunity was gone. What a victory this might have been, and now look at it! Disgruntled, he sat down beside his enemy, beginning to think what to ask, the while the latter, preening himself in his raw way on his success, began congratulating the prisoner on his great feat.

"The dull stuff!" thought Mr. Binns. "To think that I should have to contend with a creature like this! And these are the people he considers something! And he wants a whole page for the News! My word! He'd do well if he wrote a half-column alone."

Still, to his intense chagrin, he could not fail to see that Mr. Collins was making excellent headway, not only with the country sheriff, who was a big bland creature, but the detectives and even the burglar himself. The latter was a most unpromising specimen for so unique a deed--short, broad-shouldered, heavy- limbed, with a squarish, inexpressive, even dull-looking face, blue-gray eyes, dark brown hair, big, lumpy, rough hands, and a tanned and seamed skin. He wore the cheap, nondescript clothes of a laborer, a blue "hickory" shirt, blackish-gray trousers, brownish-maroon coat, and a red bandana handkerchief in lieu of a collar. On his head was a small round brown hat pulled down over his eyes after the manner of a cap. He had the still, indifferent expression of a captive bird, and when Binns finally faced him and sat down, he seemed scarcely to notice either him or Collins, or if so with eyes that told nothing. Binns often wondered afterward what he really did think. At the same time he was so incensed at the mere presence of Collins that he could scarcely speak.

The latter had the average detective-politician-gambler's habit of simulating an intense interest and an enthusiasm which he did not feel, his face wreathing itself in a cheery smile, the while his eyes followed one like those of a hawk, attempting all the while to discover whether his assumed enthusiasm or friendship was being accepted at its face value or not. The only time Binns seemed to obtain the least grip on this situation, or to impress himself on the minds of the detectives and prisoner, was when it came to those finer shades of questioning which concerned just why, for what ulterior reasons, the burglar had attempted this deed alone. But even here, Binns noticed that his confrère was all ears, and making copious notes.

But always, to Binns's astonishment and chagrin, the prisoner as well as his captors paid more attention to Collins than they did to himself. They turned to him as to a lamp, and seemed to be really immensely more impressed with him than with himself, although the principal lines of questioning fell to him. After a time he became so dour and enraged that he could think of but one thing that would really have satisfied him, and that was to attack Collins physically and give him a good beating.

However, by degrees and between them, the story was finally extracted, and a fine tale it made. It appeared that up to seven or eight months preceding the robbery, possibly a year, Rollins had never thought of being a train robber but had been only a freight brakeman or yard-hand on this same road at one of its division points. Latterly he had even been promoted to be a sort of superior switchman and assistant freight handler at some station where there was considerable work of this kind. Previous to his railroad work he had been a livery stable helper in the town where he was eventually apprehended, and before that a farmhand somewhere near the same place. About a year before the crime, owing to hard times, this road had laid off a large number of men, including Rollins, and reduced the wages of all others by as much as ten per cent. Naturally a great deal of labor discontent ensued, and strikes, riots, and the like were the order of the day. Again, a certain number of train robberies which were charged and traced to discharged and dissatisfied employees now followed. The methods of successful train robbing were then and there so cleverly set forth by the average newspaper that nearly any burglar so inclined could follow them. Among other things, while working as a freight handler, Rollins had heard of the many money shipments made by express companies in their express cars, their large amounts, the manner in which they were guarded, and so on.

The road for which he worked at this time, the M.P., was, as he now learned, a very popular route for money shipments both East and West. And although express messengers (as those in charge of the car and its safe were called) were well and invariably armed owing to the many train robberies which had been occurring in the West recently, still these assaults had not been without success. Indeed, the deaths of various firemen, engineers, messengers, conductors, and even passengers, and the fact that much money had recently been stolen and never recovered, had not only encouraged the growth of banditry everywhere, but had put such an unreasoning fear into most employees connected with the roads that but few even of those especially picked guards ventured to give these marauders battle.

But just the same, the psychology which eventually resulted in this amazing single-handed attempt and its success was not so much that Rollins was a poor and discharged railroad hand unable to find any other form of employment, although that was a part of it, or that he was an amazingly cold, cruel and subtle soul, which he was not by any means, but that he was really largely unconscious of the tremendous risks he was taking. He was just mentally "thick"--well insulated, as it were. This was a fact which Binns had to bring out and which Collins noted. He had never, as it now developed, figured it out from the point of danger, being more or less lobster-like in his nervous organism, but solely from the point of view of success. In sum, in his idleness, having wandered back to his native region where he had first started out as a livery hand, he had now fallen in love with a young girl there, and then realizing, for the first time perhaps, that he was rather hard pressed for cash and unable to make her such presents as he desired, he had begun to think seriously of some method of raising money. Even this had not resulted in anything until latterly, another ex-railroad hand who had been laid off by this same company arrived and proposed, in connection with a third man whom he knew, to rob a train. At this time Rollins had rejected this scheme as not feasible, not wishing to connect himself with others in any such crime. Later, however, his own condition becoming more pressing, he had begun to think of train robbing as a means of setting himself up in life, only, as he reasoned, it must be alone.

Why alone? queried Binns.

That was the point all were so anxious to discover--why alone, with all the odds against him?

Well, he couldn't say exactly. He had just "kind o' sort o' thort," as he expressed it, that he might frighten them into letting him alone! Other bandits (so few as three in one case of which he had read) had held up large trains. Why not one? Revolver shots fired about a train easily frightened all passengers as well as all trainmen, so the other robbers had told him, and anyhow it was a life to death job either way, and it would be better for him, he thought, if he worked it out alone instead of with others. Often, he said, other men "squealed," or they had girls who told on them. He knew that Binns looked at him, intensely interested and all but moved by the sheer courage, or "gall," or "grit," imbedded somewhere in this stocky frame

But how could he hope to overcome the engineer, fireman, baggage man, express messenger, mailmen, conductor, brakeman and passengers, to say nothing of the Governor and his staff? How? By the way, did he know at the time that the Governor and his staff were on board? No, he hadn't known that until afterward, and as for the others, well, he just thought he could overawe them. Collins's eyes were luminous as Rollins said this, his face radiant. Far more than Binns, he seemed to understand and even approve of the raw force of all this.

The manner in which Rollins came to fix on this particular train to rob was also told. Every Thursday and Friday, or so he had been told while he was assistant freight handler, a limited which ran West at midnight past Dolesville carried larger shipments of money than on other nights. This was due to week-end exchanges between Eastern and Western banks, although he did not know that. Having decided on the train, although not on the day, he had proceeded by degrees to secure from one distant small town and another, and at different times so as to avoid all chance of detection, first, a small handbag from which he had scraped all evidence of the maker's name: six or seven fused sticks of giant powder such as farmers use to blow up stumps; two revolvers holding six cartridges each, and some cartridges; and cord and cloth, out of which he proposed to make bundles of the money if necessary. Placing all of these in his bag, which he kept always beside him, he next visited Dolesville, a small town nearest the spot which he had fixed on in his mind as the place for his crime, and reconnoitering it and its possibilities, finally arranged all his plans to a nicety.

Just at the outskirts of this hamlet, as he now told Binns and Collins, which had been selected because of its proximity to a lone wood and marsh, stood a large water-tank at which this express as well as nearly all other trains stopped for water. Beyond it, about five miles, was the wood with its marsh, where he planned to have the train stopped. The express, as he learned, was regularly due at about one in the morning. The nearest town beyond the wood was all of five miles away, a mere hamlet like this one.

On the night in question, between eight and nine, he carried the bag, minus its revolvers and sticks of giant powder, which were now on his person, to that exact spot opposite the wood where he wished the train to stop, and left it there beside the railroad track. He then walked back the five miles to the water-tank, where he concealed himself and waited for the train. When it stopped, and just before it started again, he slipped in between the engine tender and the front baggage car, which was "blind" at both ends. The train resumed its journey, but on reaching the spot where he felt sure the bag should be, he could not make it out. The engine headlight did not seem to reveal it. Fearing to lose his chance and realizing that he was at about the place where he had left it, he rose up, and climbing over the coal-box, covered the two men in the cab, and compelled them to stop the train, dismount and uncouple the engine. Then, revolver in hand, he drove them before him to the express car door where, presenting one with a fused stick of giant powder, he forced him to blow open the door; the messenger within, still refusing to open it although he would not fire, for fear of killing either the engineer or fireman. Both engineer and fireman, at his command, then entered the car and blew open the money safe, throwing out the packages of bills and coin at his word, the while Rollins, realizing the danger of either trainmen or passengers coming forward, had been firing a few shots backward toward the rear coaches so as to overawe the passengers, and at the same time kept calling to purely imaginary companions to keep watch there. It was these shots and calls that had presumably sent the Governor and his staff scurrying to their berths. They also put the fear of death into the minds of the engineer and fireman and messenger, who imagined that he had many confrères on the other side of the express car but for some reason, because he was the leader, no doubt, preferred to act alone.

"Don't kill anybody, boys, unless you have to," is what Rollins said he called, or "That's all right, Frank. Stay over there. Watch that side. I'll take care of these." Then he would fire a few more shots, and so all were deluded.

Once the express car door and safe had been blown open and the money handed out, he had now compelled the engineer and fireman to come down, recouple the engine, and pull away. Only after the train had safely disappeared in the distance did he venture to gather up the various packages, only since he had lost his bag and had no light, he had to fumble about and make a bag of his coat for them. With this over his shoulder, he eventually staggered off into the wood and marsh, concealing it under muck and stones, and then making for safety himself.

But, as it turned out, two slight errors, one of forgetfulness and one of eyesight, caused him to finally lose the fruit of his victory. The loss of the bag, in which he had first placed and then forgotten an initialed handkerchief belonging to his love, eventually brought about his capture. It is true that he had gone back to look for the bag, without, however, remembering that the handkerchief was in it, but fearing capture if he lingered too long, had made off after a time without it. Later a posse of detectives and citizens arriving and finding the bag with the initialed handkerchief inside, they were eventually able to trace him. For, experts meditating on the crime, decided that owing to the hard times and the laying-off of employees, some of the latter might have had a hand in it, and so, in due time, the whereabouts and movements of each and every one of them was gone into, resulting in the discovery finally that this particular ex-helper had returned rather recently to his semi-native town and had there been going with a certain girl, and that even now he was about to marry her. Also, it was said that he was possessed of unusual means, for him. Next, it was discovered that her initials corresponded to those on the handkerchief. Presto, Mr. Rollins was arrested, a search made of his room, and nearly all of the money recovered. Then, being "caught with the goods," he confessed, and here on this day was he being hurried to O-- to be jailed and sentenced, while Mr. Binns and Mr. Collins, like harpies, hovered over him, anxious to make literary capital of his error. The only thing that consoled Mr. Binns, now that this story was finally told, was that although he had failed to make it impossible for Collins to get it, when it came to the writing of it he would be able to outdo him, making a better and more connected narrative. Still, even here he was a little dubious. During this interview Collins had been making endless notes, putting down each least shade of Binns's questioning, and with the aid of one or several of the best men of the News would probably be able to work it out. Then what would be left?

But as they were nearing O-- a new situation intruded itself which soon threatened on the face of it to rob Binns of nearly, if not quite, all his advantage. And this related, primarily, to the matter of a picture. It was most essential that one should be made, either here or in the city, only neither Waxby nor himself, nor the city editor of the News apparently, had thought to include an artist on this expedition. Now the importance of this became more and more apparent, and Collins, with that keen sense he had for making tremendous capital of seeming by-products, suggested, after first remarking that he "guessed" they would have to send to police headquarters afterward and have one made:

"How would it do, old man, if we took him up to the News office after we get in, and let your friends Hill and Weaver make a picture of him?" (These two were intimates of Binns in the art department, as Collins happened to know.) "Then both of us could get one right away. I'd say take him to the Star, only the News is so much nearer" (which was true), "and we have that new flash-light machine, you know" (which was also true, the Star being but poorly equipped in this respect). He added a friendly aside to the effect that of course this depended on whether the prisoner and officers in charge were willing.

"No, no, no!" replied Binns irritably and suspiciously. "No, I won't do that. You mean you want to get him into the News office first. Not at all. I'll never stand for that. Hill and Weaver are my friends, but I won't do it. If you want to bring him down to the Star, that's different. I'll agree to that. Our art department can make pictures just as good as yours, and you can have one."

For a moment Collins's face fell, but he soon returned to the attack. From his manner one would have judged that he was actually desirous of doing Binns a favor.

"But why not the News?" he insisted pleasantly. "Those two boys are your friends. They wouldn't do anything to hurt you. Think of the difference in the distance, the time we'll save. We want to save time, don't we? Here it is nearly six-thirty, and by the time we get back to the office it'll be half-past seven or eight. It's all right for you, because you can write faster, but look at me. I'd just as lief go down there as not, but what's the difference? Besides the News has got a better plant, and you know it. Either Hill or Weaver'll make a fine picture, and they'll give you one. Ain't that all right?"

At once he sensed what it was that Collins wanted. What he really understood was that if Collins could get this great train robber into the office of the News first, it would take away so much of the sheer necessity he would be put to of repeating all he had heard and seen en route. For once there, other staff members would be able to take the criminal in hand and with the aid of what Collins had to report, extract such a tale as even Binns himself could not better. In addition, it would be such a triumph of reporting--to go out and bring your subject in!

"No, it's not," replied Binns truculently, "and I won't do it. It's all right about Hill and Weaver. I know they'll give me a picture if the paper will let them, but I know the paper won't let them, and besides, you're not doing it for that reason. I know what you want. You want to be able to claim in the morning that you brought this man to the News first. I know you."

For a moment Collins appeared to be quieted by this, and half seemed to abandon the project. He took it up again after a few moments, however, seemingly in the most conciliatory spirit in the world, only now he kept boring Binns with his eyes, a thing which he had never attempted before.

"Aw, come on," he repeated genially, looking Binns squarely in the eyes. "What's the use being small about this? You know you've got the best of the story anyhow. And you're goin' to get a picture too, the same as us. If you don't, then we'll have to go clear to your office or send a man down to the jail. Think of the time it'll take. What's the use of that? One picture's as good as another. And you can't take any good pictures down there to-night, anyhow, and you know it."

As he talked he held Binns's eyes with his own, and all at once the latter began to feel a curious wave of warmth, ease and uncertainty or confusion creep over him in connection with all this. What was so wrong with this proposition, anyhow, he began to ask himself, even while inwardly something was telling him that it was all wrong and that he was making a great mistake. For the first time in his life, and especially in connection with so trying a situation, he began to feel an odd sense of ease and comfort, or as if surrounded by a cloud of something that was comfortable and soothing. This scheme of Collins's was not so bad after all, he thought. What was wrong with it? Hill and Weaver were his friends. They would make a good picture and give him one. Everything Collins was saying seemed true enough, only, only-- For the first time since knowing him, and in spite of all his opposition of this afternoon and before, Binns found himself not hating his rival as violently as he had in the past, but feeling as though he weren't such an utterly bad sort after all. Curiously, though, he still didn't believe a word that Collins said, but--

"To the News, sure," he found himself saying in a dumb, half-numb or sensuously warm way. "That wouldn't be so bad. It's nearer. What's wrong with that? Hill or Weaver will make a good picture seven or eight inches long, and then I can take it along," only at the same time he was thinking to himself, "I shouldn't really do this. I shouldn't think it. He'll claim the credit of having brought this man to the News office. He's a big bluff, and I hate him. I'll be making a big mistake. The Star or nothing--that's what I should say. Let him come down to the Star."

In the meantime they were entering O--, the station of which now appeared. By now, somehow, Collins had not only convinced the officers, but the prisoner himself. Binns could even see the rural love of show and parade a-gleam in their eyes, their respect for the News, the larger paper, as opposed to the Star. The Star might be all right, but plainly the News was the great place in the sight of these rurals for such an exhibition as this. What a pity, he thought, that he had ever left the News!

As he arose with the others to leave the train he said dully, "No, I won't come in on this. It's all right if you want to bring him down to the Star, or you can take him to police headquarters. But I'm not going to let you do this. You hear now, don't you?"

But outside, Collins laying hold of his arm in an amazingly genial fashion, seemed to come nearer to him humanly than he had ever dreamed was possible before.

"You come up with me to the News now," Collins kept saying, "and then I'll go down with you to the Star, see? We'll just let Hill or Weaver take one picture, and then we'll go down to your place--you see?"

Although Mr. Binns did not see, he went. For the time, nothing seemed important. If Collins had stayed by him he could possibly have prevented his writing any story at all. Even as Binns dreamed, Collins hailed a carriage, and the six of them crowded into it and were forthwith whirled away to the door of the News where, once they had reached it and Collins, the detectives, and the bandit began hurrying across the sidewalk to that familiar door which once had meant so much to him, Binns suddenly awoke. What was it--the door? Or the temporary distraction of Collins? At any rate, he awoke now and made a frantic effort to retrieve himself.

"Wait!" he called. "Say, hold on! Stop! I won't do this at all. I don't agree to this!" but now it was too late. In a trice the prisoner, officers, Collins and even himself were up the two or three low steps of the main entrance and into the hall, and then seeing the hopelessness of it he paused as they entered the elevator and was left to meditate on the inexplicability of the thing that had been done to him.

What was it? How had this low brute succeeded in doing this to him? By the Lord, he had succeeded in hypnotizing him, or something very much like it. What had become, then, of his superior brain, his intellectual force, in the face of this gross savage desire on the part of Collins to win? It was unbelievable. Collins had beaten him, and that in a field and at a task at which he deemed himself unusually superior.

"Great heavens!" he suddenly exclaimed to himself. "That's what he's done, he's beaten me at my own game! He's taken the prisoner, whom I really had in my own hands at one time, into the office of our great rival, and now in the morning it will all be in the paper! And I allowed him to do it! And I had him beaten, too! Why didn't I kick him off the train? Why didn't I bribe the conductor to help me? I could have. I was afraid of him, that's what it is. And to-morrow there'll be a long editorial in the News telling how this fellow was brought first to the News and photographed, and they'll have his picture to prove it. Oh, Lord, what shall I do? How am I to get out of this?"

Disconsolate and weary, he groaned and swore for blocks as he made his way toward the office of the Star. How to break it to Waxby! How to explain! The exact truth meant disgrace, possibly dismissal. He couldn't tell really, as he had hoped he might, how he had all but prevented Collins from obtaining any interview. Waxby would have sniffed at his weakness in a crisis, put him down as a failure.

Reaching the office, he told another kind of story which was but a half truth. What he could and did say was that the police, being temperamentally en rapport with Collins, had worked with him and against the Star; that in spite of anything he could do, these rural officers and detectives had preferred to follow Collins rather than himself, that the superior position of the News had lured them, and that against his final and fierce protest they had eventually gone in there, since the News was on the natural route to the jail, and the Star was not.

Now it was Waxby's turn to rage, and he did--not at Binns, but at the low dogs of police who were always favoring the News at the expense of the Star. They had done it in the past, as he well knew, when he was city editor of the News. Then it had pleased him--but now--

"I'll fix them!" he squeaked shrilly. "I'll make them sweat. No more favors from me, by--," and rushing a photographer to the jail he had various pictures made, excellent ones, for that matter--only, what was the good? The fact that the News had the honor of making the first picture of this celebrity under its own roof, its own vine and fig-tree, was galling. As a matter of fact, Waxby by now was blaming himself for not having sent an artist along.

But to Binns the sad part was that Collins had him beaten, and that in the face of his self-boasted superiority. In spite of the fact that he might slave over the text, as he did, giving it, because of his despair and chagrin, all his best touches, still, the next morning, there on the front page of the News, was a large picture of the bandit seated in the sanctum sanctorum of the News, entirely surrounded by reporters and editors, and with a portion of the figure, although not the head, of the publisher himself in the background. And over it all in extra large type was the caption:

"LOAN TRAIN ROBBER VISITS OFFICE OF NEWS TO PAY HIS RESPECTS" while underneath, in italics, was a full account of how willingly he had visited the News because of its immense commercial, moral and other forms of superiority.

Was Binns beaten?

Well, rather!

And did he feel it?

He suffered tortures, not only for days, but for weeks and months, absolute tortures. The very thought of Collins made him want to rise and slay him.

"To think," he said over and over to himself, "that a low dog like Collins on whom I wouldn't wipe my feet intellectually, as it were, could do this to me! He hypnotized me, by George! He did! He can! Maybe he could do it again! I wonder if he knows? Am I really the lesser and this scum the greater? Do writers grow on trees?"!

Sad thought.

And some weeks later, meeting his old enemy one day on the street, he had the immense dissatisfaction of seeing the light of triumph and contempt in his eyes. The latter was so bold now, and getting along so well as a reporter, or "newspaper man," that he had the hardihood to leer, sniff and exclaim:

"These swell reporters! These high-priced ink-slingers! Say, who got the best of the train robber story, huh?"

And Binns replied--

But never mind what Binns replied. It wouldn't be fit to read, and no publisher would print it anyhow.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page