As Between Friends
Abimilech Fetcher sat upon the front stoop of the Parkins County courthouse, smoking a fretful pipe and paying no heed to the snow-lined breezes that searched his meager apparel. He gazed with eyes of gloom upon the frame houses and store buildings, standing like serrated teeth; his gaze traveled moodily on to the vast expanse of flat country which aproned the small but enthusiastic town of Advance, and against the far horizon he could see the windmills, flogged by a relentless eastern Colorado wind, waving wildly. Abimilech Fetcher, Sheriff of the County of Parkins aforesaid, was a study of gloom, done in heavy corpulent lines.
A tall, thin ragged young man, with a self-confident air and a lean, alert face, suddenly sketched himself into the picture and stood looking at Abimilech Fetcher, who returned the gaze morosely.
“Well,” said the young man finally, “I may be wrong, but if I was guessin’ and had just one guess, it’d be that there sits Chicago Fat, lookin’ as sad and forlorn as a millionaire in jail.”
The dull eye of Abimilech Fetcher slowly brightened. “It’s me,” he said. “And you might be Kid Switch.”
He arose and extended a cheerless fat hand. “Set down, Kid, set down, and tell me how come you to git shoved off en the main line.”
“You tell me what you’re doin’ here,” said Kid Switch. “I heard you’d quit hoboin’ some years back and had settled down somewheres, but this can’t be the where?”
“Yes,” replied Abimilech drearily, “this is it. I’m the sheriff. Also I’m a married man, with two children and a mortgage on my house, and I’m starvin’ to death right now, Kid.”
Kid Switch laughed uproariously.
“That’s it—laugh!” said Abimilech bitterly. “I’ve gotta notion to vag you. You’re the first feller that even looks like a possible prisoner I’ve seen in a year. Whatta you doin’ here, anyway, Kid?”
“On my way to San Francisco,” said Switch. “I didn’t know this was a branch line until I got here. I snared a freight train at the junction, havin’ been chased offen a varnished rattler, and I didn’t know I wasn’t pursuin’ the main haulage-way until I peeked out and saw this wide place in the road. And to think I’ve scairt you up—Chicago Fat—who usta be one of the grandest hoboes in the world!”
“It’s me, Kid,” said Abimilech. “And I thank you for them words. Sometimes I wisht I’d stuck to the road, but I got remorse and fat and et cetery and here I be, starvin’ to death. I was a good hobo—I was a good hobo when you was just a gay cat, and I might be a good one yet, barrin’ the fat.”
“Tell me what’s the trouble,” urged Switch, as he contemplated the stout figure and suppressed further hilarity.
“It’s the cussed fee system,” said Abimilech. “The sheriff has to make his livin’ off en fees. If he’s on the main line, like ole Tobias over here in the next county, he can arrest enough of you hoboes in the winter time to make money. We git paid a dollar a day for feedin’ prisoners and we kin feed ’em for ten cents a day, if we use judgment—that’s ninety cents profit. If you’ve got enough prisoners you kin git fat. If you ain’t got no prisoners, you starve, or go to work. I been sheriff two years, come next month, and I ain’t seen enough mally-facters to keep me in kerosene and other delicacies.”
“If you had, say twelve prisoners for, say, ten days each, would that help you any?” asked Kid Switch.
“Help?” said Abimilech. “Help? Say, Kid, it’d set me in swell! I’d perk up and take a reg’lar interest in life. But what’s the use o’ talkin’? How kin I git twelve prisoners? How kin I git any prisoners, when folks don’t violate the law, or if they do they’re friends o’ yourn and you dassen’t stick ’em?”
“I met Cleveland George yesterday and he tells me a bunch of the fellers are layin’ out the cold spell with your neighbor, Tobias,” said Switch.
“He’s a mean guy, is Tobias,” interrupted Abimilech. “Bein’ prosperous, he’s natchally mean.”
“Well, he’s all right to the tourists,” said Kid Switch. “And a dozen or more of them are hangin’ up with him for a coupla weeks. They’re nearly all ole time pals o’ yourn and mine and’d be glad to help you out if it was put to ’em right. We’ll call my end just half, if that’s satisfactory to you.”
“Talk sense, Kid,” urged the bewildered Abimilech. “I don’t git you. How’m I goin’ to git them fellers? Tobias ain’t goin’ to lend me any. He’s too blame stingy.”
“Listen,” said the Kid mysteriously. “But let’s find some place where it ain’t so crimpy around the edges.”
Sheriff John Tobias, of Queever County, had at least a nodding acquaintance with all the gentry of the break-beams who traveled from east to west a few years ago. The county seat of Queever County is a division point on a transcontinental railroad and during the year hundreds of nomadic individuals pass that way.
The Queever County jail is a rickety, but fairly comfortable structure and during bad weather it was the custom for the human birds of passage to lodge with Sheriff John Tobias and thus insure him, in return for good food and treatment, a prosperous business under the fee system.
He had a sort of gentleman’s agreement with the veterans of the rail that they might plead guilty to a charge of vagrancy before the only justice of the peace in the town and ten days was the limit of their sentences. Novices, who were sensitive in the matter of being called vagrants, but who desired shelter over a stretch of un-travelable weather, could plead to a charge of carrying concealed weapons—a razor being a weapon in those parts, and Sheriff John Tobias was obliging to the extent of furnishing the razor.
No one really had to remain in the Queever County jail; it was of such a frail texture that even a sparrow might have escaped without great difficulty. Half a dozen tunnels beneath the floor, leading to sunshine and liberty, told of the passing, in days gone by, of many an itinerant from the hands of less obliging officers than Sheriff John Tobias. In his regime, if a prisoner happened to be in a hurry, Tobias would permit him to go before the expiration of his term, via the front door, and would speed him on his way with words of cheer.
Through the years of his long tenure of office this arrangement endured, an indictment against the fee system, perhaps, but a source of comfort to those who traveled the western trails in that day. The town of Queever understood the situation, but when the jail was filled, plenty of supplies had to be purchased of the local merchants, for Tobias was content with small profits and treated his patrons liberally; the local merchants consequently favored the full county jail, particularly as the burden of taxation fell upon the balance of the county, which probably, did not fully understand.
Sheriff John Tobias was viewing the snowstorm from the window of the jail office with deep satisfaction; snow meant that his jail population would rest contented against the coming of warmer weather. The darkened skies, pinned down all around the horizon, foretold a long continued storm.
The office bell jangled shrilly and Sheriff Tobias opened the door to look upon the damp figure of Kid Switch, who had found a ten-mile tramp across the snow a bit more of a hardship than he had figured on. Only freight trains ran to Advance and they were few and far between.
“Well! Well!” said Sheriff Tobias heartily. “Come right in, Switch! I haven’t seen you in over a year. Come in, boy, you’ll find a lot of friends present, if you’re plannin’ to stay, and they’ll be mighty glad to see you.”
“I hope so,” said the Kid. “Stake me to some dry clothes, Sheriff; I’m as wet as a fish. I’m goin’ to hang up with you until it clears a little.”
“Yes, sir!” said the Sheriff, with the unction of a hotel clerk greeting a wealthy guest and leading the way to a big steel door, from behind which came a subdued murmur of voices. “You’ll find Red, and Gordon, and Kline, and Kilgallon, and the Philadelphia Shine and a lot of friends inside, Kid. Cleveland George left here yesterday. It’s a good winter for me, son.”
Kid Switch was familiar with the personnel of Tobias’ guests, having been enlightened by Cleveland George. He was prepared for the roar of greeting which arose when he stepped into the “bullpen” of the none too commodious jail. After having changed his wet clothing for capacious garments loaned by the sheriff, Switch took a careful inventory of those present and found that, besides nine whom he knew personally, there were three subdued-looking individuals. He diagnosed them as “natives.”
“They’re holdovers to the next term of the district court,” explained Kilgallon contemptuously. “Plain yaps charged with stealin’ cattle or some thin’. They ain’t even got sense enough to git out o’ this pokey and we use ’em to do the cleanin’ up. I thought you was on your way to the Coast, Kid?”
“I was,” replied Switch. “But I’ve stopped over to do a friend a turn. Bring all the fellers except them rubes around me and I’ll let you in on the play.”
“You all know the old Chicago Fat?” was his introductory remark as he squatted upon the floor and nine choice gentlemen who had carved their initials on every water tank between the coasts gathered about him. Most of them nodded, Kilgallon with emphasis.
“Ain’t he the guy that got up the hoboes’ convention?” he demanded. “Well, he done me dirt—”
“Never mind!” interrupted the Kid. “That’s past and gone. He’s in hard lines now.”
With vivid eloquence he painted a verbal picture of Abimilech Fetcher, once Chicago Fat, starving at his own hearthside, as it were; he etched in pathetic touches here and there which caused the inky face of Philadelphia Shine to wrinkle lugubriously.
“Fat was a good guy,” said Kid Switch. “He was always helpin’ someone else and now he’s in distress it seems to me we oughta remember them ole ties—ties of brotherhood and such, I mean—and go over there and give him a play for ten days so he can make his fees off en us. We can step out through one of the ole tunnels tonight and hike over there in no time.”
“No, sah!” dissented the Shine. “Ah ain’t makin’ no premedjutated changes. Dis hive suits me an’ Ah ain’ movin’ till mah rent comes due!”
“Shut up!” said Kid Switch savagely. “You’ll go if the rest do.”
“It ain’t a bad idea,” said Kline, a pallid young man who was known to the police between the two coasts as a hotel sneak thief, but who was, withal, romantic-looking and interesting. “We’ve been pretty good to ole Tobias. And after we stay at Fat’s for a week or so, if the weather is still bad, we can come back here and finish out with Tobe.”
Kilgallon, Jack Gordon, the Cincinnati Skin, Red, Henry Hennessey, One-Thumb Cafferty, George, the Greek and Heine Barr nodded grave approval.
“We’d better take them felons, too,” said Gordon. “They’ll help swell the count.”
“Them’s vallyble felons and Tobias thinks as much of them as he does of his right arm,” demurred Hennessey. “Supposin’ they’d beat it?”
“They’ve got a fat chance!” said Kid Switch. “We’ll take ’em right along and return ’em to Tobe when we git through. Set ’em to work cleanin’ out one of them tunnels now.”
Abimilech Fetcher doubted that Kid Switch would be able to carry out this plan successfully; long continued adversity had made Abimilech pessimistic, but he waited, nevertheless, in the rarely occupied bastille of Parkins County and amused himself playing solitaire as the night wore on. His teeth chattered as occasional wisps of wind sneaked through the chinks in the building and he shook his head dolefully as he looked about the bare quarters the thrifty commonwealth had designed for criminal habitation.
As compared to the county jail of Queever County, the Parkins place of incarceration was a shanty against a country villa. Queever County had at least provided heat and electric lights. Parkins County simply purchased a tier of steel cells, set them down upon the ground and walled them in with loosely laid brick. Lanterns were the source of whatever illumination was required.
“I never seen a worse one myself,” mused Abimilech. “And I’ve seen some bad ones. I never thought it looked so fierce before until it comes to offerin’ it to my friends.”
A shout aroused him from his shivering reverie and he opened the door to admit a terrific gust of wind and an assemblage of chilled and profane men.
“We’re here,” said Kid Switch, shaking a blanket of snow from his shoulders. “Maybe you think it ain’t some job herdin’ three felons through ten miles of snow, specially when they know the country and have a yen to go home. And that coon there—” He turned a baleful eye upon Philadelphia Shine who snuffled damply in a corner.
“He bus’ me in the nose,” whined the Shine dolorously.
Abimilech Fetcher was engaged in shaking hands with friends of another day. A pang of remorse bit at his vitals as he found himself surrounded by faces he had been more than glad to see in times gone by, and Kilgallon almost forgot the discomfort of that long march over the snow as he held a passage in rough repartee with Abimilech.
“I suttinly appreciates your kindness, fellers,” said the Sheriff. “I suttinly do. Now if you’ll step into them cells two in each, I’ll bed you down for the night.”
“Ah doan lak dis place,” sniffled the Shine. “Ah reckon Ah’ll go back to Mista Tobe’s.”
“Second the motion!” said One-Thumb Cafferty, who had been investigating the tiny cells.
At that moment the front door again opened and admitted two stalwart individuals whose coats bulged ominously and who wore gleaming stars upon their bosoms. Abimilech was relieved. He had become slightly alarmed over the tardiness of these efficient farm hands whom he had impressed as deputies that afternoon and whom he had instructed to hasten to the jail upon the arrival of any strangers. His manner changed. He looked as stern as it is possible for a fat man to look.
“Silence!” he roared. “Jail rules prohibit talkin’. Officers, put ’em in their cells!” he added, turning to the newcomers.
Kid Switch looked at Abimilech, startled.
“You ain’t goin’ to double-cross me?” he whispered.
“Ah-h-h,” said Abimilech. “Of course not.”
He personally escorted Switch into a small cell near the door and locked him up by himself.
“You’re a swell actor, ’bo,” he whispered. “They ain’t on.”
As the locks clicked behind the prisoners, Gordon shouted, “Turn on some heat, will you?”
“Heat!” bellowed Abimilech. “They ain’t no heat! Lessee, you’re Gordon, ain’t you? I know a man what looks like you who would interest some people in Oskaloosa.”
Gordon subsided immediately.
“Hey, you!” bawled Red Hennessey bitterly. “What about that church door welcome mat that got lost in Sacramento when you was there last?”
Abimilech went close to the door of the cell and hissed: “Statoot of limentations, Red: statoot of limentations. But maybe I kin dig up some place where the statoot ain’t run agin Henry Hennessey.”
Whereupon Red became strangely silent.
“If these guys git to chewin’ the rag with you, just git some pails o’ cold water and throw it in on them,” instructed Abimilech to his deputies, as he took his departure.
Then the night wore on in cold silence, broken only by the intermittent comment of the guards upon the weather and the prospective crops. The prisoners sat hunched up in their chilly cells whispering schemes of vengeance not only upon Abimilech Fetcher, but upon that incarnation of misguided philanthropy, Kid Switch, who slept the sleep of the just and innocent beneath a large country quilt which Abimilech had thoughtfully left in his cell.
Morning brought a succession of incidents, including some underdone beans and an apology for coffee. Abimilech also arrived accompanied by an aged bewhiskered individual who wore an air of vast solemnity and carried an enormous book.
Abimilech called him “Judge.” A table was placed in the narrow corridor before the cells and Abimilech seated the tottering judge thereat with much ceremony. Then the judge opened his book, scanned the pages through gigantic horn spectacles and read: “John Doe, alias George Kilgallon.”
“That’s this wicked-lookin’ murderer here,” said Abimilech, indicating the peaceful Kilgallon. “Stand up, you Doe, alias Kilgallon! This is your trial!”
“Who’d I resist and who’d I assault?” roared Kilgallon.
The judge was evidently deaf, as Abimilech bawled
in his ear: “He says he’s guilty and that you’re a ——— ole fool.”
“Hey!” howled Kilgallon, in wild remonstrance.
“Six months!” piped the judge, making an entry in his book.
“Richard Roe, alias the Philadelphia Shine,” he read next. “Assault with a deadly weapon and attempt to commit arson.”
“Ah wants a mouthpiece! Ah wants a lie-er!” yelled the Shine in a great dismay.
“He says he’s guilty,” bellowed Abimilech into the whiskers of the Court.
“Ninety days,” said the judge.
Hennessey got three months on a charge of stealing chickens; One-Thumb Cafferty got sixty days on a charge of disturbance; the three felons were given twenty days each for vagrancy and all the others received varying sentences on various charges without having the opportunity of saying a word. Some turmoil arose, as they endeavored to voice their protests, but the deputies secured buckets of water and quelled the incipient disturbance by a dumb show of throwing it over the already half-frozen prisoners.
“Kid Switch,” said the judge finally. “You are charged with carrying concealed weapons!”
“Not guilty!” shouted the Kid from the depths of his cell, where he was still buried beneath the quilt.
“This man’s a dangerous character,” yelled Abimilech. “You’d better get rid of him.”
“Two hours to leave town,” squeaked the old man and then the procession filed out, while the prisoners babbled wildly. Abimilech stopped long enough to unlock Kid Switch’s cell.
“You don’t want to let dark ketch you here,” he warned.
“You don’t want to let me ketch you anywhere!” howled Gordon from his cell, regardless of the deputies, and there was a hoarse growling from the other prisoners,
Outside the jail door, Abimilech handed Kid Switch a package of yellow bills. “That represents every cent I could borry,” he said. “It means a second mortgage on my house and everything else. I didn’t like to hand it to the gang so hard, but I can’t let this good thing get away from me. It’ll never happen again. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when them parties gits out.”
“Don’t worry,” said the Kid lightly. “I can square it with them.”
“Square it!” said Abimilech. “What a chance! You better beat it out o’ town now, before some of the citizens take a shot at you on general principles. Square it! What a nerve!”
“Good-bye,” said Kid Switch blithely. “You won’t hear from me for quite a while.”
And then he set off, kicking the snow before him in little flurries and Sheriff Abimilech Fetcher looked at the jail with a complacent grin.
“Here’s where I either git rich or bankrupt the county,” he said. “I may have give it to ’em a little strong, but a feller has got to snatch his opportunities nowadays. I suppose I will have to give ’em some heat.”
When Sheriff John Tobias found his jail depopulated he did not immediately notify the citizens. He sat down to think the matter over. By creating tumult, the people might become cognizant of a laxity of vigilance around the bastille which would hardly redound to the credit of the sheriff. Besides, Tobias felt that the strange exodus was no common jail break.
Fresh snow had fallen during the night and the ground gave no clue. No train had passed through since the preceding day, owing to blockades, and it was quite cold. Tobias was satisfied that his guests would not have undertaken travel in such weather simply because of a sudden desire for freedom.
“Them boys wouldn’t a-took my felons,” he argued. “They wouldn’t let no ornery cattle thieves go with them.”
So the old sheriff sat quiet and pondered the matter throughout the day. The light of information broke upon him along in the evening and the people were aroused by the clamor of a huge bell in the tower of the courthouse, used to apprise the public of trouble and festivity. The citizens hurried to the courthouse, carrying lanterns, guns and pitchforks, to find Sheriff John Tobias waiting on the steps of the building.
As soon as he could secure order, the sheriff made public an address.
“My friends,” he said, “they’s been a jail burglary. My prisoners, including felons what stole cattle on the Piedras, was stole out of my jail by Abimilech Fetcher, Sheriff of Parkins County, who now holds them without warrant o’ law in his jail. He larcenied my prisoners, bag and baggage, including them felons, well known the same to be then and there my pussonel property and the goods and chattels o’ Queever County. He figgers to collect fees offen his ill-gotten gains from the County o’ Parkins, which never has no prisoners, because no prisoner would ever become such thereabouts if he had any sense. Shell this town stand for such injestice, my friends? I don’t think it shell. Shell it allow my jail to be burglarized and my prisoners stolen away to fatten the fee account o’ Abimilech Fetcher? I don’t think it shell.”
The crowd yelled: “No, no!”
“Then, my friends,” said Sheriff John Tobias, “I want volunteers to go with me and rescue them poor prisoners from the clutches of the rapscallion Fetcher.”
Forty or fifty men stepped forward with alacrity.
“Come on!” shouted Tobias.
In twenty minutes a weird procession of horsemen, light buggies and footmen was streaming across the snow towards Advance, clamoring for the blood of Abimilech Fetcher.
Arriving at the county seat of Parkins County and finding the town asleep, the citizens of Queever lost no time in assailing the jail. The prisoners, who had put in a wretched day, were vastly alarmed, fearing that they were to be the victims of mob violence, but when they saw Sheriff Tobias leading a charge through the shattered door, they set up a cheer of welcome. Abimilech’s deputies disappeared with amazing rapidity.
A general reunion was in progress inside and outside the jail, the three felons being the only persons present not transported with joy at the turn of events, when Abimilech Fetcher, in a state of great dishevelment. rushed upon the scene.
“Hey! Whatta you doin’ with my prisoners?” he roared at Sheriff Tobias. “It’s agin the law!”
“Your prisoners! I like your nerve!” said Tobias. “Whose prisoners be you gents?” he asked of the assembled jailbirds.
“Yours!” they cried in chorus.
“Come on, then, let’s go home,” said Tobias.
The prisoners assembled with alacrity, Abimilech viewed the proceedings with a feeling of dismay. Then a thought occurred to him.
“Lemme ask you one thing, Tobias,” he said. “How’d you find out where them people was?”
“Why,” said Tobias, “Kid Switch, he told me. I give him fifty dollars for the information. He wouldn’t let it out until I paid him the money, either. What’s the matter, ’Bimilech!”