The Escape of Convict 1836
Whirling dust devils danced down the sun-baked road. The heat from a brazen sky beat on the head of the man concealed in a clump of summer-dried bushes. The heavy woolen garb of the State prison clung to his bulky shoulders, which seemed to steam under the fierce sun.
Eight hours before, he had crawled into the shelter of the brush, and he had at least eight hours to wait. He was afraid to sleep, had sleep been possible in the overpowering heat. He knew that the chase was on.
There was reason enough to pursue Convict 1836, now free, aside from the fact that in a house without the prison walls a widow mourned a dead guard.
The escape had been planned carefully, and so far each detail had worked out perfectly. Except the dead guard. That had been one of the contingencies considered probable but hoped improbable. However, what was, was, and the man dismissed the thought. He was to be hanged anyway.
The road was empty of traffic. It was a short cut through a mountain pass from the main highway. Rarely used, it was chosen by the man's friends. That morning at dawn he had drawn back, eyes gleaming hatred and the defiance of a wolf at bay, as he watched a car of guards drive madly down the road in the direction of Bayfield. The convict had lived there, so it was the first place of search. The man almost laughed at the simplicity of their reasoning.
For hours he lay still in his thin cover of brush, fearing to seek the cooler shadows of the scrubby willows he could see in the hollow just below him. The guards might return. He tried to review the details of his further flight. The car would come for him at eight that night; they would detour around Bayfield to Edgewood. He wondered who would drive the car—they hadn't told him.
But it was too hot to think. He had to find shade. The thin mesquite offered no protection from the sun now high overhead. And those willows looked so cool. He decided to try for them.
Cautiously he began to work his way down through the scrub growth. He was afraid to leave the bushes and to keep behind them he couldn't rise to his feet. Once he slipped and rolled down a little gully. A sharp flint at the bottom gashed his head.
The blood from the cut mingled with the streaked grime on his face. With oaths he removed the spines of a prickly pear from an incautious hand. The trip of the night before was as nothing to the slow crawl through the all-too-thin fringe of brush.
Finally he slipped into the clumps of willows. Luxuriously, he buried his face in the rank grass—growth of the recent spring rains. He stretched himself at length and reached for his cigarettes. Then he remembered he couldn't risk a smoke.
But it was almost cool here anyway. He sat up and looked around. A depression hid him from the road if he kept his head down. The leaves hid him from overhead observation. He lifted his head above the ridge and inspected the growth on the other side of the road.
Then he saw it. It was the reflection of the sunlight on the tail lamp of an automobile, drawn up in the bushes. Now he could make out the shape of the car behind the curtain of leaves. How had it come there? It hadn't arrived since he had.
Why should anyone leave a car there?
When was the owner coming back? Suppose he arrived when Slim Bates came for him. Then this other car might take up the pursuit, and he would be taken back. Everyone knew he was out now, and they knew about the guard too.
He cursed. Why was anyone using this road? It wasn't a highway. There weren't even any ranches on it. Probably it was only a joyrider who had smashed up his car, and it would stay there for a day or two.
But that explanation didn't satisfy. The man could see that other car pursuing him. He knew his friends would send a racing car, and they could outrun that thing in the bushes. But the police might see the race. And then where would he be? Even now there might be someone waiting behind that screen of leaves.
The car preyed on his mind. The convict tried to turn his back on it— to forget it. But always he returned to gaze on it and vision the pursuit through the night. He had to do something.
Like a sprinter he drew himself up on his finger-tips. Like a streak of dirty gray he hurled himself across the road to fall panting beside the car. With a twist he rolled into the brush. Fearing almost to breathe, he lay still. But there was no stir in the car. The whir of a winging grasshopper was the only sound other than his own labored breathing.
With infinite caution the man edged his way up to the front of the car. Carefully he raised himself to his knees. Now that he was there what was he going to do? He was not familiar with the mechanism of automobiles, but he knew the engine was the source of its trouble as well as its power. He had seen Slim Bates working on a flivver once, and he had lifted the hood.
Slowly he released the catches of the hood of this car that stood between him and liberty. Gently he raised it until the engine was revealed. Then he looked with bewilderment at the unfathomed mysteries before him. Baffled, he couldn't decide what to do. Wires led everywhere, and the thing seemed enclosed in an impassable casing of iron.
But the wires were open. With teeth showing in rage, he caught them where they led from the fuse-board and tore them loose. There was the ferocity of murder in the strength that broke the set screws from the board.
"Now get me," he snarled as he lowered the hood into place.
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The Long, Dangerous Ride
Robert Emmet Long was in a hurry. He didn't like driving at night, particularly through the Bayfield cutoff. About half a mile from the main highway his lights blinked twice, then went out. There was a screech of protesting brakes as he brought the car to a stop.
"Wait till I get that garage man," Long groaned as he climbed out. The trouble wasn't much. Just a loose connection and in a few minutes he had found it. The lights blinked several times, then settled into a steady glow.
"Thank God, you got here, bo'. Where's Slim Bates?"
Long's nerves were good, but he almost sent the car crashing into a gully at the roadside as the question came to him from the rear seat.
Who was it? How had he got there? What did Slim Bates have to do with it? Everyone knew of Bates, the fixer and friend of crooks in Bay field. Who would be waiting silently in the cutoff for a car sent by Slim Bates? There must be some sinister reason.
And the back of Long's neck crawled as he remembered the afternoon paper. It had told of the escape of a convict awaiting action on a hopeless plea for a reprieve for murder. He had killed a guard. Could he be the man behind him? It couldn't be anyone else, and Long thanked the gods of chance for the darkness that hid him. He didn't dare turn. He could feel the double murderer behind him with a gun at his back, awaiting some move. But he had to do something.
"Just a minute, this is a bad stretch of road here," Long replied, trying to collect his thoughts.
His way out lay through Slim. He had to take a chance.
"Slim is waiting for you. He was afraid to try it himself," Long tried desperately to be matter of fact. Would he get away with it?
The convict peered at the man who was now driving the car madly through the night. He didn't look like a friend of Slim's. And this sedan, richly upholstered, wasn't the kind of car he had expected.
"Where'd he get you? I never saw you before."
Where did Slim get him? Long sought for an answer. He had never seen Slim Bates. He knew him only by reputation.
"No, you haven't seen me before. Slim got me so the officers wouldn't suspect anything. I owe him a big favor for getting me out of trouble once."
It sounded reasonable enough, but the man on the back seat wasn't sure. Slim ought to have come himself. However, this man had given him the signal with the lights—two flashes.
"Well, if Slim sent you I guess it's all right. It had better be. Where's Slim goin' to meet me? Edgewood?"
Long almost sighed his relief. At last he had something to go ahead on. Edgewood was the meeting place then. If he could get him to Edgewood he might find a wav out.
"Where's my clothes?"
Again Long took a chance.
"At the Edgewood Hotel."
"How in hell am I goin' to get in any hotel in this stuff?" and the convict tore savagely at his prison jacket.
Again Long felt that crawling sensation at the back of his neck. There was menace in his tone. How could he get to the officers before the hotel was reached? But he thanked the dealer who had sold him the cap and long dust coat under the back seat.
"I was afraid to bring too much. You'll find a long coat and a cap under that seat you're sitting on. Roll up your trousers and put them on. Just as soon as you get to my room, I'll get your clothes."
Grumblingly, the convict dug the coat and cap from under the back seat as the car lurched on through the night. The guy might be an outsider, but he sure could drive, and Slim had sent him. The man settled down comfortably and thought of that car back in the bushes— the car that wouldn't be able to pursue him. He could smoke now, and he did.
Long was driving faster than he had ever driven before, but the speed was slow compared to his racing brain. What was he to do? The convict was armed. He had shot down a guard. Perhaps he didn't know the road to Edgewood, and Long might turn off the Bayfield when he reached the highway. How could he find out?
Then, too, there was the real car Slim Bates was sending after him. Perhaps that was roaring down the road behind him even now. Apparently it had been due just when he arrived.
He stepped on the accelerator as the car started to climb the last grade where the cutoff joined the main highway. The lights of Edgewood would be in sight then, and he would have to decide quickly whether to try the run for Bayfield. The car reached the top of the grade and shot down the road at a speed that drove the convict against the back of the car.
"Slow down, bo', slow down," came the harsh command from the back seat. "Do you want one of these Bayfield speed cops stopping us? They used to hang around here."
Long's question was answered. He had to keep on to Edgewood.
The man on the rear seat stirred uneasily. Why was Slim getting so careful? And if he couldn't come himself, why did he have to pick an outsider? This one could drive all right, but he didn't like it. He'd tell Slim so when he met him.
"Where'd you say Slim was going to meet me?" he asked again.
"At the Edgewood Hotel; I will have to go for him." Long had to stick by his story.
The convict didn't like the idea of the hotel. Why didn't Slim pick out one of the regular hangouts?
"How you goin' to get me in that hotel? I can't go through the front. Slim must be crazy sending me to a hotel where the bulls could find me without lookin'."
Why had Slim picked out a hotel? It didn't seem natural. Again Long took a chance.
"A hotel is just the place they wouldn't look for you. It's too public. I'll take you up the back way."
"And have everybody asking why. No you don't."
"No one will see you but the porter, and he knows me. I live there." If he could get the man to his room he might find a way. That menacing tone behind him had driven out any thought of attempting to hail an officer.
"Well, see that you keep to the dark streets. I don't like this much," and the convict's tone carried dread.
They were in the outskirts of Edgewood, and the man on the back seat pulled the cap down over his eyes and huddled into a comer. His eyes never left Long's hands as they gripped the steering wheel. He wasn't quite sure of this driver, even though he talked so smoothly.
And Long gave up hope of being stopped by a policeman. That first caution about driving had been sufficient. He was going carefully now. Through side streets and up alleys he drove and he twisted and turned by devious ways. Long could not shake off the thought of Slim Bates following close behind. Finally he brought the car to a stop.
In an instant the convict was leaning over him, and Long's vision of the revolver at his back was a reality.
"What are you doin'?" he demanded. A nameless iron door showed under the glare of a light. Iron doors meant barred windows to the man who had done murder to escape them. And there was murder in his voice now.
"This is the back door of the Edgewood Hotel," and Long struggled to keep his voice steady. "Wait until I get the porter."
"Don't you leave me. Just knock until he comes."
So, Long knocked and prayed that no questions would be asked by whoever opened it. Eventually the knock was answered, and a negro stuck his head out. The convict settled back in his seat, but Long could still feel in memory the ominous thrust of the revolver muzzle.
"Whacha want?" the porter demanded. "Howdy, Mista Long, I didn't reekugnize you. Is they anythin' the mattah?"
"Nothing, Julius. Just a friend of mine in an accident, and I want to take him upstairs the back way to my room."
"Come right on in. It's suttinly too bad. Is you hurt much?" and Julius looked with amazement at the dust- covered, blood-streaked man who accompanied Long. But the negro went without an answer as he took them up in the freight elevator.
The corridors were empty as Long led the way to his room.
"Slim said not to telephone, but to come for him," Long said when they were inside. "You wash up, and I'll go get him."
"Looka here. I don't like this. Slim ain't actin' right."
"He figured it out as the best way. I'm risking my neck helping you now. You will have to fight it out with Slim. I'd take you out, but Slim said he would bring your clothes when I got you here. You can't wear mine." The convict didn't reply as he felt the constriction of the dust coat across his burly shoulders.
"Make yourself comfortable. I'll bring Slim back with me," Long started for the door.
"Well, see't you make it snappy," and the convict threw himself onto the bed.
He stretched himself luxuriously. This was something like. He was almost free now. Slim would have the rest of it all arranged. He burrowed his way down into the softness of the bed. How tired he was. That guy who brought him here wasn't so bad, after all. He would tell him so when he came back. He thought at first he'd made a mistake. But old Slim knew what he was doing, and now Slim was coming. Nothing further to worry about.
A knock on the door roused him from a doze. Sleepily he rose to his feet. Slim was here, and soon he could go to bed for a week.
He crossed the room hastily and opened the door.
With mouth agape he stared into a revolver in the hands of a detective.
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Slim Bates Cursed
Back in the Bayfield cutoff Slim Bates raised the hood of his car, drawn into the bushes at the side of the road, and cursed. Every connection had been torn loose from the fuse-board.
~ The End ~