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The Madras Railway
The dusty, sunbaked train of the Madras Railway rumbled across the long bridge over the Kistna River and came to a halt at Bezwada. Smith of the Criminal Intelligence Department of India threw open the door of his first-class compartment and strolled indolently through the throng of shouting natives toward the station restaurant. Shrill-voiced pawnee-wallahs lugged their skins of water from window to window of the third-class carriages and sweetmeat venders cried the virtues of their confections as they held their trays aloft.
It was an old story to Smith and one might have thought that he paid no attention whatever to his surroundings. He gave no sign of interest but in reality he was keenly interested. Three times during the last ten days had his life been attempted. It was well for him to be on the alert.
After a light tiffin Smith sauntered up and down the platform for a few minutes before the train was due to resume its long journey to Calcutta. He was the only white man among the crowds of natives. Indeed there were only two first-class compartments on the entire train. One of these—directly in rear of Smith’s compartment—was reserved for ladies. An unusually old ayah scuttled backwards and forwards between this compartment and the restaurant. She was busy with refreshments for her mistress, who preferred not to leave the train and who kept her blinds drawn against the curious gaze of the natives.
Sharp toots of warning from the engine caused Smith to turn abruptly and enter his compartment. As he closed the door behind him he heard it opened again and he turned like a flash to ascertain the cause. Unexpected occurrences had come to have ominous significance for him of late.
What Smith saw upon turning, however, did not seem very dangerous. He was a dapper, little man who entered, smooth shaven and far from strong in physical appearance. He threw his topee into the rack for small parcels and sat down upon the seat opposite to the one upon which Smith’s kit was lying. No word was spoken. White men who live in India do not talk much without a formal introduction.
Smith paid as little outward attention to his new traveling companion as he had paid to the throngs of natives upon the station platform. As the train gathered way he stretched himself full length upon his seat and lighted a cigarette. Notwithstanding his apparent indifference, however, Smith had noted several things which the ordinary observer might have failed to perceive. Instinctively he felt that the little man had attempted to display an easy manner that he did not feel when he threw the topee into the rack.
Smith felt that the act was an attempt at nonchalance and was not genuine. He noted, too, that the man had no native servant which is unusual for the first-class traveler of the East. In addition to this the eyes of the little man had a story to tell. They were not straight eyes. They were shifty and it was Smith’s profession to read eyes.
He closed his own as he tossed his cigarette out of the window, but opened them again at once. The man on the opposite seat was looking at Smith and he was looking at Smith’s eyes.
Smith stretched wearily and settled a pillow more comfortably as if preparing for a snooze. The shifty eyes had darted away and the little man busied himself in examining the rush screen in the center window upon his side which is constructed so that water may drip downward and cool the air by evaporation.
Smith observed the sudden interest in something other than himself and read the action once more as not being genuine. Again he closed his eyes and it was impossible to see that they fluttered open just far enough for observation. It was hot and sultry and sleep comes easily and unexpectedly under these conditions. Smith knew this and he knew that his life might depend upon his remaining awake. He might be wrong but his life of adventure had taught him the value of deduction combined with intuition. Previously the man he was hunting had sent natives to kill him. Now he had sent another white man. If Smith could last out long enough the man himself would come and then the battle would be decided once and for all—one way or the other.
The man on the seat opposite soon lost interest in the automatic cooler. He drew a small book from his pocket and settled back as if to read. As the train rattled on along the Madras coast the reader’s eyes glanced over the top of his book at the tall man stretched silently upon the seat. Gradually Smith’s breathing became deeper and more uniform. Once the little man dropped his book but the breathing did not alter. A minute or two afterwards he rose from his seat and took a pace toward Smith, only to sit down again very suddenly as the door of the tiny servants’ compartment opened.
Langa Doonh’s spotless white livery and towering turban were as immaculate on board train as they were when standing behind his master’s chair at a dinner party. It was one of Langa Doonh’s secrets—and he had many since he had entered the service of Smith sahib. Other servants might be dirty when they traveled and none too clean at any time, but Langa Doonh was the servant of Smith sahib who was the greatest sahib in all India—to Langa Doonh.
To all appearances it made no difference whether the little man had sat down leisurely or hurriedly. He might have been a thousand miles away for all the attention he was accorded by the servant who had so suddenly entered the compartment. Silently, with bare feet, he moved about. With a small whisk he cleaned every inch of floor upon his master’s side of the compartment and not an inch did he touch upon the stranger’s side. With mathematical precision he adjusted Smith’s cigarettes, matches and watch which lay upon the small table at his head. This finished he withdrew to his own compartment and closed the door without the slightest sound.
Five minutes followed, during which Smith’s even breathing continued and the stranger read but failed to turn a page of his book. At the end of that time the little man dropped one hand into his side pocket. No longer was he looking at the book, although it was still held in his left hand. His eyes narrowed as they gazed hard at the prostrate man whose steady breathing showed no sign of altering. Little by little the right hand came out of the pocket and with it emerged a black automatic. It was half out when Smith spoke.
“Put it on the seat beside you and be careful not to point the muzzle this way.”
Smith’s eyes were open and over his leg was pointing the barrel of a gun quite as black and formidable as the stranger’s. Quickly the little man obeyed and, dropping his book, sat motionless. There was nothing else to do.
The door of the servants’ compartment stood open and Langa Doonh regarded the scene as if automatic pistols were matters of ordinary occurrence in his life.
“Cigarette aur dyasali lao,” drawled Smith.
Carefully the boy reached for the cigarettes and matches. Extracting a single cigarette he placed it in the disengaged hand of his master and, lighting a match, applied it to the cigarette when Smith was ready. Not once did he come between the muzzle of his master’s gun and the man opposite. For an instant he hesitated and then returned to his own compartment, closing the door once more.
“Why shouldn’t I clean my pistol?” asked the stranger, who had had time to think a little.
“Because I got mine out first,” snapped Smith. “Pass yours over with the muzzle toward yourself.”
The man shrugged his shoulders and obeyed.
“Stand up, turn your back and grip the rack above your head with both hands,” ordered Smith.
Smith rose and searched the man but found nothing beyond a railroad ticket to Calcutta and a few rupee notes of low denomination. He reached up and took one of the man’s hands off the rack in order to examine a curious turquoise ring. He slipped the ring off the finger but returned it upon finding no initials upon the inside. Shoving the man down into his seat in no gentle manner Smith resumed his reclining position as if the affair had lost interest for him.
“What’s your name?” he queried indifferently.
There was no answer from the stranger, who remained inert and crumpled in the corner of his seat where he had been jammed.
“It doesn’t matter,” continued Smith. “Go to your master and tell him that the wholesale stealing of jewels in India for sale to tourists in Ceylon must stop. He knows that I caught his best agent in Ceylon and that his business is already crippled. Tell him that it will only be a matter of time before I catch him and that I may not bother to take him alive since he has sent so many people to put me out of the way.”
“You mean that I am free to go?” asked the little man in surprise.
“Uh-huh,” said Smith.
“Now, if you like,” was the careless reply.
Suddenly the eyes of the little man gleamed. Rising, he darted to the door, opened it and stepped out.
The train was crawling up an incline and there was a sandy embankment beside the roadbed. Smith did not even trouble himself to look out.
“Boy!” he called.
“Sahib?” replied the native servant, who had opened his door instantly.
Unconcernedly the native closed the door which the dapper little man had left open when he stepped out. What mattered it to Langa Doonh if his master had seen fit to throw another sahib out of the compartment? It was quite proper for his master to do such a thing but it would be highly improper for him to bother closing the door afterwards so long as he, Langa Doonh, was present.
Alone once more Smith again lay back upon his pillow and reflected upon the situation. Was his course of action best suited to bring out the man he wanted? Would the head of the organization of thieves attempt a personal blow when so many of his agents continued to fail? Did he lack personal courage or was he, perhaps, known to Smith and feared recognition in the event of a failure to kill? These and similar thoughts occupied the mind of the man upon the carriage seat until he was suddenly interrupted in a most unexpected manner.
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The Sobbing Woman
Leaping to his feet Smith pressed an ear against the thin partition which separated his compartment from the one in the rear. Above the noise of the train he had distinctly heard a feminine shriek. Again, with his ear against the wood, he heard the high-pitched agonized call of a woman. The screams changed quickly to a low groaning which could scarcely be distinguished and then only the rattle of the train remained.
For an instant Smith reached for the chain of the emergency alarm but, changing his mind, opened the door and leaned out. It was before the time that the Government did away with the running-boards on account of the number of murders by assassins who crept along the outside of trains and struck through the open windows at those who slept.
Smith glanced at the foot-board with a question in his eyes. It was possible—just possible—that the little man had not jumped off the train, after all. With care he could have bent low and crept back along the train. Would he have dared to attack a woman so close to an agent of the Criminal Intelligence Department? Smith thought not. Was it a trap? It seemed impossible.
No matter what might be the explanation, a woman in distress had called—and Smith swung himself out upon the running-board. As he clung to the hand-grips on the outside of the swaying train and worked his way backward the head of Langa Doonh protruded from one of the windows.
“Sahib?” the boy whispered enquiringly.
Smith placed a finger upon his lips and motioned his servant back just as he passed the last of his own compartment windows.
A hurt look spread over the face of the native boy as he withdrew from the window. Sometimes, when his master went upon particularly hazardous expeditions, Langa Doonh was left behind. The boy grieved over these occurrences but, above all else, he had to obey. To disobey Smith sahib was so utterly impossible as to be beyond his imagination.
There being nothing else to do, Langa Doonh decided to clean the compartment once more. He was bending over to brush up the dust and cinders that had accumulated when something hard flew through the window upon the opposite side of the train to that upon which Smith had made his exit. Langa Doonh fell senseless to the floor, while a heavy rock lay by his head. Instantly the almost naked body of a native wriggled through the window from whence the stone had come.
The intruding native knelt quickly and proceeded to bind the hands and feet of his victim with a stout cord that he took from around his waist. With a strip torn from his loin-cloth he forced a gag into Langa Doonh’s mouth and dragged him most unceremoniously back into his tiny compartment, the door of which he bolted before climbing out through the same window through which he had entered.
As Smith reached the first window of the compartment in rear of the one he had left he held with one hand to the iron support while, with the other, he nursed his gun just inside the breast of his pongee coat. Very carefully he raised his head and looked inside.
There was but one occupant to be seen. Upon the opposite seat lay a young woman. Her back was turned and she appeared to be sobbing her heart out into a cushion. Her body shook almost as if in convulsions.
Smith spoke, but the distracted woman paid no attention or failed to hear the rather low voice above the rattle of the train. His eyes searching every corner of the compartment and keenly inspecting the figure of the crying woman, Smith moved on from window to window until he reached the door, which he opened, and stepped inside. For a minute or two he stood motionless while he examined the contents of the compartment, noting white-covered umbrella, gloves, green veiling and some toilet articles upon the small table. Everything appeared to be genuine—and yet Smith was not satisfied.
Turning to the door of the servants’ compartment he jerked it quickly open and glanced inside. Lying upon the floor, with her head resting upon her bundle, was the old ayah whom Smith had seen upon the station platform. Her closed eyes and heavy breathing gave every indication of sleep, which is so commonly indulged in, whenever possible, by the native during the heat of the day.
Smith closed the door very quietly. Since entering the compartment Smith’s eyes had not left the figure of the sobbing woman for more than a couple of seconds. He felt that something was wrong and, intuitively, he sensed the presence of danger but he could not tell where it lay.
Not quite decided as to his course of action, Smith opened the door opposite to that which he had entered and threw one swift look back toward the compartment he had left. Even then, although he had seen that which caused him deep concern, his eyes flashed back to the figure of the girl, whose sobbing had nearly ceased. He had just seen a strange native crawling from the window of his own compartment. The incident needed quick investigation but first he must question the girl.
Smith took one step toward the now silent girl and his lanky, loose-framed body tensed as he crouched into the springing attitude of one of the jungle beasts of prey. Such a little thing he had seen—just an exposed finger upon which was a peculiar turquoise ring. The sudden crouch undoubtedly saved his life. There was the sharp crack of a small caliber pistol as the girl raised her head and fired over her reclining body.
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The Pearl Buyer of Calcutta
Smith did not return the fire although his pistol was drawn. Instead he hurled his body forward as the beast of prey that he resembled might have done. One long arm shot out and the pistol was seized with lean fingers and wrenched away before the girl could press the trigger a second time. The girl, nonplussed by the suddenness of her defeat, sat up, her face exposed. A broad grin spread over Smith’s face. All his indolence of manner returned. Carelessly he stretched out a hand and lifted the mass of curls from her head. Before him sat the dapper little man who had pretended to jump from the train.
“Got any more guns?” asked Smith.
The little man sullenly shook his head but Smith made certain by a thorough patting from head to foot.
“Put your hair on again.” continued Smith, tossing back the curly wig. “and climb back into my compartment. You are cleverer than I thought and I think I’ll take you to Calcutta. You are almost clever enough to be the man I am after; but no,”—Smith paused in thought—“he would have removed the turquoise ring.”
The man in woman’s attire looked down at the ring and sullenly turned the blue stone in.
“So that was what warned you,” he commented. “Shall I get out of these woman’s things?”
“No,” returned Smith. “Get out on the running-board and back to my compartment just as you are. If you try to jump off I’ll shoot you before you touch the ground.”
Few people hang their heads out of the windows of Indian trains on the long, dusty stretches between stations. Nobody saw a man and a woman clinging to the foot-board of the swaying train. Had they done so they would have noticed that the woman went first and that the man did not bother to offer the slightest assistance to his companion. Indeed, when the woman came opposite to the first window of the adjoining compartment she caught her skirt on a loose screw of an iron hand-grip and seemed to be in considerable difficulty. Even then the man, only a few feet behind her, offered no help. After considerable delay, however, he became impatient and spoke in a low voice.
“Move on,” he said, “or I’ll shoot your dress free.”
The delay had considerably exasperated Smith, who was anxious to ascertain what the strange native had been doing in his compartment. As he followed his captive through the door he dropped the gun, which he had been carrying, into his side pocket and turned toward the servants’ compartment.
“Your hands up, old chap, if you don’t mind.”
Smith wheeled, but it was too late. Stretched full length upon the long seat, so close to the windows as to have been invisible to Smith as he climbed along the running-board, was the ayah—the infirm old native woman who had apparently been sleeping so soundly but a few minutes before. In her hand was a pistol and Smith’s hands slowly went above his head. It was the ayah and yet it was not. The sluggish mentality of an old native woman was gone and with it the timorous attitude of the humble servant. Only his long training in self-control allowed Smith to depict the outward indifference that he was far from feeling.
“Just turn your back, old dear,” continued the man’s voice of this strange ayah, “while a woman takes off a few of her clothes.”
It was undoubtedly a man who spoke and with the words he rose and began unwinding a long, dirty sari from about his head and waist. With the sari came the gray matted wig, revealing nut-brown, close-cropped hair.
“Shall I go through his pockets?” asked the dapper little man. “He’s got a gun.”
“You have blundered twice already, Higgins,” was the reply in sarcastic tones. “I would as soon trust a baby with a razor as I would you with this man again. Go back to my compartment and bring my clothes. Change your own while you are there.”
As Higgins once more climbed out upon the foot-board the other man tossed out of a window the long, cotton, bandage-like garment and revealed a circle of dark skin where a skimpy white jacket failed to reach down to a sagging woolen skirt. Deftly he picked Smith’s gun from his pocket and, with a few expert pats, located and extracted the two pistols that Smith had taken from Higgins. Meanwhile Smith, tall and angular, stood silently with his hands up and his back turned.
“Now that your teeth are drawn, Mr.—ah—Smith, you might make yourself comfortable on the opposite seat.” Smith quietly did as was suggested and gazed, in a bored manner, at the opposite seat, where sat the incongruous figure of a white man partly disguised as an old native woman. He gave but a glance at the gun resting on the seat beside his companion and then studied the remarkably clever make-up on the face. As he looked he began to smile.
“So you came down the opposite side of the carriage and arrived first while our friend Higgins pretended to have his skirt caught and so delayed me?”
“A fairly clever deduction,” returned the man with the gun. “Anything else you would like to ask?”
“It would interest me to know why Mr. Sterne, the well-known pearl buyer of Calcutta, has taken to thieving.”
“I am honored by your recognition,” was the suave reply. “Perhaps you remember a game of billiards that we had at the club. You said then that the only profession more exciting than the detection of crime was the profession of the criminal. That is true. You do not detect crime for money but for the excitement. There is not sufficient excitement in your profession to satisfy me.”
“And yet,” continued Smith in an easy conversational tone, “throughout all India your word is known to be as good as your certified check.”
“To break one’s word is to lose one’s self-respect,” replied Sterne. “To steal is to lose the respect of a few people for whose esteem you may not care a snap of your finger.”
“All honest men despise a thief.”
“There are few honest men,” was the cool reply, “and most of them are stupid.”
“May I smoke?” asked Smith, languidly gazing out of the window, although he was keenly estimating the distance to the next station.
Sterne took a package of Smith’s own cigarettes from the table and tossed it over. He followed it with a box of matches before adding:
“We are coming to the small town of Ellore. It is extremely unlikely that there will be any first-class passengers or that anybody will come near this compartment. However, I will pull down the blinds on this side, which is next to the station. Whatever happens I will handle the situation, and if you make the slightest untoward move I shall be forced to shoot—and shoot to kill.”
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Smith’s Dispatch Box
Smith made no reply and smoked lazily, leaning back with his eyes half closed. He was puzzled about Langa Doonh. He knew that the boy’s training would make him try to keep in touch with his master. Had he heard through his thin door? If so, what was he doing? Had he met with foul play at the hands of the strange native? Smith feared for his servant and it worried him even more than his own awkward predicament.
When the train stopped at Ellore it was just as Sterne had anticipated. No stranger came near their compartment. A few seconds before the train started, however, Higgins entered from the platform, dressed in his own clothes and with a suitcase in his hand.
“Sit here,” directed Sterne very curtly. “Take this gun and shoot him if he moves.”
Smith reflected that it was fifty miles to the next station, which was Rajahmundry, an important one on the Godavery River. At Rajahmundry he felt sure that the guard would look into his compartment. Instinctively he knew that his critical moment must arrive before the train stopped again. The failure of his boy to appear at the last station convinced him that he had to depend entirely upon himself. Only his own wits could save him.
Meanwhile Sterne had opened the suitcase and taken out a bottle of whitish fluid with which he liberally sponged face, neck, hands and wrists. Magically the dark skin turned to the sunburned hue of the average European. Disregarding the remainder of his body he quickly donned the white man’s garb, standing forth in a faultlessly pressed suit of white flannels. The transformation was almost incredible. Where had been a slovenly old ayah was a smartly dressed white man of India.
‘‘While I was dressing, an idea occurred to me,” said Sterne, taking the pistol from Higgins and sitting down opposite to Smith. “It is foolish for any man to commit murder so long as he can get somebody else to do it for a few hundred rupees. Any man with brains would be willing to pay more than that to escape the danger of the death penalty. However, nobody seems to be able to kill you—even when you walk straight into my trap. It remains for me to do it. Isn’t that reasonable?”
“Uh-huh,” said Smith very casually, “but what’s the idea that occurred to you while dressing?”
“Look!” continued Sterne, carelessly throwing open the door of the small servants’ compartment. “My servant carried out my orders in regard to your servant.”
Through the open door Smith saw the bound form of Langa Doonh lying upon the floor. A great load was lifted from his mind at the sight. Smith was fond of Langa Doonh, and dead people do not have their legs tied.
“I merely show you this so that you may know how utterly helpless you are,” continued Sterne as he closed the door and resumed his seat. “It would be weak-minded for me to kill you if I can find another solution. You have intimated that I never break my word. The same truth applies to you. Every criminal in India knows it. Your word would be accepted by any thief with brains if he has worked long in this country.”
“Your proposition?” drawled Smith.
“I will spare your life,” returned Sterne, “if you will promise to do as I tell you.”
Smith merely raised his eyebrows in an interrogative manner.
“You will get off the train at Rajahmundrv,” continued Sterne, “and go down the Godavery River by native boat to Yanaon, which is a French possession. There you will take ship out of India and you will never set foot in this country again.”
“An interesting idea,” replied Smith but showing slight interest. “Will you entertain a counter proposition from me?”
“I will give you two hundred thousand rupees in jewels if you will go down the Godavery River and leave the country as you would have me do.”
“Scarcely enough, old dear,” bantered Sterne, but a gleam came into his eyes.
“You forget,” argued Smith, “that you will avoid the necessity of killing me and thereby escape the unpleasantness of a death penalty hanging over your head. That surely is worth several lakhs of rupees.”
Through his half-shut eyes, as he smoked. Smith believed that he could detect upon the face of his opponent the faintest trace of cunning covetousness. He was fencing for his life and was about to deliver his most skilful thrust. Failure to penetrate his adversary’s guard almost surely would forfeit his life or his honor. With apparent unconcern he flicked the ash from his cigarette and waited for the reply.
“Just—a—what jewels are these?”
“The loot that your organization collected and which came into my hands when I captured your lieutenant in Ceylon.”
Sterne’s eyes narrowed as he scrutinized the face of the agent of the Criminal Intelligence Department. He knew that Smith was far removed from a fool and he tried to read the thoughts of the man who smoked his cigarette so calmly in the face of death or dishonor.
“I had hoped to use the jewels,” continued Smith, “to bait a very beautiful trap for you in Calcutta.”
“You have them here?”
Smith’s eyelids quivered ever so little. It might have been smoke and it might have been nervousness. He was playing to a subtle audience and the least bit of overacting would be fatal.
“Is it a bargain?” he asked. “Will you accept the jewels?”
“I have made no promise but I will inspect your dispatch box,” replied Sterne, indicating with his pistol a leather-covered box of considerable size which lay upon the floor. “If the jewels are there they are mine without the trouble of making a bargain.”
“Permit me to open the box,” offered Smith, extracting a small key from his pocket and bending forward rather eagerly.
“Sit back!” snapped Sterne. “Throw me the key.”
Smith tossed over the key and shrugged his shoulders resignedly while Sterne glanced from the dispatch box to Higgins and hesitated.
“Open the box for the gentleman, Higgins, like a good boy,” interposed Smith with what might possibly have been a gleam of hope in his eyes.
“Shoot him if he gets off his seat,” said Sterne, shoving a spare pistol across to Higgins. “Smith, for some reason, you want anybody but me to open that box and that is just the reason I shall open it myself.”
“Go to the devil!” growled Smith.
Sterne smiled in amusement as he dragged the box in front of his feet upon the floor. He unbuckled the leather cover and threw it back, exposing the top of the steel box within. Smith bent forward a trifle as if to watch the opening of the box. In reality it brought him a few inches nearer to Higgins and allowed his body to assume an attitude that would permit a spring.
“No false move!” warned Sterne, looking up and feeling the gun beside him on the seat.
Higgins stood up as Steme inserted the key and could not resist glimpsing the operation out of the tail of his eye. Mainly, however, he watched Smith and kept his gun well forward.
“Look out for the Jack-in-the-box when you lift the cover,” warned Smith with a chuckle. “My trap may be better than yours.”’
It was a subtle speech and a most audacious one. Sterne grunted contemptuously, turned the key and lifted the steel cover. There was exposed the usual upper tray containing papers, pens, pencils and other odds and ends.
“Gracyous me! The ugly face didn’t jump out!” jibed Smith.
“Hold your tongue!” snarled Sterne.
On either side of the tray were two brass lifters that sank in slots, flush with the tray, when not being used for raising it. Sterne inserted two fingers of each hand under these brass loops and lifted. They rose freely for a good two inches and then came a violent clang from within the box while the loops shot downward, crushing the fingers to the bone and holding them fast against the heavy box.
“Shoot!” screamed Sterne.
With the clang and the scream Smith’s body catapulted toward Higgins while his long right arm sent his clenched fist straight at the solar plexus of the man with the gun. It was a desperate attempt and might have ended in disaster had not Langa Doonh bounded through the door at that very moment and struck up the pistol so that the bullet went six inches over Smith’s head. The next instant the blow landed and Higgins crumpled into a senseless heap upon the floor.
After collecting the various guns Smith turned his attention to Sterne, whose forehead was streaming with perspiration from pain and fury.
Unconcernedly he pressed a concealed spring in the box and released the man’s fingers.
“Nice little trap, wasn’t it?” he commented. “Better than yours, eh what?”
“Sahib,” said Langa Doonh, “boy very sorry to get tied up. Only could work loose just now. Sahib angry?”
“Not at all,” replied Smith, busily engaged in handcuffing the sullen Sterne and the senseless Higgins.
“Sahib like clean shirt?”
“Uh-huh,” said Smith, “might as well.”
~ The End ~