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I managed to preserve my coolness, even at this terrible moment, which I did not doubt for an instant was to prove my last on earth.
"Do as you please about killing me," I said, without a tremble in my voice, "but I have deceived in no material respect."
"There never was a doctor in Booneville named Phillips," said Jesse James, his finger still on the trigger, while the muzzles of the other revolvers also continued to stare at me unwaveringly.
"I know it, and in that trifling regard only did I deceive you," said I. "Judge Rideau though it best that I should conceal the fact of my being a personal friend of his, and on his advice I hit upon the plan pursued. The rest of my story will be verified by the judge himself, whom you know to be incapable of falsehood."
*These are actual facts belonging to the history of the late war.
"You're a spy -- a detective in disguise," exclaimed Jesse, savagely.
"You're a liar, and you must know that you lie," I replied. "How about those tokens -- those mementos? Do you dare to tell me that you doubt their genuineness?"
"I say, Jess, there needn't be no hurry about this thing," said Frank James, putting up his pistol.
Younger and Cutts did the same. Sheppard stood among the horses, but a few paces away, apparently as unconcerned as a man of stone, and with his single eye fastened upon me with pretended pitilessness.
My last remark had occasioned an interested rustle of garments on the porch behind me, and a moment later the women came out on the lawn to have a look at me.
Jesse James remained immovable, with his revolver still covering my breast, but my last response seemed to have mollified him a little.
Nevertheless he growled out an oath, saying:
"I don't care a curse for that! I warned you against deceiving me in the least particular, and die you must."
His wife here placed her hand on his wrist, and told him to go first and talk the matter over with the others. He complied reluctantly, though still keeping his eye threateningly upon me, even after putting up his revolver.
Just at that moment I recalled in a flash the assistance she had promised me in case I should succeed in finding out the concealed child, and the signal by which she had told me to notify her of such an event.
Simultaneously with the same thought occurred the invigorating reflection that I had not been deprived of my revolver, and that my horse, a splendid animal, might be reached in two or three bounds should I suddenly be freed of my bonds.
In my emergency, I couldn't afford to weigh the question of sincerity or insincerity that was involved.
I watched for my opportunity when Jesse James had momentarily withdrawn his eyes from me, and was conferring with his brother and Cole Younger. I then caught the attention of Jesse's wife, and gave her the sign, swiftly pursing up my lips and elevating my eyebrows.
I saw that I was understood. A slight color came into her face, she seemed to hesitate a moment, and then she left her companion's side with seeming carelessness, and returned to the porch.
I heard the rustle of her skirt in the vine behind me and then a slight clicking sound. I suddenly felt that the bonds fastening me to the porch post had been severed -- that I was free.
There was then a retreating rustle of skirts. I waited, to give my liberator a chance to retire into the house, while stealthily feeling down for the butt of my revolver, and gathering my strength and nerves for a supreme effort.
Then I simultaneously drew my pistol and bounded toward my horse, while giving utterances to an Apache yell.
Drawing their weapons, the four men turned toward me with the quickness of lightning, but I was quicker than they. My first shot struck Jesse's pistol, knocking it from his hand while it was exploding. My second pierced Cole Younger's right arm, as he was on the point of firing, causing it to drop powerless at his side. Then Frank James' bullet sang harmlessly over my head, as my third bound brought me into the saddle, and a blow of my left hand sent George Sheppard sprawling -- for his own good and appearances' sake. Then, as I wheeled my horse, I nipped Master Cutt's hostile intentions in the bud by sending a bullet through his body, and the next instant I was up and away for the skirting forest like the wind, with their bullets whistling after me, though, fortunately, without effect.
I heard them thundering after me in pursuit, even before I could gain the woods. But, with Jesse James' Dancer out of the race by reason of his sprain, I knew that I was the best mounted, my only remaining danger lying in my unfamiliarity with the way.
However, fortune favored me signally. My horse went crashing through the forest like a bolt, and seemed to find the first bridle-path by a sort of dumb instinct. Prom this we gained the wild by-road and went plunging down it. The few suspicious dwellers by the way -- all of them, inferentially, in sympathy with the gang -- came rushing out of their lonely cabins to see me pass, some of them rifle in hand -- but that was all. Not a shot was fired, not an impediment offered. I was soon out of the perilous intricacies of the hills, out upon the broad highroad leading to Independence.
For the first time, according to common report, Jesse James' fairly cornered victim had escaped with life and liberty, and I was the man.
On reaching Independence I said nothing of my adventure, but went at once to my room in the hotel. Half an hour later I issued thence in my own proper person. Even the James brothers' lynx-eyed suspicion would not have recognized my identity with the old country doctor from Booneville who had been the guest-prisoner for so long.
The robbery of the train at Winston had naturally intensified the local excitement incident upon he seizure of the fair association's assets, and the murder of the detectives that had preceded it. I carefully abstained from adding to the prevailing alarm by making public my own adventures.
The detectives and other officials, with whom I was professionally acquainted, were out on the road, engaged in their vain pursuit of the robbers.
But, late on the following night, I found myself at a conference in an obscure cabin, owned by an old regress named Aunt Cynthy, on the outskirts of the town. The outside approaches to the cabin were thoroughly sentineled The old negro woman herself could be relied on. She was none other than the nurse who had befriended Blanche Rideau at St. Joseph, after the latter's mad schoolgirl's marriage with Tom Younger, the bandit.
It was out of old Cynthy's possession, also, at Booneville, that Blanche's child had been subsequently stolen, and she hated Jesse James and his whole gang with a hatred bordering on frenzy.
It must be mentioned in passing, however, that she had no faith in Judge Rideau's ultimate recovery of the boy through my exertions or by any other means. She implicitly believed that the boy had long since been put to death by Jesse James, whom she thought capable of any cowardly, as well as any desperate crime. In this I did not agree with her.
My associates in the cabin were Captain Dick Masters, of Independence; Sheriff Timberlake and Captain Craig (police commissioner), of Kansas City; Jack Gorham, an independent private detective, like myself, and Sloane and Chipps, my personal assistants, who have already been cursorily introduced to the reader in the disguise of negro minstrels.
My companions had returned, dejected and out of humor, after a bootless all-day pursuit of the robbers But I had just recounted my own adventures, consider ably to their enlivenment, and after learning with satisfaction that not one of the posse of seven had been killed outright, or even seriously wounded, in the wild charge through their line, in which I had participated under compulsion, several days previously.
Then there had fallen on us all the natural sense of awkwardness incident to men bent upon the same general object, but not heartily associated or organized in the attainment.
"Here's the difficulty!" at last exclaimed Craig, bringing his fist down heavily on the table around which we were sitting. "It's the general desire to earn individually the rattling big rewards offered by the Government the railroads and the express companies, instead of working all together and making a fair division in case of success."
"To which may be added the five thousand offered by the fair association," I observed, with an assenting nod.
"To which will be added twenty or thirty thousand more by whatever country banks Jesse and his gang shall succeed in robbing, doubtless before we can find hide or hair of 'em," smilingly supplemented Jack Gorham, also on the independent "lay."
It was a clear case of diamond cut diamond. There was a general smile, followed by a look of gloom. Then Timberlake's fist was brought down on the table in its turn:
"That's just it!" he exclaimed. "And the question simply is, whether we can afford to work independently or only in halfhearted fellowship, instead of all in concert together, with a common will, and with a common interest in view."
"Ay, that's the talk," said Masters. "Hasn't the fate of Pinkerton's Chicagoans proved the futility of private action against the Jameses and their devil's crew ? Three were killed, and Jewell, the sole survivor, slunk homeward yesterday, halfscared out of his senses, though naturally a man of steady nerve."
Then the three regulars looked askance at Gorham and me, while my two fellows, Sloane and Chipps, silently awaited my decision. What had been advanced was most sensible. I had given it much thought during several days, and now once more turned the matter slowly over in my mind.
"Gentlemen, I'll tell you what I'll agree to, and stand by," said I, at length. "I'll associate with you all, heart and soul, against the entire James gang, share and share alike in such rewards as apply to its members, with the sole exceptions of Jesse and Frank James. Let whoso
ever succeeds in bringing in these chiefs, alive or dead, claim and receive the entire reward pertaining to them individually, be their actual captors one, two, three, or even more of our number."
This proposition received at once the thoughtful attention it deserved.
"You're wide-awake for number one, at all events, Lawson," said Timberlake. "You now know more about the lives and habits of the James than any of the rest of us.
"Haven't I obtained the knowledge at the repeated risk of my life?" I coolly replied. "Moreover, your remark is not strictly correct, Timberlake. George Sheppard knows far more of the Jameses than I do. He was with them in Quantrell's guerrillas; robbed, murdered and fought with them all through the Kentucky bank robberies, and is now in your employ."
"This silenced the sheriff, but Craig made haste to say:
"But, Lawson, the rewards out on the Jameses makes an amount half as great as those that are out on the entire remainder of the gang, the three Youngers in
"I am aware of that," said I, dryly, "but you have my proposition, which is the only one I care to make. I should think I'd already shown my good-will toward you regulars by giving you the names of those, greenies and all, who were engaged the other night in the train robbery at Winston."
"So you did,"' said Masters, with real heartiness. "We'll nab the telegraph operator, Bulger, to-morrow, and then the rest of the greenies, at least, one after another. There'll be a right smart reward forthcoming for even them, and you'll get the heavier share of it, as you deserve."
"I'm in favor of Lawson's proposition!" suddenly exclaimed Gorham, springing up and seizing my hand. "It's every man for himself, so far as the James boys are concerned, and all of us together, share and share alike, for the rest of the gang ! Gentlemen, what do you say?"
"I agree," said Masters, taking my hand with equal heartiness.
"So do I!" cried Timberlake, "And I'll answer for the co-operation of my agent, George Sheppard."
"You can count me in, since it's a family affair," called out-Craig. "My man, the ax-robber, Charley Ford, will likewise stand in with the agreement."
"Of course, Chipps and I," said Sloane, indicating his chum, "are already booked in the interest of Billy Lawson, our chief.
We all then suddenly joined hands, and formally agreed to abide by the conditions embodied in the proposition I had made.
"You're welcome to the advantage you'll have over the rest of us, Billy," laughingly observed Gorham, as we renewed our seats, with something good to drink suddenly set before us by old Cynthy. "None of them will ever suspect your identity with the old Booneville doctor, and you can play off fresh in the future."
This was in allusion to the smooth-shaven guilelessness of my natural appearance, which was at that time exceptionally boyish for my age.
We had hardly ratified our agreement before we were joined by Charley Ford. He was a quiet, selfcontained, resolute fellow, formerly an active member of the James
band, but in retirement from it for several years, and now secretly in Commissioner Craig's employ. Then, a little later, much to my astonishment, but not less to the gratification of all of us, who should next put in an appearance, but George Sheppard.
They were first mate acquainted with the agreement we had just entered into. This they eagerly endorsed. Then Ford gave a choice bit of information that he had brought from up the river, and Sheppard, after learning that I had been beforehand with him in regard to all necessary information concerning the Winston affair, told us of the changes that had taken place in the James' programme incidental to my escape.
"I never saw a man so infernally mad as Jess James was after you had got away, colonel," said Sheppard. "He acted like a demon. But to this hour it is a mystery to him how you managed to burst your bonds, though I have my private opinion on the subject. Thanks for the upset you gave me as you regained the saddle. That, and the tearin' mad way in which I helped to bang away after you as you broke for the woods, about finished up making me hunk once more in Jess' good graces. For the rest, you didn't even mark Jess in shootin' the pistol out of his hand, but you shot Cutts through the body, from which he's likely to turn up his toes, and Cole Younger will have a sore arm for a month to come."
"Doubtless the band won't meet now at the Widow James' for the division of the Winston swag, as they had intended," said I.
"Not by a long shot!" was the reply. "Your escape has given that scheme away. By the way, Lawson, you've got it wrong about the James boys' mother. She's the Widow Samuels now, having married a second time, years ago, not long after the death of these boys' father, who was a Baptist preacher, odd enough."
"It's no difference. She's called as often by one name as the other," said Timberlake. "But the Jameses are cute. I doubt if they'll ever make any divvy of the Winston swag. What's their next move? That's what we're after."
"The gang, or part of 'em, start for Jasper County, this State, the day after to-morrow," said Sheppard. "I'm to be one of 'em to look out in advance for detectives, and give warnin' of the same."
And he burst into a laugh.
"What's the racket?"
"A descent on the bank either at Empire City or Sin that county," was the reply. "As I'll be sent forward in advance, and they'll be sure to reconnoitre at Empire City first, you'd better all be lyin' in wait at S- . The towns are only a few miles apart. I can slip you a telegraphic dispatch as to what place to be on the lookout for 'em."
"Good!" cried Timberlake. "We'll be on hand, all of us, shall we not, boys?"
The rest of us unanimously fell in with the scheme, and the conference broke up.
After a few words in private with George Sheppard, I was the last to leave the cabin. Before doing so I said to old Cynthy: - .
"Are you still so sure, Cynthy, of my never recovering poor Blanche's little boy, Tip?"
"Oh, Lor', yes, cunel; dead sure ob cat!" replied the old creature, rolling up the yellows of her eyes. "sat
debble, Jess James, hate put de pore little chit out ob de way long afore dis. De ole jedge, fur all his money, '11 nebber lay eyes on his little gran'chile."
"You'll think otherwise before long, Cynthy, depend upon it. But in case I should be able to produce the child -- bring him here to your cabin -- would you be able to identify him as the judge's grandson? I mean to say, would you know him again?"
"Know him -- know Missus Blanche's boy? Go long, cunnel! Ob course I would. Why. I brung him up.
He war nigh onto two year when he war stole, an he ain't half past five now. Know him ag'in -- pore Blanche's chile -- de little Tip Younger? Lor' bless my soul! What you done took me fur, cunnel?"
"Well, that's all I wanted to know," said I, wishing her good-night; "and I'm glad I've made sure of it."
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