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- Colonel Starbottle's Client - 2/31 -
experience. I propose," continued the Colonel, with airy geniality, "some light change and refreshment. The bar-keeper of the Magnolia is--er--I may say, sir, facile princeps in the concoction of mint juleps, and there is a back room where I have occasionally conferred with political leaders at election time. It is but a step, sir--in fact, on Main Street--round the corner."
The stranger looked up and then rose mechanically as the Colonel resumed his coat and waistcoat, but not his collar and cravat, which lay limp and dejected among his papers. Then, sheltering himself beneath a large-brimmed Panama hat, and hooking his cane on his arm, he led the way, fan in hand, into the road, tiptoeing in his tight, polished boots through the red, impalpable dust with his usual jaunty manner, yet not without a profane suggestion of burning ploughshares. The stranger strode in silence by his side in the burning sun, impenetrable in his own morose shadow.
But the Magnolia was fragrant, like its namesake, with mint and herbal odors, cool with sprinkled floors, and sparkling with broken ice on its counters, like dewdrops on white, unfolded petals--and slightly soporific with the subdued murmur of droning loungers, who were heavy with its sweets. The gallant Colonel nodded with confidential affability to the spotless-shirted bar-keeper, and then taking Corbin by the arm fraternally conducted him into a small apartment in the rear of the bar-room. It was evidently used as the office of the proprietor, and contained a plain desk, table, and chairs. At the rear window, Nature, not entirely evicted, looked in with a few straggling buckeyes and a dusty myrtle, over the body of a lately-felled pine-tree, that flaunted from an upflung branch a still green spray as if it were a drooping banner lifted by a dead but rigid arm. From the adjoining room the faint, monotonous click of billiard balls, languidly played, came at intervals like the dry notes of cicale in the bushes.
The bar-keeper brought two glasses crowned with mint and diademed with broken ice. The Colonel took a long pull at his portion, and leaned back in his chair with a bland gulp of satisfaction and dreamily patient eyes. The stranger mechanically sipped the contents of his glass, and then, without having altered his reluctant expression, drew from his breast-pocket a number of old letters. Holding them displayed in his fingers like a difficult hand of cards, and with something of the air of a dispirited player, he began:--
"You see, about six months after this yer trouble I got this letter." He picked out a well worn, badly written missive, and put it into Colonel Starbottle's hands, rising at the same time and leaning over him as he read. "You see, she that writ it says as how she hadn't heard from her son for a long time, but owing to his having spoken once about ME, she was emboldened to write and ask me if I knew what had gone of him." He was pointing his finger at each line of the letter as he read it, or rather seemed to translate it from memory with a sad familiarity. "Now," he continued in parenthesis, "you see this kind o' got me. I knew he had got relatives in Kentucky. I knew that all this trouble had been put in the paper with his name and mine, but this here name of Martha Jeffcourt at the bottom didn't seem to jibe with it. Then I remembered that he had left a lot of letters in his trunk in the shanty, and I looked 'em over. And I found that his name WAS Tom Jeffcourt, and that he'd been passin' under the name of Frisbee all this time."
"Perfectly natural and a frequent occurrence," interposed the Colonel cheerfully. "Only last year I met an old friend whom we'll call Stidger, of New Orleans, at the Union Club, 'Frisco. 'How are you, Stidger?' I said; 'I haven't seen you since we used to meet-- driving over the Shell Road in '53.' 'Excuse me, sir,' said he, 'my name is not Stidger, it's Brown.' I looked him in the eye, sir, and saw him quiver. 'Then I must apologize to Stidger,' I said, 'for supposing him capable of changing his name.' He came to me an hour after, all in a tremble. 'For God's sake, Star,' he said,--always called me Star,--'don't go back on me, but you know family affairs--another woman, beautiful creature,' etc., etc.,-- yes, sir, perfectly common, but a blank mistake. When a man once funks his own name he'll turn tail on anything. Sorry for this man, Friezecoat, or Turncoat, or whatever's his d----d name; but it's so."
The suggestion did not, however, seem to raise the stranger's spirits or alter his manner. "His name was Jeffcourt, and this here was his mother," he went on drearily; "and you see here she says"--pointing to the letter again--"she's been expecting money from him and it don't come, and she's mighty hard up. And that gave me an idea. I don't know," he went on, regarding the Colonel with gloomy doubt, "as you'll think it was much; I don't know as you wouldn't call it a d----d fool idea, but I got it all the same." He stopped, hesitated, and went on. "You see this man, Frisbee or Jeffcourt, was my pardner. We were good friends up to the killing, and then he drove me hard. I think I told you he drove me hard,--didn't I? Well, he did. But the idea I got was this. Considerin' I killed him after all, and so to speak disappointed them, I reckoned I'd take upon myself the care of that family and send 'em money every month."
The Colonel slightly straitened his clean-shaven mouth. "A kind of expiation or amercement by fine, known to the Mosaic, Roman, and old English law. Gad, sir, the Jews might have made you MARRY his widow or sister. An old custom, and I think superseded--sir, properly superseded--by the alternative of ordeal by battle in the mediaeval times. I don't myself fancy these pecuniary fashions of settling wrongs,--but go on."
"I wrote her," continued Corbin, "that her son was dead, but that he and me had some interests together in a claim, and that I was very glad to know where to send her what would be his share every month. I thought it no use to tell her I killed him,--may be she might refuse to take it. I sent her a hundred dollars every month since. Sometimes it's been pretty hard sleddin' to do it, for I ain't rich; sometimes I've had to borrow the money, but I reckoned that I was only paying for my share in this here business of his bein' dead, and I did it."
"And I understand you that this Jeffcourt really had no interest in your claim?"
Corbin looked at him in dull astonishment. "Not a cent, of course; I thought I told you that. But that weren't his fault, for he never had anything, and owed me money. In fact," he added gloomily, "it was because I hadn't any more to give him--havin' sold my watch for grub--that he quo'lled with me that day, and up and called me a 'sneakin' Yankee hound.' I told you he drove me hard."
The Colonel coughed slightly and resumed his jaunty manner. "And the--er--mother was, of course, grateful and satisfied?"
"Well, no,--not exactly." He stopped again and took up his letters once more, sorted and arranged them as if to play out his unfinished but hopeless hand, and drawing out another, laid it before the Colonel. "You see, this Mrs. Jeffcourt, after a time, reckoned she ought to have MORE money than I sent her, and wrote saying that she had always understood from her son (he that never wrote but once a year, remember) that this claim of ours (that she never knew of, you know) was paying much more than I sent her--and she wanted a return of accounts and papers, or she'd write to some lawyer, mighty quick. Well, I reckoned that all this was naturally in the line of my trouble, and I DID manage to scrape together fifty dollars more for two months and sent it. But that didn't seem to satisfy her--as you see." He dealt Colonel Starbottle another letter from his baleful hand with an unchanged face. "When I got that,--well, I just up and told her the whole thing. I sent her the account of the fight from the newspapers, and told her as how her son was the Frisbee that was my pardner, and how he never had a cent in the world--but how I'd got that idea to help her, and was willing to carry it out as long as I could."
"Did you keep a copy of that letter?" asked the Colonel, straitening his mask-like mouth.
"No," said Corbin moodily. "What was the good? I know'd she'd got the letter,--and she did,--for that is what she wrote back." He laid another letter before the Colonel, who hastily read a few lines and then brought his fat white hand violently on the desk.
"Why, d--n it all, sir, this is BLACKMAIL! As infamous a case of threatening and chantage as I ever heard of."
"Well," said Corbin, dejectedly, "I don't know. You see she allows that I murdered Frisbee to get hold of his claim, and that I'm trying to buy her off, and that if I don't come down with twenty thousand dollars on the nail, and notes for the rest, she'll prosecute me. Well, mebbe the thing looks to her like that--mebbe you know I've got to shoulder that too. Perhaps it's all in the same line."
Colonel Starbottle for a moment regarded Corbin critically. In spite of his chivalrous attitude towards the homicidal faculty, the Colonel was not optimistic in regard to the baser pecuniary interests of his fellow-man. It was quite on the cards that his companion might have murdered his partner to get possession of the claim. It was true that Corbin had voluntarily assumed an unrecorded and hitherto unknown responsibility that had never been even suspected, and was virtually self-imposed. But that might have been the usual one unerring blunder of criminal sagacity and forethought. It was equally true that he did not look or act like a mean murderer; but that was nothing. However, there was no evidence of these reflections in the Colonel's face. Rather he suddenly beamed with an excess of politeness. "Would you--er-- mind, Mr. Corbin, whilst I am going over those letters again, to-- er--step across to my office--and--er--bring me the copy of 'Wood's Digest' that lies on my table? It will save some time."
The stranger rose, as if the service was part of his self-imposed trouble, and as equally hopeless with the rest, and taking his hat departed to execute the commission. As soon as he had left the building Colonel Starbottle opened the door and mysteriously beckoned the bar-keeper within.
"Do you remember anything of the killing of a man named Frisbee over in Fresno three years ago?"
The bar-keeper whistled meditatively. "Three years ago--Frisbee?-- Fresno?--no? Yes--but that was only one of his names. He was Jack Walker over here. Yes--and by Jove! that feller that was here with you killed him. Darn my skin, but I thought I recognized him."
"Yes, yes, I know all that," said the Colonel, impatiently. "But did Frisbee have any PROPERTY? Did he have any means of his own?"
"Property?" echoed the bar-keeper with scornful incredulity.
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