THE CAPTAIN OF THE ROBBERS

“HA! WHAT have we here?” said the robber chief, as he drew out first a
certificate of stock in a New York bank.

Morton changed color.

“It is the property of a friend,” he said hurriedly.

“And that friend’s name is Armstrong—is it not so?”

“Yes,” he said, in a low voice.

When Tom heard the name Armstrong, all his doubts were removed. There
was no longer a doubt that he had found the absconding clerk. But that
was not his only object. He desired also to regain possession of the
stolen securities, and they were in the hands of a powerful
robber-chief, of whom he was himself the prisoner. Still he was not
without hope.

The captain proceeded with his examination of the papers. They proved
all to represent value, and could Mr. Armstrong have used them as
collateral, he would have been able to avert his failure. Morton looked
on with feverish anxiety while this examination was going on.

“May I have the papers back?” he asked nervously.

“Certainly not,” said the captain with emphasis.

“They will do you no good.”

“How do you know that?” demanded the bandit, fixing his eyes sternly
upon his prisoner.

“You cannot negotiate them.”

“Can you?”

“No,” said Morton hesitatingly.

“How comes it then that you have them in your possession?” asked the
captain searchingly.

“I hold them in trust,” answered Morton after a pause.

“And where is this Armstrong?”

“In New York.”

Morton wiped the perspiration from his brow. He had been forced to make
admissions that might prove damaging to him. How did he know but that
full particulars of his flight might have been printed, and fallen under
the eyes of his fellow-prisoners? If so, he risked his freedom by what
he had confessed. He determined to part company with them as soon as
possible.

“I shall not give these papers back to you,” said the chief. “They don’t
belong to you, it appears.”

“They were confided to me by Mr. Armstrong.”

“They are safer in my hands. But we have wasted time enough on this
matter, Alonzo, conduct the prisoners into the building.”

Now was Tom’s opportunity.

He walked boldly up to the robber-chief and said:

“Captain, when you are at leisure, I should like to speak to you on
business of importance.”

The captain, regarding his youthful appearance, answered with a smile:

“You are a young man to have business of importance.”

“It may be so,” said Tom, “but it is none the less true. I can say,
also, that the business is of as much importance to you as to me.”

“Humph!” said the other, evidently surprised. “I doubt that. However, I
will humor your whim, youngster. I will give you a chance to show
whether you have spoken the truth. But take heed that you do not waste
my time.”

“I shall not,” said Tom confidently. “What I have to say is for your
advantage.”

A thought occurred to the captain.

This boy might have wealthy friends, and he might be intending to offer
a ransom in return for his liberty. His words favored such a
supposition, and the chief decided to grant his request.

“Alonzo,” he said, “conduct the other prisoners to the place of secrecy.
This boy will remain with me.”

Alonzo, a stalwart member of the band, bowed in token of obedience.

“Come,” he said, turning to Gates, Morton, and the German; “follow me.”

“Thank you,” said Gates coolly. “I suppose you are about to show us our
rooms.”

Morton, stupefied at his loss, said nothing. Everything had gone against
him. The proceeds of his defalcation had melted into thin air. He
complied silently.

But the Teuton was the most obstreperous.

“Where is it you will take me?” he cried. “I will not go.”

“Won’t you?” asked Alonzo grimly, drawing a formidable-looking knife
from his girdle.

“Oh, Gott in Himmel! He will cut mein throat!” ejaculated the
horror-stricken Dutchman, his knees trembling beneath him.

“Not if you obey orders,” said Alonzo, inclined to laugh.

Herr Schmidt no longer resisted, but shambled in with what haste he
could. Alonzo threw open the outer door of the building, disclosing a
dark interior. But he lighted a lantern, and then advancing to one side
of the apartment, touched some secret spring, and instantly a door flew
open, revealing a flight of steps leading downward into a subterranean
vault.

Morton recoiled in alarm.

“Are we going down there?” he asked in a startled tone.

Gates took it more philosophically.

“Really,” he said, “considering what I have paid at this hotel—in
advance, too—I think I deserve better accommodations.”

“It is the best we have,” said Alonzo briefly.

“Then, my friend, I advise you to give up keeping a hotel.”

“You won’t find it uncomfortable,” said Alonzo. “It’s rather dark, to be
sure.”

“Must I go down in de cellar?” asked Herr Schmidt, his ample countenance
bespeaking his discontent, not to say alarm.

“Yes, and be quick about it,” said the robber, losing patience.

Gates led the way, Morton followed, and the Dutchman brought up the rear
of the captives. But the stairs were steep, he lost his footing, and,
when a little more than half-way down, he tumbled, falling helplessly on
the earthen floor. Under the impression that he was dangerously wounded,
he burst into a series of cries of a stentorian character which
irritated his conductor.

“Stop that nonsense,” he said roughly, “or I’ll stick this knife into
you, you overgrown hog, and then you’ll have some reason to scream.”

“Hog!” repeated the Teuton, offended. “What for do you call me a hog, I
like to know?”

“Because you are one. Pick yourself up, or I’ll step on you.”

Thus mildly entreated, Herr Schmidt made shift to stand, and on
ascertaining that he had really met with no serious injuries, begun to
feel better.

Alonzo now took the lead, and conducted the prisoners into an inner
cave, where by the light of the lantern several pallets were seen lying
upon the earth.

“Lie down there if you like,” he said.

“That’s all very well,” said Gates, “but allow me to remind you that I
generally sup before retiring.”

“So do I,” said Herr Schmidt. “Have you got some good beer and sausages?
And I think I would like some schweitzer käse, too.”

“None of that for me, please,” said Gates.

“You shall have some supper shortly,” said the robber, turning to leave
them.

They hoped he would leave the lantern, but he evidently thought they had
no need of it. A minute later and they found themselves enveloped in
darkness.

“This is rather lively,” said Gates. “I can’t say I like the
arrangements of this hotel.”

Morton did not answer, but Herr Schmidt begun to bewail his fate and
express his conviction that he should never more see his Katrine and the
kinder.

TOM WAITED patiently while the captain gave some directions to his
subordinates. At length the robber made him a sign to draw near.

“Now, youngster,” he said, “you may say what you wish.”

Tom looked significantly at two of the band who were within hearing.

“I should like to speak to you in private,” he said.

The captain frowned slightly, and was on the point of refusing, but
curiosity overcame him.

“Very well,” he said. “Follow me.”

They went a few rods away.

“Now,” he said, “speak.”

“What I have to say,” Tom begun, “is about those bonds.”

“You wish to plead for your friend?” interrupted the captain. “If that
is all, I will tell you to begin with, that it is of no use. I shall not
give them up.”

“You have made a mistake,” said Tom quietly. “In the first place, that
man is not my friend.”

“You were traveling together.”

“That is true, but I only met him in San Francisco. I was following him
to find out the very thing you helped me to discover to-day.”

“What is that?”

“Whether he had those papers.”

“What have you to do with the papers?” demanded the captain, in
surprise.

“I will tell you, sir. For the want of these papers a New York merchant
failed who owed me ten thousand dollars.”

“Whew! I begin to see.”

“This man—he calls himself Morton, but his real name is Lincoln—was Mr.
Armstrong’s clerk. He appropriated these securities, worth about eighty
thousand dollars, and fled. It was supposed, but not known, that he had
come to California. I agreed to follow him and ascertain.”

“It is rather strange that you, a boy, should have undertaken such a
task. It is a man’s work.”

“There was no one else to do it. I offered my services, and was
accepted. I arrived in San Francisco three months since. I only met this
man a few days ago.”

“How did you know him?”

“Mr. Armstrong gave me his description.”

“Very good. Having found him, you followed him. What good did you think
it would do? Supposing he had the papers, how did you expect to get hold
of them?”

“That I didn’t know. I had no plan,” Tom confessed frankly. “But if I
were with him, some opportunity might offer. I set out in the hope of
that.”

“Does he have any suspicion of your motives in accompanying him?”

“No, I am sure he does not. Perhaps if he knew my real name he would.
But he thinks I am merely going to the mines in search of fortune.”

“You did not know positively that he had these bonds?”

“Not till you took them from him.”

The robber paused for a moment’s reflection, then he fixed his eyes upon
Tom.

“Now, tell me,” he said abruptly, “what object you have in telling me
all this?”

“I want you to help me,” answered our hero boldly.

The captain laughed.

“Oho! you want me to give you these papers. My young friend, I gave you
credit for more sense. Do you take me for a philanthropist?”

“No,” said Tom, smiling. “I never should make such a mistake.”

“Go on, then.”

“I will make it worth your while to give me these bonds,” said Tom, with
emphasis.

“You! How can that be? I have taken all your money, except the few
dollars I had the consideration to leave you. Of what other funds have
you command?”

“I represent Mr. Armstrong,” said Tom. “It is important that he should
recover these securities. I am authorized to offer a large sum for
them.”

“But why should I let them go, when I can obtain their whole value.”

“You can’t,” said Tom boldly.

“Why not?”

“For the same reason that they have been useless to the clerk who took
them. They cannot be negotiated.”

“Are you sure of that?”

“I am. The authorities have an accurate list of them all. Information
has also been sent to the different institutions and corporations
represented. Whoever undertakes to raise money on them is liable to
arrest.”

“Are you sure of all this?” demanded the robber thoughtfully.

“I am.”

“You may be right. In fact, I have sufficient knowledge of business to
believe that you are. I was not always what I am now. Years since I was
engaged in business in St. Louis. I was unfortunate as so many are. I
got into difficulties and made my way out here. Finally, getting
desperate, I organized this band, and begun to prey upon the community.”

He spoke slowly, and as if talking to himself. Tom listened with
surprise and interest. He saw that even robber-captains have a human
side, and are not altogether bad.

“Do you like this kind of life?” asked our hero.

The robber shrugged his shoulders.

“A man must live,” he said. “I would rather be a prosperous merchant,
but I must be satisfied with the mode of life that fortune has opened to
me. But that is not to the point,” he said, changing his tone. “You said
you had something for my advantage to propose. What is it?”

“I will tell you. Give me up those bonds, give me the means of returning
with them to New York, and you shall have ten thousand dollars as a
reward.”

“You speak confidently, but there are difficulties. How do I know that
you will keep faith with me—a social outlaw? Once out of my clutches you
will play me false.”

“I shall keep my promise,” said Tom proudly. “I pledge you my word.”

“But you may not be able to keep it. Show me your authority to make this
bargain.”

Tom drew a paper from his pocket-book—a paper of which we have not
hitherto spoken—signed by Mr. Armstrong, empowering him to make such
terms as he found necessary to secure the papers.

“I should have made this offer to Morton,” he said in conclusion, “but
the papers are no longer in his possession. I make them to you.”

“I don’t see how I’m to receive the money, even if I consent. There is a
reward offered for my arrest.”

“I wish you could have gone to New York with me,” said Tom. “You could
retain the papers until you were sure of the reward. I suppose that
would be impossible.”

The captain looked thoughtful.

“This a matter of importance,” he said. “I will take a night to think it
over. We will speak again on the subject to-morrow. Meanwhile keep your
mouth shut.”

“I will,” said Tom.

He walked back to the house with his companion But he did not share the
captivity of his fellow travelers. He was allowed to sleep and eat with
the robbers, and to have his freedom.

“He’s only a boy,” said the captain by way of explanation. “No need to
shut him up.”

TOM HAD an easy way of adapting himself to the company he was in.
Moreover, being a boy, he was regarded with less distrust than if he had
been older. He sat down with the robbers and took part in their
conversation, carefully abstaining, however, from disclosing the mission
he had revealed to the captain. He had the luck to please his
entertainers, if we may give them that name.

After supper the men lit their pipes, and lay down lazily under the
trees.

“I’ve got an extra pipe, my lad, if you’d like to smoke,” said Alonzo,
who ranked next to the captain. He was, in fact, the lieutenant of the
band.

“Thank you,” said Tom, “but I don’t smoke.”

“I smoked before I was of your age, boy.”

“Do you think it did you any good?”

“I can’t say it did, but it’s a comfort, and a merry life is my motto,
even if it’s a shorter one.”

“I may smoke sometime,” said Tom, “but I don’t believe it does a boy any
good.”

“You’re right there, most likely. What brought you out here?”

“I was going to the mines.”

“To make your fortune?”

“Partly, but it was partly the love of adventure.”

“You’ve had your adventure,” said Alonzo, smiling grimly.

“Yes,” said Tom, “and a pretty expensive one. I should have done better
to stay in the city.”

“Were you long there?”

“Yes, I was a clerk in a store.”

“I’ll tell you what you’d better do, my lad,” said Alonzo, taking his
pipe from his mouth.

“What’s that?”

“Join our band.”

“And become a——”

“Robber, bandit, or whatever you choose to call it.”

Tom laughed.

“I don’t think my friends would approve of it,” he said. “Shall I write
to them and ask?”

“I am not joking,” said Alonzo. “We want a boy like you to brighten us
up. You might be useful besides. We’ll give him a fair share of all we
make, won’t we, men?”

“I’m agreed.”

“And so am I.”

“And I,” said all.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” said Tom. “It’s a compliment, and so I consider
it, for you wouldn’t make the offer if you didn’t like my company, but
to be frank I don’t think I should like it.”

“He’s right.”

It was the captain who spoke.

“He’s right, boys. I’m a robber myself, and am likely to be, but I won’t
ask him to be. His life is before him—a bright and prosperous one it may
be, and I for one won’t ask him to spoil it by taking to the road. It’s
well enough for us, for there’s no other chance for us.”

“Captain,” said Alonzo, “you ain’t turning pious, are you?”

He spoke lightly, but he regarded the captain attentively as he spoke.

The captain laughed, but it was a forced laugh.

“That isn’t in my line,” he said. “I thought you knew me too well for
that, Alonzo.”

“Of course I do. I thought mayhap you’d got the blues, or was getting
sick of our company.”

“You have no reason to think that, because I don’t want the boy to
follow our example. If you had a son of your own, Alonzo, you wouldn’t
train him up to his father’s trade, would you?”

“Yes, I would,” said Alonzo doggedly. “The world owes me a living; the
rich have more than belongs to them, and I am ready to relieve them of
what belongs to the poor. What do you say, men?”

“That’s the way to talk,” said all in substance.

They were social outlaws—offenders in the eye of the law, but Alonzo’s
specious reasoning gave an air of respectability to their profession,
and they were ready to adopt it as their own.

“It may be so,” said the captain, “but I wouldn’t ask a boy to join us.”

He got up from the grass on which he had been reclining with the rest,
and walked thoughtfully away.

“Something’s come over the captain,” said Alonzo, looking after him.

“I don’t know but the captain’s right after all,” said another of the
men.

“What, Jack, are you going to turn back on us.”

“Not I, nor the captain neither, but what he said about a boy’s taking
up our business came home to me. I’ve got a boy somewhere about the age
of that youngster. He don’t know what his father is, and he sha’n’t
know, if I can help it. I ain’t good for much, but I want that boy to
grow up respectable.”

“Suppose we change the subject,” said Alonzo, adding with a sneer,
“piety’s spreading. I sha’n’t be surprised, Jack, to hear that you and
the captain have turned missionaries. As for me, I ain’t partial to a
black suit and a white choker.”

“You’d prefer a different kind of a choker,” suggested Jack.

“What do you mean by that?” demanded Alonzo roughly.

“No offense, lieutenant,” said Jack. “Let a man have his joke. We’re all
in the same boat, as far as that goes.”

But Alonzo still looked moody, and did not seem inclined to accept the
apology.

Upon this Jack, to restore good feelings, brought out his violin, for he
was a little of a musician, and begun to play a lively dancing tune.

“Let’s have a dance,” said one.

This suggestion was well received, and the members of the band begun to
leap about to the inspiring airs of the fiddle.

Then it was that a bright thought entered the mind of one of the
robbers—we will call him Bill.

“Have out the Dutchman,” he said. “Let us make him dance.”

This proposal was received with a shout of laughter, in which Alonzo
joined as heartily as the rest. Even Tom, though he sympathized with his
fellow-captive, could not help shouting with laughter as he pictured to
himself the burly form prancing up and down in the mazy dance.

“Good!” said Alonzo. “Bill, you and Dick go in and bring out the
prisoners. We’ll have some sport.”

The two men, nothing loth, jumped up and disappeared within the
building. After some delay they reappeared, followed by Gates and
Morton, and leading between them, bewildered and terrified, the massive
figure of our Teutonic friend, Herr Schmidt. He gazed about him in
evident affright, and ejaculated:

“What will you do mit me? Don’t kill me, goot gentlemen. I am only one
poor Dutchman.”

“We won’t hurt you, mynheer,” said Alonzo, “that is if you obey our
commands. You must dance a jig.”

“I cannot dance at all,” said Herr Schmidt in alarm. “Indeed I cannot,
gentlemen.”

“Oh, you needn’t be particular about the steps, but dance you must. We
are all going to dance. Jack, strike up a tune, and let the fun begin.”

THE FIDDLER struck up a lively polka. The members of the band, two by
two, begun to dance. Gates, entering into the spirit of the joke,
impressed Tom as a not unwilling partner, and Morton was seized by one
of his captors and compelled to join in. But Herr Schmidt looked on
stupidly, and stood motionless.

Alonzo gave a signal for the music to cease.

“Why don’t you dance?” he demanded sternly of the German.

“Ich kann nicht. I have never learn,” said Johann, in a tone of apology.

“Then I will teach you,” and the lieutenant seized the unwilling Teuton,
and forced him to jump and caper as well as his great bulk would permit.

Gradually the rest stopped, and fixed their eyes upon the Dutchman’s
unwilling gambols. The lieutenant had threatened him with instant death
if he did not do his best, and the distressed Teuton, fearing to be
shot, exerted himself to please his captor.

[Illustration: “THE LIEUTENANT THREATENED THE DUTCHMAN WITH INSTANT
DEATH IF HE DID NOT DO HIS BEST.”]

If the reader will imagine a frisky elephant, he can form some idea of
mynheer’s wonderful feats, as in panic-stricken resignation he hopped
and jumped at the will of the lieutenant. But he was short of breath and
yielded at last to fatigue, sinking in a heap upon the earth.

“I can no more,” he said, panting heavily. “I am ausgespielt!”

“He looks played out,” said the lieutenant. “Dick, bring him a drop of
brandy.”

“Have you any lager,” asked Herr Schmidt eagerly.

“No; don’t deal in that article. Brandy is better.”

“Nothing so good as lager,” murmured Johann, closing his eyes and
panting.

Nevertheless he took the brandy, and was mischievously plied with more
till, sad as I am to record it, the worthy Johann got decidedly fuddled,
and losing sight of his unfortunate position, volunteered a German song,
which convulsed his audience with mirth.

“You’re a jolly old boy,” said the lieutenant, slapping him on the
shoulder. “Won’t you stay with us and take up our trade?”

“What’s der wages?” asked Johann gravely.

“Fifty dollars a month and found.”

“You give me fifty dollars a month, and then you find me,” repeated the
Dutchman soberly.

Probably this was not meant as a joke, but it was so understood, and
Herr Schmidt was amazed at the universal merriment which followed. But
he bethought himself of a condition.

“I must have my Katrine and my Kinder here, too.”

“What’s Kinder?” asked Jack.

“Children. I know enough German for that,” said Tom.

“I don’t know about that,” said the lieutenant gravely. “Is Katrine
beautiful?”

“She was once,” said Johann. “She is now one fine woman.”

“And you will promise to help us in all our undertakings?”

“What will you have me to do?” asked the Teuton with returning
intelligence.

“Stop travelers on the highway—make them give up their money—and if they
won’t, shoot ’em,” said the lieutenant.

“You want me to be one robber!” exclaimed Herr Schmidt in horror, “and
kill de people! I cannot do it. I am a good man. I am not a robber.”

“If you will join us,” said the lieutenant with a wink to his men,
“we’ll make you our captain—that is, if you steal a good deal of money.”

“Nein, nein!” said Herr Schmidt vehemently. “I will not do it—Katrine
would leave me. She would not live with her Johann if he was become a
robber.”

“Is that your fixed, unalterable determination?” demanded the
lieutenant, assuming a fierce look.

“Ich verstehe nicht—I not understand,” stammered the captive.

“You won’t accept our flattering proposal, then?”

“I cannot indeed, my good friend,” said the German piteously. “I shall
make one very poor robber.”

“Fancy him at the head of the band,” said Jack laughing.

The idea was ludicrous. The robbers laughed till the tears run down
their cheeks, and the other three prisoners joined in.

The lieutenant recovered himself first. He frowned, and in a harsh voice
said, in a mock, imperious tone:

“Remove him at once to the dungeon. He has spurned my offer. He despises
our companionship. Let him prepare for a most terrible retribution.”

The affrighted Dutchman was borne back to the subterranean apartment,
groaning piteously under the impression that he was to be killed on the
morrow. But his fatigue was great, and in spite of his mental distress,
half an hour had not passed before snoring of a particularly boisterous
character apprised his fellow-prisoners that he was asleep. Happy are
they who can so readily command the blissful oblivion of slumber.