I could tell I was going to like this story just from the illustration: My grandfather was a station operator and telegrapher, and this is exactly the sort of fun adventure tale my dad used to tell -- a robber, his hostage, and tension on both sides as a critical game of checkers is played by wire....
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In The King Row
by Lovell Coombs
IT HAPPENED so suddenly that Finnerty was still dazed. One moment the checkerboard, with its numbered squares and double set of men; the brooding lamplight, the quietly ticking telegraph instruments, the low, night noises from the woods across the track; then the pistol muzzle and the black-masked face at the open window, and the two sharp words that sent his hands ceilingward.
Comprehension came as a stocky figure materialized, scrambled in across the instrument table, and dropped to the floor. Finnerty's eyes flickered anxiously toward the safe in the corner.
"You're on," observed a crisp voice. "Back your chair to the wall! Drop your right hand to the chair arm!"
Five minutes later, following a fruitless "third degree" regarding the combination of the safe--known only to the railway postal clerks--the lone occupant of the junction station found himself found as he sat, while the unknown, on his knees before the safe, turned the knob and listened.
Just prior to the advent of the bandit, the game of over-the-wire checkers had been interrupted for the reporting of a freight up the branch. The ticking instrument ceased its chatter as the man at the safe produced a brace and bit, and fell to drilling. There was an interval of silence, and the sounder clicked:
"You there, Fin? It's your move."
Finnerty turned toward the instruments helplessly. The question was repeated, then the station call. A flicker of hope that followed the repetition of the call quickly faced. There would be no train through for two hours, and his mere absence from the wire would probably not result in any endeavor to reach him before that time.
"You there, Fin?" again clicked the sounder. "What's the matter?"
Catching at the meager possibility of his silence resulting in the discovery of his predicament, Finnerty listened while the operator at Bathton repeated the junction call at short intervals. Then the spark of hope kindled as the instrument began repeating the letter of the dispatcher's call.
The Bathton operator was a rapid sender. At the buzzing succession of dots forming the letter "H," the grinding at the safe abruptly ceased. Turning, Finnerty encountered the gleam of a suspicious eye withing the sinister mask.
"What's coming off there?" demanded the unknown sharply.
"One station calling another," responded Finnerty with frankness.
There was a momentary silence, and the rapid, buzz-bell repetition of H's broke out afresh.
The safebreaker dropped his brace and bit, and rose to his feet. "I didn't see you move," he said grimly, "but if I thought you had been up to anything there---"
He strode toward the table. At once the checkerboard caught his eye. To Finnerty's surprise, the discovery brought forth an exclamation, then a low laugh. The man, bending over the board, half turned.
"No I'm on, my friend. I butted in on a game of checkers by telegraph, and the other man thinks something is wrong."
"Brilliant!" murmured Finnerty, with rash tartness. "Perhaps you would like to finish the game yourself?" he added, when his captor had remained over the board some seconds, as though pondering the problem presented.
"That's just what I was thinking."
Finnerty started. Then he stared while the man in the mask picked up the checkerboard, bore it carefully across the room, and placed it on the floor beside the safe. A remark was lost in further surprise when the man returned to his side, and began loosening the cord about his right wrist.
"Yes; I'm going to finish the game myself--to keep that fool on the wire quiet. You are going to send the moves, very slowly, figure by figure, so I can tell whether you say anything else. I know how the game is played by wire. Between moves you are to hold your hand high in the air. And at the least suspicion that you are saying anything else"--the fumbling at the knot ceased, and the eyes within the mask glared into Finnerty's own--"at the least suspicion--you know what'll happen to you! Understand?"
"I guess so," conceded Finnerty.
"No guessing--you know!"
"Well, then, I know--and something else," Finnerty added mentally, with determination. The inspiration took form as his hand was freed, and ordered held aloft.
"What explanation shall I make for leaving the wire so suddenly?" he asked ingenuously.
The eyes within the mask again glared within and inch of his own. "Young man, you begin a word of explanation, and you'll finish it in the next world! No, sir! You'll start right in where you left off, and the man at the other end can think what he pleases."
The cracksman returned to the safe. Kneeling in his former position, he recovered the drill, then paused to study the checkerboard. During the silence which followed, the operator in the chair fancied that there was a puzzled expression on the mask-concealed face. The impression brought a new hope. Perhaps the man could not play, or could not play but a poor game. In that case, with his own strange actions on the wire, suspicion might yet be aroused.
"Whose move?" asked the mask.
"Huh! You're not great noise as a checker player. You'll lose out in the third move."
Another hope had fled.
Surprise and half-conscious anger at the disparagement of his playing ability were still struggling in Finnerty's mind with plans for circumventing the safebreaker, when the latter looked up and ordered:
"Drop your hand to the key. Now, send slowly, figure by figure: Twenty one, twenty-three."
Finnerty pushed open the key lever, interrupting a renewal of his own call by the man at Bathton, and while the cracksman listened intently, ticked off the figures as directed:
"Hand up again!" directed the mask.
The silence which followed on the part of the instrument seemed aptly to express the Bathton operator's surprise at this abrupt reappearance of his checker opponent.
"Was that you, Fin?" he clicked at last. "Where have you been?"
Finnerty took quick advantage of the opening.
"You see," he said, nodding toward the sounder, "he doesn't believe it is I. He wants to know. I'll have to make some sort of explanation."
"You'll just repeat the move!" growled the safecracker. "Let him think what he pleases! He'll probably imagine you're drunk," he added sardonically.
With compressed lips Finnerty complied. And this time, to his disappointment, the Bathton operator accepted the situation with a tart "O. K.," immediately followed by a return move. The strange game was under way.
WATCHED sharply by the bandit, Finnerty went and called off move after move, the man in the mask continuing his drilling operations uninterruptedly, save for the brief pauses required to make the moves, and to listen to the operator's sending.
After the first few moves Finnerty scarcely noted the progress of the game. Performing his part almost mechanically, he was searching every crevice of mind and memory for a means of securing the upper hand of the situation. Think as he could, there seemed but one outlet--the wire; and but the one way of utilizing it--the sending of something in addition to the moves of the game.
At first sight this might seem a simple problem, the bandit not being a telegrapher. But the brevity of the "move" messages--four figures--and the deliberate transmission required, made the addition of the shortest useful word practically and impossibility.
For a space Finnerty considered the substitution of two short words for a move; but this would have aroused suspicion by muddling the positions on the board. For similar reasons he abandoned a briefly entertained idea of playing the game himself, and sending out a call for help in lieu of the supposed moves. He doubted his ability to remember the positions of the dimly seen checker men.
Finally, however, dogged persistence produced one possibility. It did not look easy, but catching at it with desperation, Finnerty determined to risk it.
As the first step, on transmitting the next move in the game, he did not raise his hand to its full stretch. Three minutes later, without comment from the man at the safe, he raised it no higher than his head. Cautiously feeling with his fingers, he found, as he had hoped, that he could reach the wall, and the two descending wires of the station "loop."
The next step was securing of an open pocketknife lying on the table.
Occasionally, convinced seemingly that the prisoner had learned his lesson, the safebreaker did not turn from his work when ordering a move. Watching for a recurrence of this relaxation, Finnerty, while withdrawing his hand from the key, made a furtive lunge, and secured the knife. The action passed unnoticed.
Carefully, then, and praying that the man at Bathton would take his time for the next move, he pressed the blade across the two wires behind his head, and cut firmly downward through the insulation. From the instruments came a jangle, as the steel reached and bared the copper strands, and a "cut-off" connection was made.
The bandit looked up. Finnerty bit his lips to steady them. If the man ordered him to hold his hand higher, and saw the knife---
"Wasn't that a move?"
"A 'bug' on the wire," said Finnerty.
A breathless moment the mask eyed him. Then the hum of the drill resumed.
OPERATOR BATES, at Bathton, was mystified by the actions of his checker opponent at the junction as Finnerty has suggested to his captor.
"If it wasn't for the game he is playing," Bates observed to the night baggageman, lolling over the table beside him, "I'd swear Fin had some fire water in his battery. He never played a better game.
"There!" he exclaimed, "just listen to that ham stuff!" Driving his chair back, Bates motioned disgustedly toward the heavily clicking sounder. "If Father Morse heard that, he'd turn in his grave. It sounds as though the beggar was sitting on the key, sending by bumping up and down on it. I can't make head or---"
Sharply Bates broke off. He sat erect. With a crash his chair rocked forward, his eyes fixed to the wagging sounder.
"What is it?" demanded the baggageman.
"I believe something's wrong! I caught the words, 'post-office safe.'"
The signals began to come more distinctly. "Listen!" cried Bates.
Both men were hanging over in the instrument breathlessly, the baggageman's eyes on the operator, the operator's eyes glued to the sounder.
"I'm--tied--chair," he read on. "He's--playing-the-checkers. Making--me--send--moves. I'm--sending--this--by--pressing--wires--together--behind--head--with--key--open. Ask--H--send--down--engine--of--thirty-four--with--help. If--hurry--can--get--him. Keep--on--playing."
The wire closed, and in the former manner of sending came a move in the game: "Three-o, two-six."
The baggageman sprang for the door. "I'll get out the train crew," he yelled. "They'll be in the lunchroom."
"And call for volunteers among the passengers!" Bates shouted after him.
To Finnerty, at the junction, Bates shot back: "I'm on, old boy! Keep it up! Keep your nerve!" and whirled off into the dispatcher's call.
Three minutes later Bates was racing down the station platform, shouting the engineer's name, a scrap of fluttering "flimsy" in his hand. Five minutes more, and the engine of the opportunely waiting "accommodation" was snorting hysterically from the yards, bristling with trainmen and an eager contingent of excursioning stockmen.
Meanwhile, returning to his wire, Bates confronted a new situation. Two additional moves brought abrupt conclusion to the game of checkers, in favor of his safebreaking opponent, and Finnerty reported:
"He doesn't intend playing another game. He has the hole farther into the safe door than I thought. If he's not delayed he'll be ready to blow it in a few minutes. What shall I do? I'm at the end of my string."
Bates indulged in a clicking succession of exclamation marks, expressive of confusion, while thinking deeply. His face brightened, and he sent back rapidly:
"Tell him I say he--that is, you--only won the game by a fluke. Say I was talking to another chap here, and made two blind moves, or he wouldn't have had a look-in. Tell him I'll beat him--you, of course! I'll beat him this time without breaking my king row."
"I," responded the instrument, in acquiescence.
During the momentous silence that followed, Bates gripped the key rigidly, and watched the sounder, straining forward. Undoubtedly his robber opponent was a checker enthusiast, a "fan," odd as it seemed. But would vanity and his love for the game be strong enough to trick him in such a situation? Would---"
The sounder clicked upward. "H--i!" it rattled, in the telegrapher's wire laugh. And with a sigh and a smile Bates relaxed.
"He bit," the instrument clattered on. "He'll play. Says go ahead, and he'll beat you so badly you'll never come back. Is fixing his board. It's your move."
"And now, B," the instrument clicked more readily, as Finnerty mastered his novel key, "it's up to you to keep the game going until the engine gets here. Play all you know. Get him guessing. That stops him in his work for a few minutes. And it won't be safe simply to delay the moves, unless you follow with a good one. He's too wide awake. So play the game of your life!"
"I will," tapped Bates in reply. Setting himself in his chair, he bent over his board with serious face, pondering the opening move.
Suddenly Bates sat erect. "By Jove, that's it!" Kicking the chair from under him, he sprang to the telephone.
"Police station, please! Hello! Sergeant Baker? Bate, at the station. Say, Baker, can you come down here right away, and help me out in a game of checkers? It's a matter of catching a safecracker down at the junction! I'll explain when you get here. And say! Drop in at the fire hall and bring Billy Delaney with you. Good! Hurry!"
Within a few minutes Operator Bates was explaining the extraordinary situation to the two local checker champions. "So you see," he concluded, "it's up to us, by hook or crook, to keep the game going as long as possible, without taking the slightest chance of arousing the man's suspicions."
"Can he play?" asked the fireman.
"He's a crackajack--a regular checker fan, I take it."
With heads together over the numbered squares, policeman, fireman, and operator studied and debated the problem.
"Of course, the most natural thing to play for, under the circumstances, would be a tie," observed the sergeant. "But then, if he is a real player, he would see it as soon as it was in sight, and stop right there."
"How would it do, then," suggested the fireman, "to play for a two-king, three-king and wind-up--ours the two kings, with one in either double corner? That would give him the advantage, yet, if the three of us watch ourselves, we could be able to stand him off indefinitely. I've spent half the night working for the move in the same fix."
"That's the game!" agreed the others.
AT the junction matters had fallen into routine, with the resumption of play. Stolidly, to all appearances resignedly, the bound operator sent and called off return moves. Steadily and calmly, as though engaged in an accustomed and enjoyable dual task, the masked figure at the safe moved the men on the checkerboard, and spun the handle of his drill.
The opening half of the game, at least, he had played steadily, with the evident intention of speedily concluding it. Now, with the contest narrowing, he was beginning to pause occasionally to consider a move.
With rising hope Finnerty saw the pauses increase in frequency, and at last unconsciously the "checker enthusiast" rose above the "robber of safes," and with rising anxiety saw the number of men on the board steadily decreasing.
Chuckling, the safe cracker sacrificed on checker man, and took two. With despair Finnerty noted that there were now but five men on the board, three of them the blacks of the robber.
But on the next move coming over the wire, the man uttered a smothered imprecation. While Finnerty leaned forward, tense with revived hope, he turned more fully toward the checker-board. The plaint of the spinning drill subsided in pitch.
It had stopped. As one beside a somnambulist, Finnerty watched, and held his breath, and listened.
Lower the cracksman sank on his knees, regarding the board. He started to move, paused, settled back. Now the drill was withdrawn, and placed slowly, unconsciously, on the floor. The relieved hand wandered to the drooping chin.
At the moment, faintly through the open window, came an engine's "crossing" whistle. Finnerty caught his breath with a gasp, the sibilant hiss of which drove the blood back to his heart. The masked figure at the save moved, raised his head. Finnerty clutched the chair arms in an agony of anxiety.
"Now I think I have him. Forteen-ten, please," came Bates' message.
Unconsciously Finnerty dashed the perspiration from his brow before reaching for the key. Then he found he had forgotten the move. He glanced about.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Fourteen, ten, please."
A moment's nervous inclination to laughter, as the subconscious mind noted the exchange of courteous address, again delayed the transmitting of the move.
It was sent. Finnerty, recovering his former position in the chair, braced himself for the final five minutes of the ordeal. Would the engineer be unwise enough to whistle another crossing? Would he stop far enough away to avoid the telltale hum of the rails reaching the station? Would he come close enough to enable the posse to make the depot speedily? Could Bates prolong the game?
In anxious repetition the questions raced through Finnerty's mind as he followed every move on the board, and listened with straining ears.
A low rumble, half heard, half felt, reached him. The engine was over the bridge, a half mile distant! Would the engineer whistle the crossing this side? No, thank the heavens!
The game was now moving more rapidly on the cracksman's part. Evidently he had a plan in mind, and was shifting his men in order to "get the move." Breathlessly Finnerty watched.
Following a move from Bates, the player started half erect, as with elation. Finnerty clutched the chair arm. A move was sent, and one was received. With a low growl the bandit again drooped over the board. Again Finnerty breathed.
Then suddenly the player in the mask sat erect, with an "Ah!" that brought Finnerty forward in his chair.
"Now I've got him! Ten--six."
In despair Finnerty glanced toward the window. His lips closed convulsively over a cry.
With difficulty he clutched the key, and clicked off the move. The return move came. "Five--one," he translated.
"Ah! My game! My game!" In his glee the checker-playing robber of safes sprang erect on his knees--to sink back slowly, with twitching lips.
Framed in the window were a dozen grimly grinning faces; in front of them showed a battery of pistol muzzles.
"Yes, your game," observed Finnerty, not without a touch of sympathy for a fallen fellow enthusiast; "Your game on the board--but my game for the safe. I got in your king row there, all right."
This story is from the March 1, 1913 issue of Top-Notch Magazine. The entire issue is available at the Internet Archive, but only as image files -- that is, a png image of each page. You can find the info page here, and the actual collection of page links here.
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