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THE MAN WITH THE CRIMSON BOX

 

CHAPTER I

 

BAD NEWS FOR BIG GUS!

 

Convict No. 53,784—known on the records of the Northern State Penitentiary at Moundsville, Illinois, as Gus L. McGurk—in the Chicago newspapers as “Big Gus”—and amongst crookdom as “Muscle-In”—stopped short in his mopping of the lower cell walk in Old Cell Block. It was but 10 in the morning—two full hours yet before dinner would be called in the prison’s 4 huge mess-halls—and since there was so little available work to distribute among Moundsville’s 2200 inmates, Big Gus always had to stretch out his limited area of mopping territory by actual slow-motion-picture manipulation of his mop—and frequent, if not more frequent, stoppings, as though for rest. Today, however, carried away by the realization that he would be “hitting the bricks” in only 3 more days, he had forgotten himself completely and actually worked—worked so hard and so swiftly that the collar of his coarse blue denim suit had actually become damp—and perspiration even hung from the end of his bulbous pockmarked nose. So stop he did—but not at all because of the damp neck, or the perspiration, or because he was using up “easy” mopping territory that should last him the rest of the day. For along that cell walk was coming nobody else than Convict No. 56,832—or “Educated” Brink, trusty—his youthful frame clad this morning in the neat gray chauffeur’s suit in which he drove the warden hither and thither; and, under Educated’s right arm, was no other than “Convict No. 1”—the latter being the beautiful all-striped black and grey cat who had been born in the prison but who, unlike the institution’s other 2200 “guests,” had the free run of the entire place, and was therefore known to every man within. The tense look on Educated’s face, with its narrow-set eyes, both directed squarely toward Big Gus, told the latter, standing there mop in hand, that something was afoot.

And when Educated—who so often was sent aver the entire prison by the warden to gather in Convict No. 1, so that the famous striped cat could be shown to some visiting guest—deliberately freed Convict No. 1—though with a cautious glance around the now deserted cell block—Big Gus knew that something was afoot.

Educated, approaching him, veered off to one side, and with the caution of one who knew that a “screw” might be silently watching from one of the upper cell walls, spoke in a low tone to Big Gus—and from the inner side of his mouth only. But constricted as his words were, they were nevertheless cleanly enunciated, and correctly, as well, as befitted one who had once spent 4 long years in a high school and thus attained his “monicker” of “Educated.”

“Bad news, Gus!” were his opening words. “I carried Con No. 1 through 3 cell blocks to tell it to you. Brace yourself, now. For the news means—maybe—the chair for you. Where can I talk to you?”

And Educated peered out over the cell walk rail, plaintively calling, “Kitty? Kitty?”

The chair! Big Gus gasped. He had presence of mind enough to grunt: “Faucet room—off connectin’ corr’dor—right away!”

And Educated was gone—peering here and there into various of those archaic flagstone-paved “one-man” cells which characterized Moundsville’s Old Cell Block, and calling “Kitty, Kitty?” Though obviously knowing that Convict No. 1, on his release, had slithered straight into Cell No. 44. Whose occupant—old Bill Raymond, lifer—was always known to leave therein—and where Con No. 1 could get it!—a single piece of meat from last night’s meal.

As for Big Gus, though his mop water had just been drawn, and was therefore clean, he hastened, nevertheless, pail in hand, and sweating more now than if he were vigorously wielding his mop, around the large square cell walk, and down that corridor he had mentioned—and which connected Old Cell Block with Cell Block No. 1.

A moment later he stood inside a big cement-floored room, fitted with huge faucets, and, on hooks along one wall, mops, brooms, and cleaning paraphernalia of all kinds. And it was but a second later that Educated when his eternal search for Convict No. 1 for the warden—had the run of the entire prison, entered the door. And closed it carefully.

Gus strode forward and seized him by the arms.

“What—what t’ hell, Ej’cated? What—what’s this here now news? Spill it—quick?”

“I will, Gus,” replied the narrow-eyed convict in the chauffeur’s suit. “And here it is: The State’s Attorney—up in Chi—has got the skull of Wah Lee!”

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