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VAGABOND NIGHTS: 10 HOURS

 

A Mystery Novel

 

Chapter I

 

TO LIVE—OR TO DIE?

 

The defendant had finished his story.

His story by which, beyond any doubts whatsoever, he was to live—or to die!

His story as to why he had been found there—on proscribed military territory—during a time of technical “war”—and with, in his possession, a skull and jawbone wrapped together. Those two objects constituting, under the strange circumstances, highly incriminating evidence against him—to say the least.

And now, presenting a curious and strange—even pathetic—figure, dressed as he was in the shiny discarded dress suit and hickory shirt which he wore, he stood waiting. Stood in respectful silence in front of the long canvas-covered table back of which the three judges, in their olive drab uniforms, sat.

For, now that he was finished, a most intense quiet filled the big courtroom, improvised from the Pickford Motion Picture Palace, of Harleysburg, Texas—a quiet that was veritably that of the realm from which those ghastly objects—that skull and jawbone, standing there upon that canvas table—had come.

It had been 19 minutes past midnight by the big octagonal-faced clock ticking away on the wall behind the three judges when the defendant, plucked but a few hours before from that hobo fire just outside the town, had commenced the explanation which was to clear him completely of being the agent—if not spy—of that Mexican rebel commander, “Madman” Pedro Lopez who, because of personal animus, had declared war against this tiny town. And now, at the startling conclusion of the defendant’s long explanation, the hands of the big clock pointed to 3:33 in the morning.

The conduct of the two officers delegated respectively to prosecute and vindicate not only this man—but the two other self-admitted “vagabonds” plucked from the same fire—and with equally strange possessions on their persons—had been quite different during this whole recital now finished. The defender, Lieutenant Lane, wide-eyed and young, had sat motionless back of his small square folding tripod table facing the right-hand edge of the judges’ longer table, his arms folded across his chest, not even glancing once back of him toward the barrel-supported plank stenographer’s table whose gold-rimmed-spectacled uniformed incumbent had apparently filled several notebooks with the mass of testimony now given. And there was about Lieutenant Lane the triumphant air of a barrister who had delivered for his client—and through his client’s own lips—the most convincing evidence yet presented this night.

And, smilingly, he now rose.

“If it please the court,” he said quietly, “I submit this complete examination of my client, ‘Robert Roe’ of—as now revealed by his own words—Frisco, Canada, Chicago, South America, and various other points!—as the conclusion of my defense with respect to the charge against the said ‘Robert Roe’ of espionage. And I ask his discharge the moment his story is checked. For it has to be remembered that he is not being tried in a criminal court—this is a military court purely—and with respect to his activities—elsewhere and at other times—this court does not possess jurisdiction. This court may, as a matter of courtesy, forward to the Chief of Police at Chicago the vital information this man gives us—that one of Chicago’s ‘honored’ citizens is a murderer. And the Chicago police may dig beneath the mushroom beds in that individual’s cellar, and unearth the body which—through the defendant’s revelations—we now know is there. But notifying the Chicago Police Department is all that this court may do. ‘Roe’ has, I assert, cleared himself of such charges as lie against him in this court. And, as I stated a few seconds or so back, I ask his discharge the moment his story is checked. For I am reasonably sure that”—there was a slight hint of irony in Lieutenant Lane’s tones—“rather, I am at least fatuously assuming that my client would not offer a single fact here tonight that cannot be fully substantiated—rather, let me say, any facts that could be contraverted.” Now Lane’s words were devoid of irony, serious. “ ‘Roe’ is not so dense, I take it, as to render any controvertible facts—with his life at stake!” He turned slightly leftward, so as to face down the long table, and the black-eyed pockmarked prosecutor, Captain Herman Raus, who sat at like tripod stand at its other end. “Captain Raus, in the face of this straightforward story, susceptible of corroboration at a dozen points, will you be—taking the witness?”

“Yes,” snapped the prosecutor, Captain Raus, viciously, rising as he spoke. “I will—be taking the witness! Yes. And to the firing squad—in the morning!”

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