According to Code
FIRST SERGEANT STOUT of A Troop becomes his name like any hero of English ballad. First Sergeant Stout is towering tall, and broad and sinewy in proportion. There is not a meagre thing about him, from his heart and his smile to the grip of his hand, whether in strangle-hold or in greeting. Just as he stands, he might have roamed the woods with Robin Hood, or fought on the field of Crecy in the morning of the world.
But First Sergeant Stout has one peculiarity which in the morning of the world could never have marked him. Sometimes, when he turns his head to right or to left, his head sticks fast that way until he takes it between his two hands and lifts it back again; and the reason is that he carries a bullet close to his spinal cord, lodged between the first and second vertebræ.
Once on a time, Sergeant Stout had charge of a sub-station in the town of Unionville, County Fayette. And among those days came a night when, at exactly a quarter past ten o’clock, the sub-station telephone rang determinedly.
There was nothing novel in this, since the sub-station telephone was always determinedly ringing, day and night, to the tune of somebody’s troubles. But this time the thing was vicariously expressed; or, you might call it, feebly conglomerate.
The constable of the village of Republic held the wire. He complained that one Charles Erhart, drunken and violent, had beaten his wife, had driven her and their children out of doors, and was now entrenched in the house with the black flag flying.
‘She’s given me a warrant to arrest the man, but I can’t do it,’ said the constable. ‘ He’ll shoot me if I try. So I thought some of you fellers might like to come over and tackle him.’
The sergeant looked at his watch. ‘The trolley leaves in fifteen minutes,’ said he. ‘I ’ll be up on that.’
The trolley left Unionville at half after ten, reaching Republic, the end of the line, just one hour later.
‘Last run for the night,’ the motorman remarked as they sighted the terminus.
‘I know. And I’ve only about half an hour’s business to do here. Then I’d like to get back. Do you think you could wait?’
‘Sure,’ said motorman and conductor together. ‘Glad to do it for you, sergeant.’
Hovering in the middle of the road, at the ‘ ’s-far-’s-we-go’ point, hung the constable — a little man, nervous and deprecatory. Religious pedagogy would have been more in his line than the enforcement of law. Now he was depressed by a threatened lumbago, and by the abnormal hours that his duty was laying upon him. Also he was worried by the present disturbance in his bailiwick, and therefore sincerely relieved to see an officer of the State Police.
‘He’s a bad one, that Charlie Erhart, at the best of times. And when he’s drunk he’s awful. I could n’t pretend to handle him — it would n’t be safe. Like’s not he’d hurt me. But you’ — As if struck by a new thought, the constable suddenly stopped in his tracks to turn and stare at the sergeant. ‘Why, you — why, I thought you’d bring a squad!’
‘To arrest one man?’ the sergeant inquired gravely. ‘Well, you see we’re rather busy just now, so we have to spread ourselves out.’
They were walking rapidly through the midnight streets, turning corners, here and again, into darker and narrower quarters. The ring of their steps stood out upon the silence with a lone and chiseled clarity, as though all the rest of the world had fled to the moon. Yet, to the constable’s twittering mind that very silence teemed with a horrible imminence. The blackness in each succeeding alley seemed coiled to leap at him. He dared neither to face it nor to leave it at his back.
His gait began to slacken, to falter. At last he stopped. ‘I guess I’ll leave you here.’ — He flung out the words in a heap, as if to smother his scruples. — ‘You just go on down the street, then take the second turn to the left, and the house is on the far side — third from the corner. You can’t miss it. And my lumbago’s coming on so fast I guess I’ll have to get home to bed. Glad you came, anyway. Good-night to you.’
‘Wait a moment,’ said the sergeant. ‘If you are not coming along, I want to see the woman before I go farther.’
The constable indicated the tenement house in which the fugitive family had taken refuge. Then he whisked around, like a rabbit afraid of being caught by its long ears, and vanished into the dark.
Mrs. Erhart, nursing a swollen eye and a cut cheek, clutching a moaning baby in her arms and with a cluster of half-clad, half-starved, wholly frightened and miserable children shivering around her, narrated her tale without reserve. The single little lamp in the room, by its wretched light, showed her battered face in tragic planes. Her voice was hoarse, hard, monotonous. She had no more hope — no more illusion — no more shame.
‘He has tried to kill us all, me and the children — often. He does n’t get helpless drunk. He gets mad drunk. Some day he will kill us, I guess. There’s naught to prevent him. Do I want him arrested? Yes, sir, I do that! He’s tried to take our lives this very night. And he’s keeping us out of all the home we’ve got — all the home we’ve got. But’ — and she looked up with a sudden strange flicker of feeling akin to pride — ‘I reckon he’ll kill you if you try to touch him, big as you are. He sure will! Erhart’s a terror, he is! And to-day he’s cut loose for a fact.’
Armed now with an indisputable justification for entering the house, Sergeant Stout went ahead with his errand. The place, when he found it, proved to have a narrow passageway running from the street to its back door.
Sergeant Stout, taking the passageway, walked quietly round to the back door and knocked.
‘You don’t get in!’
The voice was loose, flat, blaring — a foolish, violent voice.
The sergeant set his shoulder against the door. It groaned, creaked, splintered, gave way, opening directly into the kitchen. Confusion filled the place. Broken furniture, smashed dishes, messes of scattered food, made in the smudgy lamp’s dim light a scene to be grasped at a glance. But there was no time to look about. Directly at hand, half-crouching, lurching sidewise for the spring of attack, lowered a big, evil-visaged hulk of a man. His eyes were red, inflamed with rage and drink; his breath came in gusts, like the breath of an angry bull.
‘You would, would you! You — bloody — Cossack! I’ll learn you to interfere with the rights of an honest laboring man in his home! ’
He held his right hand behind him as he spoke. Now he jerked it forward, with its gun.
With a jump the sergeant grabbed him, wrenched the revolver out of his grip, and, though the other struggled with all his brute strength, forced him steadily down to the floor. Then, with practiced touch, he made search for further weapons, and was already locking the handcuffs on the wrists of the prostrate prisoner when a voice from beyond made him raise his head.
Opposite the back entrance, on the other side of the kitchen, an open doorway framed the blackness of the front room. That doorway had been empty. But now, around its casement, and to the left as the sergeant faced it, projected a long, dully gleaming bar, — the barrel of a rifle, — while behind, faint against the night within, showed the left hand and the left eye of the gunman.
‘You!’ he had called, having already brought his rifle to bear. And the sergeant, stooping above his fallen assailant, had looked up in quick attention. The gunman had wanted a better mark — a full front face to fire at. He had it now — so he blazed away. The bullet struck fair between the trooper’s eyes, tearing through to the spine.
But because he had chanced to receive it in that very position, stooping and looking up with his head halfraised, the charge had spared the chamber of the brain, passing along its lower wall. The shock, nevertheless, was terrific.
Sergeant Stout, rightly named, never wavered. Instantaneously, in his first perception of the threat beyond, he had drawn his service Colt. And even as the other’s bullet burst through his head, he had sprung erect and fired at the gleam of that one visible eye beyond the door. Now, sliding over to the wall on the right, and so gaining a further view into the room, he covered his adversary with his revolver.
The gunman was in the very motion of firing again, — and the Trooper’s Colt would have anticipated the shot, — when suddenly the rifle-barrel wavered and dropped as its holder sank forward across the threshold.
Still covering him, the sergeant walked over and looked at the man. He had fainted — or was feigning it. The sergeant, kneeling beside him, saw that he was bleeding from the head. That snap revolver shot had gone true, striking just above the eye and glancing around to the back of the skull. But the soldier’s trained touch told him that the wound was slight. Even on the instant the fallen man opened his eyes — began to stir. In another minute he would be all alive again.
The sergeant stood up. In the cool, impersonal way made second nature by the training of the force, he rapidly weighed the situation. Here was he, Sergeant Stout of the Pennsylvania State Police, at midnight, alone, in the back room of an obscure dwelling in a mean place. He had in his possession two prisoners — one handcuffed and cowed, the other for the moment safe by reason of a rapidly passing daze.
If this were all, the situation would be of an extreme simplicity. His second prisoner revived, he would march them both to the waiting trolley and take them back to Unionville jail. But this was not quite all. He, Sergeant Stout, had been shot through the head. His head seemed to be growing bigger, bigger. Blood was pouring down his throat in a steady stream. It would make him sick if he stopped to think of it; and his head was growing bigger — curiously bigger. Presumably, like other persons shot through the head, he would presently die. If he died before he handed these men over into safe keeping, that would be a pity, because they would get away. Further, if he could not maintain sufficient grip on himself to handle prisoner number two, prisoner number two, beyond any doubt, would shortly shoot again. As long, however, as he did keep that grip on himself, just so long prisoner number two was a ‘prisoner under control.’ And prisoners under control, by the code of the force, must be protected by their captors. Obviously then, there was just one course for Sergeant Stout to pursue: since he must, beyond question, complete these arrests, and since he must not permit his second captive to make the move that would justify disabling him, he must hang on to his own life and wavering senses long enough to march the two men to that trolley car. It had to be done, though his head was growing bigger — bigger (surely it must be spreading the skull apart!) — and the thick, choking blood was pouring down his throat.
He kicked the rifle away from the threshold, out of the left-handed gunman’s reach. The gunman was moving now — consciousness fully returned. The sergeant, motioning with the point of his Colt, brought him up standing. Then, with another gesture of his revolver too simple to be misunderstood, he indicated to the two the door to the street.
It must have seemed to them like taking orders from a spectre — from one of those awful beings through whose charmed substance bullets pass without effect. They looked at him aslant, fearfully. This Presence had been shot through its brain, — there was the mark, — yet it gave no sign of human vulnerability. It was not good — not natural! For the last hour they had been amusing themselves, this well-met pair, in firing at a mark on the kitchen wall. Their bullets had been striking through, into the house next door, arousing a spicy echo of women’s screams. With relish they had awaited some attempt at restraint. But they had not expected just this! Scarcely daring to meet each other’s eyes, they filed out of the door, into the yard, into the street. Little they guessed how the trooper’s head was sailing.
‘I’ve got to make it!’ said the sergeant to himself, clenching his teeth. And he would not think how many blocks it was to ‘ ’s far’s we go.’
‘One block at a time’ll do it,’ he told himself. One block at a time, he was steering them rapidly along, when upon his unsteady hearing broke the sound of footsteps, approaching on the run.
‘Another thug to their rescue, maybe!’ thought the sergeant — and the idea pulled him together with a jerk.
As the footsteps rang close, he held himself braced for an onset. They neared the corner ahead, — his Colt waited ready, — but the flying figure, rounding under the street lamp, showed, heaven be praised! the uniform of the Pennsylvania State Police.
Trooper Lithgow, returning to the sub-station from detached duty, and passing through the town of Republic, had learned from the waiting trolley men of his sergeant’s presence, with some hint of the errand which had brought him there. Thinking that help might not be amiss, he had started out to join his officer, and was hastening along the way, when the sound of the two shots, distinct on the midnight silence, had turned his stride to a run.
Together they walked to the trolley, herding the prisoners before them. Together they rode to Unionville, with the prisoners between them. From time to time the two trolley men looked at Sergeant Stout, with the bleeding hole between his eyes, then looked at each other, and said nothing. Very rarely, Trooper Lithgow looked at Sergeant Stout, then at the trolley men, but said nothing. A proud man he was that night. But he did not want those trolley men to know it. He wanted them to see and to understand for all time that this thing was a matter of course — that you could n’t down an officer of the Pennsylvania State Police on duty.
They got their two prisoners jailed. Then they walked over to the hospital (the last lift of the way up the hospital hill, Lithgow lent a steadying arm) and there, in the doctor’s presence, Sergeant Stout gently collapsed.
‘I’m glad you came, Lithgow. But you see — I could have fetched it!’ he said, with the makings of a grin, just before he went over.
There were four days when he might have died. Then his own nature laid hold on him and lifted him back again into the world of sunshine. ‘It’s one of those super-cures effected by pure optimism. The man expected to get well,’ the surgeon said.
But they dared not cut for the bullet: it lay too close to the spinal cord. And so First Sergeant Stout, when his head gets stuck fast, has yet to take it in his two hands and shift it free again. Still, with a head as steady as that, what does it matter?