William F. Stratton
A Question of Evidence
Updated: Jan 1, 2022
By Frank N. Stratton
The Reader Magazine, Volume IV June, 1904 Number 1.
DAWSON pushed his long fingers through his hair, laid the note on his book-littered table, and stepped back to regard it with incredulous eyes. Then he picked it up and reread it audibly, almost reverently:
Dan: The B. & N. offers you the position which my elevation to the bench compels me to resign. If you accept come to my study at eight this evening. Altway.
"If I accept," Dawson chuckled. "That's good!"
The sound of the squeaking floor-board interrupted his soliloquy. He jerked the partition door partly open, thrust his tousled head into the front office, and grunted his surprise.
"Come back here," he commanded.
"Wasn't expectin' me, eh?" the short, stocky man asked, as he slid into a chair and set a bulky grip on the floor beside him.
"I wasn't," answered Dawson laconically, as he shut and bolted the door.
"I'm here, just th' same," observed the short man briskly, nibbling the tip of a fresh cigar. "No change in th' situation, is there, Mister Dawson?"
"Yes," replied Dawson gravely, "there is a change—a change of judge."
A keen, suspicious glance flashed from the short man's steel-gray eyes. "How's that?" he demanded shortly.
"Judge Carey died Saturday—apoplexy—and Scott Altway was appointed in his place."
"Well?" the short man snarled, the curl of his shaven lip revealing the strong, white teeth.
"Well, as I told you, Judge Carey would have refused to admit Greene's testimony; Judge Altway will admit it."
The strong, white teeth met through the cigar tip with a snap; the muscles of the thick neck stiffened and swelled. "Sure of that?"
The short man chewed the cigar tip nervously. "Change of venue," he suggested.
"Too late for that now."
"Continuance, then; somethin' might happen before next term."
"No possible grounds for a continuance, Martin."
The short man slowly lighted the cigar, and the steel-gray eyes glittered and gleamed behind the blazing match. "Can't understand why that man Greene wants to perjure himself," he muttered.
Dawson smiled cynically across the table. "Mr. Greene is one of our most reputable citizens," he said in a significant tone.
Mr. Martin removed the cigar from his lips and glared at his attorney. "Look here, Dawson," he growled; "do you think I cracked that safe?"
Dawson thrust his hands into his pockets, stretched out his long legs, and contemplated the ceiling with twinkling eyes. "I think it was last Saturday," he said reminiscently, "that I saw the carrier lay a postal on the desk of our Chief of Police—a postal from the Police Department of Denver, bearing a faithful portrait of a familiar face."
With an oath, the short man started up; Dawson, laughing reassuringly, waved him back. "No cause for alarm, Mr.—Martin. I appropriated the postal just before the chief came in."
Mr. Martin regarded his attorney with an expression of admiration mingled with distrust. "Say, you're all right, pardner!" he exclaimed. "But hadn't you better give me that card? You might lose it."
"I think not," Dawson replied, dryly. "I think I'll keep it as a guarantee of good faith. You're to lay down another hundred, you know, if I happen to clear you."
"Pretty good likeness, eh, pardner?" Mr. Martin inquired, leaning forward in his chair.
"Excellent. And the description of Benjamin Burns, alias Matt Martin, professional safe-blower, is most minute, even to the scar that I see when you lean forward that way, Benjamin."
The short man straightened up, replaced the cigar, and puffed meditatively.
"There's one sure way out of this, you know, Benjamin," suggested Dawson, watching the other furtively.
Mr. Martin frowned and shook his bullet-like head. "I'll stay an' risk the trial. An' there's always a chance for a get-away, even after conviction. If my pile was somewhere near as big as that bond, I'd skip, but I can't afford to let th' boys pay th' difference."
"Might need their assistance again?"
Mr. Martin grinned and nodded. Dawson laughed, looked at his watch, and rose to his feet. "I've an appointment at eight," he said. "Come back in the morning, Martin, before court convenes."
The short man rose, flicked the ashes from his neat suit, and picked up the grip. "All right. I'm goin' to bed early an' get a good sleep—at th' Linton."
At the outer door he halted and turned back. "You're sure that if Greene's evidence was cut out they couldn't convict me, eh?" he asked.
Mr. Martin cleared his throat and glanced wearily about the room. "Look here, pardner," he said in a low tone; "there's another way out of this. I want an acquittal, an' you want that extra hundred. You see that man Greene to-night, an' find out how much—"
"Stop right there!" Dawson broke in. "I've taken your case and a fee, and I'll stay with you now to the finish, but no dirty business goes. I've gone the limit already in taking that card."
For a moment Mr. Martin stared steadily into the stern face. Then he shifted the grip to the other hand, opened the door, and scowled back over the broad shoulder. "Good-night, pardner," he growled.
"Good-night, Benjamin," Dawson responded.
"And farewell to Mr. Burns Martin and that extra hundred," he sighed, a moment later, as he donned his hat and locked the office-door.
In his private study, Judge Altway rose from the side of a portly, white-whiskered gentleman, and grasped Dawson's extended hand. "I want you to meet Mr. Durwin, president of the B. & N.," he said genially. "Mr. Durwin, this is Mr. Dawson, the new counsel of the Belleville & Northern Traction Company—that is, if he wants the position."
"The judge knows there's no 'if’ in the case," Dawson laughed, as he took the soft, fat hand of the president.
"But there is an 'if,' Mr. Dawson," said the president gravely. "In fact, our situation is serious."
"Desperate!" added Altway, compressing his thin lips. "No time to be lost. Draw your chair to this table, Dan, and I'll state our case.”
"On this map you see the B. & N. skirting the eastern bank of the river which forms the eastern boundary of Belleville. Here's where we had intended to bridge the stream, in order to enter the city, when the Belleville Street Railway secured that franchise, giving them the exclusive privilege of laying tracks on every street, apparently, over which we could enter."
"Yes," observed Dawson, "it's pretty generally understood, now, that the street railway, aided and abetted by the O. & E.—the steam railway—elected our mayor and common council for the very purpose of granting that franchise."
"But it isn't generally known," said the president, "that we must get into Belleville—must secure the Belleville traffic—or let the bondholders take the road. And the greater part of my fortune, and of Judge Altway's, is tied up in this venture."
"You might connect by balloon," suggested Dawson dryly. "I must confess that I see no other way."
"But there is another way," said the judge. "While examining the records I discovered the existence of a short street, never made, never used, covered by rubbish and old shacks, but having an indisputable legal existence."
Dawson uttered an exclamation of incredulity.
"Yes," Altway continued; "the street is omitted from the later maps, which explains the failure of our opponents to include it in their franchise. Here it is, Dan, in the original plat."
Dawson's eyes eagerly followed the judge's bony finger as it started from the wavering lines indicating the river, moved slowly westward, and stopped well within the original plat of Belleville. "Murden Street," he murmured, bending over the faded letters. Then he struck the table with his clenched hand. "Checkmated again, Altway," he cried. "Melton & Co. got a franchise last night to track that same street; want to transport ice from the river to their ice-house."
The judge smiled mirthlessly. "Yes; that's our franchise. Melton owns a block of our stock—by proxy."
"Ah! Melton will transfer the franchise to the B. & N."
"Exactly," the judge assented, gazing abstractedly at the troubled visage of the president of the B. & N.
"I see nothing serious in the situation," said Dawson, looking from judge to president with a puzzled air. "Does Melton refuse to make the transfer?"
"No; Melton's all right."
"Mayor refuse to sign the franchise?"
"Signed it this evening, just before leaving for Canton—his wife's ill there, you know. His clerk has orders to deliver it to the city clerk, for record, to-morrow morning."
"Well, what's the trouble?" Dawson asked impatiently.
The judge slowly tipped the adjacent decanter, took a few sips of the port, set the glass down, and glanced again toward the president. "The trouble, Daniel," he answered softly, "is that the genial Mr. Wykes, mayor of Belleville, and owner of O. & E. stock, has extracted page three of our franchise and has skillfully inserted a page more to his liking."
"The deuce he has!" Dawson gasped.
"Yes. There's a long list of minor privileges in the franchise, inserted for a blind, but page three contained the kernel of the nut—the innocent little clause about Murden Street. His Honor has carefully extracted the kernel, and has left us the empty shell."
"Altway, how do you know that?"
"I'm not at liberty to tell you. Rest assured that I know. That franchise, lying neatly signed in the safe of the acute Mr. Wykes, isn't worth a dollar—and it would have been the salvation of the B. &. N."
"But can't we prove—?"
"Not without betraying a powerful friend; and, legally, it's Melton's affair, you know, not ours. It would ruin all our future chances if it were known that we were interested; especially as the council's against us. No, Dawson, the B. & N. is done up—unless you can devise a remedy."
"I don't understand why Wykes didn't simply veto the franchise."
"He couldn't have given reasons, and without reasons the council might have passed it over his veto. Melton has influence with some of them. Wykes wouldn't risk it. You will see a franchise, giving Murden Street to the street railway, presented next session."
"Wykes's clerk doesn't draw a princely salary," Dawson suggested, with a significant gesture. "If we could get possession of that document long enough to—"
"I had—ah—considered that, Mr. Dawson," interrupted the president of the B. & N., gently caressing the white whiskers. "The judge happens to have an exact duplicate of our missing page. But I have ascertained that the clerk is not open to—ah—persuasion."
Dawson threw himself back in his chair, closed his eyes, and shoved his hands viciously into the pockets of his sack coat. His long fingers closed mechanically upon an obstacle they encountered in the righthand pocket. He withdrew the hand, gazed absently at what it held, then hurriedly thrust it back and sprang to his feet. "Give me that duplicate!" he cried.
"It's right under your hand," said the judge. "Hold on! Where are you going with it?"
Dawson turned in the doorway and shook the duplicate page above his head. "The problem is solved!" he cried jubilantly.
The president of the B. & N. rose hastily from his easy chair. "Don't be rash, young man!" he exclaimed nervously; "I'll assume no responsibility for any—"
"No; it's too risky, Dan," the judge chimed in. "There's two doors, or a window, to say nothing of the safe—"
Dawson laughed. "Don't think I'd try that. I'm only going—well, to the Linton Hotel, then to my office. I'll be back in an hour. You wait."
When Dawson reappeared he wore a perplexed countenance and was accompanied by a short, stocky gentleman who bowed awkwardly, first to the president of the B. & N., and then to the gaping Altway.
"Why, bless my soul, Dawson!" gasped the judge, "this is the fellow that—"
"Yes, judge," Dawson interposed hastily, and weakly, "this is the gentleman you try tomorrow. And here is Mr. Wykes's page three."
"And our duplicate—"
"Is in the franchise—neatly inserted by my own hands, judge."
"And the franchise, sir—where's our franchise?" nervously demanded the president of the B. & N.
Dawson's perplexed face turned crimson. "To the best of my knowledge and belief, Mr. Durwin," he replied faintly, "it's in Mr. Martin's inside pocket."
Mr. Martin grinned cheerfully, ducked his bullet head courteously, and tapped his well-developed right breast. "That's where she is, gents," he said, with an apologetic air; "safe an' sound. But you oughtn't to look at Mister Dawson that way—he couldn't help it. You see, gents, it's like this: "Havin' follered Mister Dawson when he first come here this evenin'—bein' a leetle suspicious regardin' some bizness of our own—I happens to git so close to that winder, there, that I couldn't help hearin' your very interestin' conversation."
A strangling sound issued from the white whiskers of the president of the B. & N. The judge snorted an exclamation that wouldn't have sounded well from the bench. Mr. Martin rubbed the point of his massive chin with the rim of his derby, and solemnly scrutinized the tasty decorations of the judge's private study.
"When Mister Dawson cut out fer th' Linton," continued Mr. Martin softly, "I hustled so's to meet him there. After I'd accommodated him by liftin' th' dockyment from th' dinky ol' safe—dead easy job, that was—an' had seen him, in his office, shift them sheets, thinks I there'll never be a better time fer askin' th' judge a leetle question that's been puzzlin' me considerable.
"So, when Mister Dawson gives me th' dockyment agin, to be put back in th' dinky safe, I stows it in this pocket an' delivers my ultymatum. Mister Dawson kindly hands over th' postal, seein' how sensitive I am 'bout strangers makin' so free with my photygrafFs, but he kicks on my comin' here. But here I am judge, wantin' to just ask you that one leetle question."
The judge wiped the perspiration from his bony forehead and moistened his dry lips with the wine. "And what's your question, my man?" he asked.
Mr. Martin's shifty eyes rested admiringly upon the decanter. "Mighty dry talkin', judge," he suggested, with a little cough.
After the second glass he smacked his lips approvingly and wiped them with the back of a hairy hand. "It's like this, judge," he resumed, cocking the bullet head to one side, and laying a thick forefinger across a broad palm. "There's a certain feller named Greene that wants to offer some evidence to-morrow in a leetle case I'm interested in. Bein' at th' preliminary, you know what his evidence is. Mister Dawson tells me that 'cordin' to some of his law books that evidence is admissible, an' 'cordin' to some other books it ain't. Now, judge, I just wants your honest, unbiased opinion on that leetle question of evidence, that's all."
"Mr. Martin," said the judge, thoughtfully and judicially, his eyes riveted on the pallid features of the president of the B. & N., "after deep reflection and careful consideration I am of the opinion that in this particular case—in this particular case—the proposed testimony is clearly inadmissible."
"It don't go; eh, judge?"
"Not for a minute Mr. Martin."
"Well, then," said the grinning Mr. Martin, sidling toward the door, and tapping the bulging breast, "this goes— right back to th' dinky safe—an' not a trace nor whisper of th' job. An' I goes, too—soon as that trial's over—forgettin' that interestin' conversation I hears at that winder. Was pretty certain you'd hold that way, after careful consideration—as you said. Thanks, judge, fer your opinion. Just a leetle question of evidence—that was all. Good-night, gents, all."