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Wager with Destiny




E.E. Gatti

 

Anderson was alone in camp when the native boy brought him Barton's book.

"The boss has dropped it on the trail," the boy said. Anderson knew the book well, a cheap, shabby little notebook. He had heard Barton say a dozen times that he'd bought it with the first dime he'd earned, and every financial transaction he'd made since was entered in that book.

The camp was inside a mountain jungle in the Kuvi region of the Congo. And the heavy clouds overhead made Anderson feel gloomy. He was not well, and he was nervous. And he was unreasonably disturbed about the cage.

He had come on this hunting safari as Barton's guest. Barton, now, was one of the richest men in America; a hard man, who was proud of his power. It was surprising, therefore, to Anderson, that after fifteen years of silence, Barton had looked him up, renewed their boyhood friendship and made him this invitation. Anderson was grateful for it; for he, himself, was penniless and a failure.

Barton had made a bet at his club that he could capture alive a full-grown gorilla and bring it back to America. Hence the safari. And hence the portable steel cage with its automatic door.

Anderson couldn't bear to think of a great gorilla, unable to use his magnificent strength, shut up in the cage. But Anderson, of course, was sensitive about steel bars.

He did not mean to look in Barton's book. It had fallen into the mud, and Anderson only wanted to clean it.

But as he turned the pages shaking out the dried mud, his eyes fell upon a date – April 20, 1923. That was the date that had been seared into Anderson's mind with a red-hot iron, and mechanically he read the entry. Then he opened his mouth and the air swam around him.

“April 20, 1923, received $50,000” the book stated. Nothing more than that. And on April 20, 1923, he, Anderson, an innocent man, a young accountant in the same firm where Barton was just beginning his career, had been sentenced to fifteen years in prison for embezzlement' of $50,000.

Anderson was as shaken as if the very ground had opened under his feet. Memories rushed back to him. The books' had been tampered' with, all right. But they had never been able to locate the money.

And all the time it was Barton who had stolen the money; had used it as the cornerstone4 of his vast suc- cess; had noted it down, laconically, in his little book!

"But why did he bring me here?" Anderson asked himself. His body was burning with heat, and his head was heavy; he felt the first sign of malaria. And his heart was filled with the terrible, bitter rage of one betrayed. "Does he think I suspect him? Does he plan to kill me now?"



And then the reason came, cold and clear. There was a power of justice in life, and that power had made Barton bring him, so that he, Anderson, could take the law in his own hands, and the guilty would be punished instead of the innocent.

At once his mind was made up, and he had never known his thinking to be so clear and direct. He would kill Barton while he slept – they shared the same tent. And he would go to bed now and pretend sleeping, so that he would not have to speak to Barton.

It was already late in the afternoon. Anderson uneasily walked into the tent. But he did not have to play a role, for as soon as he touched the bed he fell into the heavy sleep of increasing malaria.

It was bright moonlight outside the tent when he awoke. He could hear Barton's regular, rhythmic breathing in the darkness near him. He dressed quickly and noiselessly, turned the safety catch of his revolver and bent above Barton. But a sudden shock of revulsion came over him.

He put the revolver down carefully on the table near his bed. Then he was outside the tent and trying to run, to get away from that accusing voice that cried within him, again and again, "Murderer!"

He did not know where he was until his hand touched something cold and hard – a steel bar of the cage. God, it knew steel bars, that hand. He closed his eyes against the thought, and took a few steps forward. Then a noise behind him made him turn around. The steel door of the cage had dropped! He had walked into the cage, closing the automatic door!

"Where you should be," cried the accusing voice, “where murderers ought to be, in a cage!”

Anderson sobbed hysterically. Then he fell and the flames of his fever licked him.

Anderson opened his eyes with great effort, and saw above him the face of the friendly planter who lived some miles from the camp.

"You'll be all right now," the man said, "the fever's over. But how did you get into the cage?"

Anderson tried to explain, but he didn't have strength enough to speak. He knew where he was, in a bed in the planter's house. And gradually he became aware that there was another white man in the room, one he had never seen before.

"He was lucky," the planter was saying to this strange man. "If he hadn't been safe in that cage, the gorillas would have got him as they did Barton and those pygmies."

"Do you feel able to talk now?" the stranger asked "I expect you're wondering who I am. I am Barton's lawyer, I flew down from New York to take charge of Barton's affairs as soon as I got the news. You've been delirious three weeks, you know."

The lawyer sat down beside Anderson's bed. “As you know, my late client was a superstitious man, and a great gambler”, he said. “You two, as young men, started your careers together. And on the very day that he received the capital that gave him his chance, you were sentenced to prison on a charge of embezzling the identical' sum – fifty thousand dollars. Barton took the coincidence as an act of fate”.

“He made a kind of bet with fate," the lawyer went on. "If he were allowed to succeed, he promised to do something good for you. And he kept the bet, he remembered you in his will'. I thought you'd like to know why”.

"I know why all right," said Anderson. A little word called "conscience'", he thought.

"I happened to know all about it," the lawyer added, "Because I was the executor of the will of Barton's aunt. She hadn't liked hi'm, and he'd expected nothing from her. So that fifty thousand was like money falling from the skies."

 





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