A policeman patrols his street at 10 o’clock at night. He walks confidently, but it is clearly not for show, as there is no one on the street. The policeman twirls his club with skill and dexterity as he checks on houses. Most places are closed, however, as the street is mostly comprised of stores and businesses. The policeman slows down as he notices a man in the shadows of a hardware store’s doorway. The stranger has an unlit cigar in his mouth, and the policeman walks up to him. The man reassures the officer that he has a legitimate reason to be waiting there. He explains that he made an appointment 20 years ago to meet someone at that spot, which used to be called Big Joe Brady’s Restaurant.
The opening scene introduces two characters who seem to be, if not exactly opposites, from very different walks of life. Though neither speaks, each man’s behavior and dress hints at their respective personalities. Based on his confident gait, uniform, and prowess with his baton, for instance, the police officer appears to be a particularly competent, dutiful, and responsible figure. The stranger in the doorway, by contrast, with his unlit cigarette and conspicuous attempt to hide in the shadows of a doorway on an empty street, comes across as a suspicious and shady figure. Unlike the police officer, the man in the doorway wants to remain unseen. This contrast foreshadows a revelation later in the story.
The policeman says that the restaurant was torn down five years before. The man lights his cigar, highlighting his pale face, a square jaw, intelligent eyes, and white scar. He explains that 20 years ago he dined at Big Joe Brady’s with an old friend, Jimmy Wells, who he had grown up with. They were raised together in New York, but they parted ways because he wanted to travel West whereas Jimmy wanted to remain in New York. That night they agreed to meet at the same location 20 years later and catch up on each other’s lives.
Having lit his cigar, the stranger in the doorway reveals himself to have features which are often associated with shady or suspicious men. For instance, his white scar suggests a violent, maligned past. Despite his appearance, however, the story the man tells about why he is there suggests that he is a loyal friend, having faithfully traveled many miles to be at Big Joe Brady’s restaurant 20 years later. This revelation complicates Joe as a character, as it is unclear what sort of person he really is.
The policeman appreciates the story and asks if they have corresponded since. The man explains that they did for a few years, but then eventually they stopped. He assumes some fault for it, explaining that the West was a big and distracting place, and he was always hustling about. Despite this, the man claims that Jimmy will meet him here because he is the truest and most loyal man in the world. The man has traveled over a thousand miles to get here, but he says that if Jimmy comes it will all have been worth it. The policeman asks whether the man did well out West, and the man says yes, claiming that the West makes you sharp. The policeman wishes him luck and goes on his way.
As the policeman continues to ask about the man’s story, the man reveals himself to be an increasingly complex character. While details like his various references to “hustling” out West further suggest a shady past, his display of commitment to his friend paints him in a positive light. While he may not be the most upright individual, the man seems to genuinely care for and trust his friend Jimmy.
The man smokes in the doorway as he waits for his friend to arrive. He is uncertain whether Jimmy will arrive, but after 20 minutes a tall man shows up. The man asks if it’s Bob, and Bob asks if he’s Jimmy. They confirm who they are, and Jimmy expresses his sadness that the old restaurant is gone. Bob comments on how much Jimmy has grown. Jimmy suggests that they walk to a place he knows to reminisce about when they were younger. They walk arm and arm down the street, and Bob egotistically tells Jimmy about his time out West.
With the policeman gone, the man in the doorway begins to doubt whether his old friend will really arrive. Though he clearly has a lot of faith in his old friend, it is now far past their agreed-upon meeting time, building suspense for the reader. Still, the man waits it out, showing again the level of commitment he has to Jimmy and their relationship. Though they may have fallen out of contact, it is clear that Jimmy still holds a special place in the man’s heart, and he is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Though all seems well once Jimmy arrives, the man does notice that his old friend is taller than he remembered him being. This, combined with the lateness of his supposedly “reliable” friend, suggests that everything may not be as well as it seems.
The two men walk under bright lights at the drug store and look at each other. Bob stops and lets go of Jimmy’s arm, telling him that he knows he’s not actually Jimmy, even after 20 years. The tall man comments on how time can turn people bad, and then says that he, Silky Bob, is under arrest. He says that Chicago wired them Bob might be in town. Bob goes with the plainclothes police officer quietly, and as he does the tall man gives him a note from Patrolman Wells.
Here, Bob realizes that the man he is walking with is not actually his old friend, Jimmy, but a police officer in disguise. Suddenly, the warning signs from before make sense: the man is taller than Bob remembers his old friend being because he is not actually Jimmy. Bob’s own past is also revealed, confirming the various clues from earlier in the story which suggested he was a crook or criminal. As the plainclothes police officer reveals, Bob is in fact a wanted criminal, and the officer was only posing as Jimmy to get into his confidence.
Bob unfolds the note and begins to read it. His hand is steady at first, but as he reads the note it begins to tremble. The note is from his old friend Jimmy Wells, who reveals himself as the policeman from earlier. He says that he was at the restaurant on time but recognized Bob as the wanted man from Chicago. He explains that he could not get himself to arrest Bob himself, so he sent another police officer to do it for him.
The note handed to Bob by the plainclothes officer provides the last piece of the story’s puzzle. Written by Jimmy (or Patrolman) Wells, it reveals that the police officer from earlier in the story was in fact Bob’s old friend, Jimmy, but that he did not reveal himself because he recognized Bob as a criminal. Instead of arresting Bob himself, however, he sent a plainclothes police officer in his stead. As such, Jimmy puts his duty as a protector of the law over his loyalty to his old friend, Bob. Still, his inability to arrest Bob himself shows that Jimmy cannot entirely shake the loyalty he feels toward his friend. Though he is responsible for the arrest, he does not want to tarnish the memory of their relationship by arresting him himself. This suggests that, despite the different paths they chose in life, both men still care about their childhood relationship. Like the former Big Joe Brady’s restaurant, however, it is only the memory of their friendship that ultimately remains.