At this point Ford went around the counter and took the wire for a little personal talk with the first assistant. It ignored the stalled freight train, and Ford's rapid clickings spelled out an order. Frisbie was to drop everything else, and constitute himself the president's avant-courrier to the end-of-track camp, which, at the moment, happened to be the MacMorroghs' headquarters at the mouth of Horse Creek. All liquor-selling was to be stopped, the saloons closed, and the strictest order maintained during the president's stay—this if it should take the entire field force of the engineering department to bring it to pass.
"Don't," clicked Frisbie, from the other end of the long wire. And then at the risk of giving it away to every operator on the line: "You're doing yourself up. Let the president see for himself what he has let us in for."
Ford's reply was short and to the point. "The order stands. There are others besides the president to be considered. Good night."
"Well, we go to this here Siding Number Twelve, do we?" said Hector, when they were clambering once more to the foot-plate of the 1012.
"Safely, I think," said the chief, adding: "You can't run fast enough over this track to get into trouble anyway."
That was the way it appealed to Hector for the succeeding twenty miles. When the track was not too rough to forbid speed, the cuts were too numerous, and the big flyer had to be bitted and held down until some of Hector's impatience began to get into the machinery. This shall account as it may for what happened. A mile or two below Riley's, where the lights were all out and the turmoil of the day of strikes had apparently subsided, the canyon opened out into a winding valley, and when Ford called across to Hector: "There are no rock cuts on this section, and we are partly surfaced. You can let her out a little for a few miles," the engineer took the permission for all it was worth and sent the eight-wheeler flying down the newly-ballasted stretch.
Two long curves were rounded in safety, and the special was approaching a third, when to Ford, track-watching even more anxiously than Hector, a dull red spot appeared in the exact center of the white field of the electric. For a moment it puzzled him, but the explanation came with a vigorous shock an instant later. It was the oil-lamp headlight of the freight!
Hector was huge enough to be slow, if bigness were a bar to celerity. But no drill-master of the foot-plates could have brought the flying train to a stand with the loss of fewer seconds. Happily, too, the 1012's electric headlight served as a danger signal seen from afar by the engineer of the freight. So it chanced that the two great engines merely put their noses together; and by the time Penfield came scrambling over the coal with the inevitable query from the president, the jolting stop was a thing of the past, and the train was in motion again, following the freight, which was backing, at Ford's order, to the nearest siding.
"No more hurry for us to-night, Hector," was the boss's dictum, when the obstructing string of empties was safely passed. "We take it slow and sure from this on, with your fireman to flag us around the curves and through the cuts. This was only the first section of the train that left Horse Creek at eight o'clock—the section that was broken down at Siding Twelve. We're due to pick up the second section anywhere between here and the end-of-track."
"Slow it is," said Hector. "I'm no hog, if I do take a little swill now and then: I know when I've got enough."
This was at ten-forty, while the night was still young. And for seven other hours the one-car special inched its way cautiously toward the goal, with Ford scanning every mile of the hazardous way as it swung into the beam of the headlight arc, with Hector's left hand stiffening on the brake-cock, and with a weary fireman dropping from his gangway at every curve approach to flag for safety.
It was not until three o'clock in the morning that they met and passed the second section of empties, and the dawn of a new day was fully come when the shacks and storehouses of the MacMorroghs' headquarters at the mouth of Horse Creek came in sight. Ford got down from his seat on the fireman's side and stretched himself as one relaxing after a mighty strain.
"That's the end of it for a little while, Billy," he said, addressing the big engineer as a man and a brother. "Crawl in on the first siding you come to, and go hunt you a bed. I don't think the president will be perniciously active to-day—after such a night as we've had."
But in this, as in other instances when Mr. Colbrith's activities had figured as a factor, he reckoned without his host.
THE MORNING AFTER
Ford was awake for all day, and was colloguing with Frisbie about the carrying out of the sumptuary order for the forcible camp-cleaning, when Penfield came with the request that the chief report at once to the president in the Nadia.
"Tell him I'll be there presently," was the answer; and when Penfield went to do it, the interrupted colloquy was resumed.
"You say the camp has already gone dry?" said Ford incredulously.
Frisbie nodded. "Everybody's on the water-wagon; here and at all the camps above and below—bars not only closed, but apparently wiped out of existence. I went for old Brian last night as soon as I reached here. He looked at me reproachfully, and said: 'It's you to be always naggin' me about thim whisky dives that I'm forever thryin' to run out, and can't. Go and thry it yourself, Misther Frisbie, an' I'll stand at your back till you're black in the face.' But when I went through the camp, everything was quiet and orderly, and Jack Batters' bar was not only closed—it was gone; vanished without leaving so much as a bad smell behind it."
"And then?" said Ford.
"Then I got out my horse and rode up the creek and through some of the camps on the Copah detour. The star-eyed goddess of reform had evidently landed on that coast, too. Donahue's Hungarians were singing war-songs around their camp-fire, as usual, and Contadini's Tuscans were out in full force, guying the night-shift track-layers. But there was no bad blood, and no whisky to breed it. You're done up again, Stuart."
"I don't see that," said Ford, who, besides being short on sleep, was rejoicing in the thought that Alicia and the other women of the private-car party would not have to be blind and deaf.
"Don't you? You've been protesting to beat the band about the lawlessness and dissipation of the MacMorrogh camps. Accordingly, Mr. Colbrith comes over here to see for himself: and what will he see? Decency on a monument smiling reproachfully at her unprincipled traducer. MacMorrogh will rub it into you good and hard. Can't you feel the Sunday-school atmosphere right here in the headquarters this morning? Look down yonder at the Nadia—wouldn't that soothe you, now?"
Ford looked and the scowl which was coming to be a habit transformed itself into a cynical smile. A hundred or more of the MacMorrogh laborers, hats off and standing at respectful attention, were clustered about the rear platform of the private car, and Mr. Colbrith was addressing them; giving them the presidential benediction, as Frisbie put it irreverently.
"Don't you see how you are going to be hoisted with your own ammunition?" the little man went on spitefully. "What becomes of all your complaints of drunkenness and crime, when Mr. Colbrith can see with his own eyes what truly good people the MacMorroghs are? And what conclusion will he arrive at? There's only one, and it's a long-armed one so far as your reputation is concerned: you are so desperately bent on having your own way that you haven't scrupled to tell lies about these angelic contractors."
"Let up, Dick," said Ford gruffly. "I've got about all I can carry till I catch up on sleep a little. But you're right: this is the place where the fireworks come in. I think I'll go and light the fuses while I'm keyed up to it."
The crowd of laborers had dispersed by the time Ford reached the Nadia, and the president, benign from the reactionary effect of his own early-morning eloquence, was waiting for him.
"Ah; we did reach the front safely, after all, didn't we, Mr. Ford?" was Mr. Colbrith's mildly sarcastic greeting. And then: "Come aboard, sir; we are waiting breakfast for you."
Ford would have declined promptly, if the invitation had been anything less than a command. He had met none of the members of the private-car party save Miss Alicia, and he did not want to meet them, having the true captain-of-industry's horror of mixing business with the social diversions. But with one example of the president's obstinacy fresh in mind, he yielded and climbed obediently to the railed platform. Whatever happened, he should see Alicia again, a privilege never to be too lightly esteemed, whatever it cost.
The social ordeal was not so formidable. The private-car party was made up of the president and his sister-in-law, the president's family physician, Doctor Van Bruce, the doctor's wife, his sister, a maiden lady of no uncertain age, and Alicia. These, with Penfield and Ford, made the eight at table in the open compartment in the Nadia; and Ford, in the seating, was lucky enough to find his place between Miss Van Bruce, who was hard of hearing, and Miss Alicia, who was not. Luckily again, Mr. Colbrith omitted all talk of business, drawing his end of the table into a discussion of the effects of the dry altitudes in advanced stages of tuberculosis.
"What a dreadful night you must have had, Mr. Ford," said Alicia, when the tuberculotic subject was well launched at the other end of the table. "Were you on the engine all the time?"
"Most of the time," he confessed. "But that was nothing. It wasn't my first night in the cab, as it won't be the last, by many, I hope."
"Why? Do you like it?"
"Not particularly. But I hope to live a while longer; and while I live I shall doubtless have to ride with the enginemen now and then."
"Was it very bad—last night?" she asked.
"I am afraid you know it was. Could you sleep at all?"
"Oh, yes; I slept very well—after that terrible shaking up we had just before bedtime. What was happening then?"
"Nothing much. We were about to try the old experiment of passing two trains on a single track."
"Mercy!" she exclaimed.
It was safely retrospective now, and Ford could smile at her belated shock.
"Were the others alarmed?" he asked.
"Mrs. Van Bruce and Aunt Hetty were. But Uncle Sidney fairly coruscated. He said that an engineer who would make such a stop as that ought to be discharged."
"Hector was willing to quit," laughed Ford. "He grumbled for a full hour afterward about the wrenching he had given the 1012. You see he might have taken about six feet more for the stop, if he'd only known it."
Miss Alicia said "Mercy!" again. "Were we as near as that to a collision?" she asked, in a hushed whisper.
"We were, indeed. The freight was supposed to be on a siding—broken down. The crew tinkered things up some way, and the train proceeded. Luckily, the freight engineer saw our electric headlight farther than we could see his oil lamp, and the track happened to be measurably straight."
Miss Adair was silent for a little time, waiting for the lapsed tuberculotic discussion to revive. When it was once more in full swing, she asked quickly:
"What is the programme for to-day? Must we all stay in the car as you intimated yesterday?"
Ford glanced across the table to make sure that Penfield was not eavesdropping.
"It will not be necessary. Your coming—or the president's—has reformed things wonderfully. Frisbie says—but never mind what he says: the miracle has been wrought."
He said it with such an evident air of dejection that she wondered. And with Miss Alicia Adair the step from wonderment to investigation was always short.
"You say it as if you were sorry," she said. "Are you?"
"Oh, no; I'm glad—for your sake. But I wonder if you could understand if I say that it will make it a thousand times harder for me?"
"I can understand when I'm told," she retorted.
The table-for-eight was no place for confidences; and Ford knew Penfield's weakness for soaking up information. Yet he took the risk.
"You remember what I hinted at, yesterday," he said in low tones; "about the rough-house we have been having in the camps. It hasn't stopped short of murder. I objected to the MacMorroghs before the contract was given to them; and since, I have fought the lawlessness as I could. Now your uncle comes over here and doesn't find any lawlessness. What is the inference?"
"That you have been—" she took him up quickly, and there was swift indignation in the blue eyes.
"—lying to gain a personal end," he finished for her.
Penfield had been apparently listening avidly to the president's praise of the dry altitudes as a sure cure for consumption, but now he had his face in his plate. Ford devoted himself for the moment to the deaf Miss Van Bruce, and when he turned back to Alicia he was telegraphing with his eyes for discretion. She understood, and the low-toned tete-a-tete was not resumed. Later, when they had a moment together in the dispersion from the breakfast-table, he tried to apologize for what he was pleased to call his "playing of the baby act." But she reassured him in a low-spoken word.
"Brother told me—I know more than you give me credit for, Mr. Ford. Mr. North doesn't like you—he would be glad if you would resign. You must not resign!"
The others, personally-conducted by Mr. Colbrith, were crowding to the rear platform for an after-breakfast view of the headquarters camp. Ford and Alicia followed, but without haste.
"You have chanced upon the word, Miss Adair," Ford was saying. "I decided last night that I should resign."
"No," she objected.
"Yes; I must. Sometime I may tell you why."
"I say you must not. That was the last word in brother's letter; and he wished me to repeat it to you," she insisted.
"Where is your brother?" he asked.
"He was in London when he wrote."
"He has thrown up his hand." Ford was pessimistic again.
Miss Adair looked about her despairingly for some means of prolonging the whispered confidence. Penfield, deferentially in the rear of the platform group, was never safely out of earshot.
"I want to see the engine that so nearly plunged us into a collision last night," she said aloud; and Penfield's visible ear betrayed the listening mind.
Ford took his cue promptly. "We can go out the other way," he said; and the secretary pro tempore had no excuse for following.
They found the cab of the 1012 deserted, with the steam in the huge boiler singing softly at the behest of the banked fire. Miss Adair lost her curiosity as soon as Ford had lifted her to the foot-plate.
"Now you are to tell me all about it—quickly," she commanded. "Uncle Sidney will be calling for you as soon as he misses you. Why are you so foolish as to talk about resigning? Don't you see what they will say then?—that you were afraid?"
Ford was leaning against the centered reversing-lever, and his face was gloomy again.
"Possibly I am afraid," he suggested.
"You should be more afraid of dishonor than of—of the other things. Do you suppose Mr. North will be content with your resignation now?"
Ford looked up quickly. Here was a new revelation—an unsuspected facet of the precious gem. He could hardly believe that this steady-voiced, far-seeing young woman was the insouciant, school-girlish—though none the less lovable—young person with whom he had tramped to the wind-swept summit of Plug Pass in the golden heart of the yesterday.
"You mean—?" he began.
"I mean that you will be discredited; disgraced if possible. Are you sure you haven't been doing anything over here that you wouldn't want Uncle Sidney to find out?"
"Not consciously, you may be sure," he asserted unhesitatingly.
"Think; think hard," she urged. "Is there nothing at all?"
He could not help smiling lovingly at her scarce-concealed anxiety—though it was merely the anxiety of a noble soul unwilling to stand by and see injustice done.
"My methods never get very far underground," he averred. "Not far enough for my own safety, Frisbie says. If I had been keeping a diary, I think I should be quite willing to let Mr. Colbrith read it—or print it, if he cared to."
"And yet there is something," she asserted, and the straight brows went together in a little frown of perplexity. "You don't ask me how I know: I'm going to tell you, Mr. Ford—though it's rather shameful. Three days ago, while we were in Denver, Mr. North came down to the car to see Uncle Sidney."
"Yes?" he encouraged.
"They were closeted in Uncle Sidney's state-room for a long time," she went on. "I—I was walking with Miss Van Bruce, up and down on the station platform beside the Nadia, Uncle Sidney had told me not to go very far away because we were likely to start at any moment. The—the car windows were open—"
Her embarrassment was growing painfully apparent, and Ford came to the rescue.
"You were not even constructively to blame," he hastened to say. "They must surely have seen you passing and repassing, and if they wished for privacy they might have closed the windows."
"I didn't hear much: only a word or two, now and then. They were talking about you and brother; and—" She stopped short and laid her hand on the throttle-lever of the big engine: "What did you say this was for?" she asked ingenuously.
Ford's up-glance of surprise was answered by a glimpse of Penfield sauntering past on the other side of the track. She could not have seen, but she had doubtless heard his footsteps on the gravel.
"It's the throttle," said Ford, answering her question. And then: "Please go on: he is out of hearing."
"They were speaking of you and brother; and—and of me. I can't repeat a single sentence entire, but I know Mr. North was accusing you in some way, and apparently implicating me. Perhaps I listened in self-defense. Do you think I did, Mr. Ford?"
"You certainly had a good right to," said Ford, who would have sworn in her behalf that the morally black was spotlessly white. "But how could you be implicated?"
"That was what puzzled me then—and it is puzzling me still. They said—or rather Mr. North said—that you—that you had bought me!"
Ford did not say that he would like to buy, beg, borrow or steal any kind of right to call her his own, but if his lips did not form the words they were lying at the bottom of the steady gray eyes for her to take or leave as she chose.
"I am sure you couldn't have heard that part of it quite straight," he said, almost regretfully.
"But I did, because it was repeated. Mr. North insisted that you had bought me; and I didn't like the way in which he said it, either. He called me 'the little Alicia'."
"What!" said Ford; and then a flood of light burst in upon at least one of the dark places. "It's only a mine," he said sheepishly. "And I did buy it, or half of it."
She was regarding him accusingly now.
"Did you—did you name it?" she asked, and there was the merest breath of frost in the air.
He was glad to be able to tell the truth without flinching.
"No; it is one of the earliest of the Copah prospects, and I suppose the discoverer named it. I am willing to defend his choice, though. He couldn't have found a prettier name."
She went back to the matter in hand with womanly swiftness. "But the mine: you had a right to buy it, didn't you?"
"I should suppose so. I paid for it with my own money, anyway."
"Then why should Mr. North use it as an argument against you in speaking to Uncle Sidney? He did that—I am sure he did that."
"Now the water has grown too deep for me," said Ford. "Why, North, himself, is interested in Copah, openly. He owns half a dozen claims."
"Near yours?" she queried.
Ford stopped to consider. "To tell the truth, I don't know where mine is," he confessed. "I bought it as the school-boys trade pocket-knives—sight unseen. You wouldn't believe it of a grown man, would you?"
"What made you buy it at all?"
Again he told the simple truth—and tried not to flinch.
"You won't mind if I say that the name attracted me? I thought a mine, or anything, that bore your name, ought to be good and—and desirable. And it is a good mine; or it will be, by and by. Some morning I shall wake up and find myself rich. At least that is what my partner, Grigsby, assures me; and I believe him when I happen to remember it."
She neither approved nor disapproved. When she spoke, it was of the present necessity. "We must go back to the others now," she said. "Or at least I must. Do you know what is to be done to-day?"
Ford spread his hands.
"Your uncle will set the pace. I wouldn't venture a guess, after last night."
He was handing her down from the engine step and she went back in a word to the former contention.
"You haven't promised me yet that you will not resign under fire—you are under fire, you know."
"Brother thinks you are."
Once more he took the pessimistic view.
"Your brother isn't losing any sleep over the Pacific Southwestern situation. You said he was in England, didn't you?"
"I said he was in London when he wrote."
"London is a long way off: and what I do must be done to-day or to-morrow. Mr. North will force the fighting, now that your uncle is on the ground, and your brother safely on the opposite side of the earth. And I can't afford to fight this time, Miss Alicia."
"Why can't you?"
They were walking slowly back toward the Nadia when he said: "Because a victory would cost me more than I am willing to pay. There is no longer room in this service for Mr. North and me. If we come to blows one of us will have to go."
"I can understand that," she said quietly.
"And to obliterate Mr. North, I shall be obliged to efface—your uncle."
She caught her breath.
"Mr. Ford, you have intimated that Mr. North isn't an honest man. Do you ask me to believe that Uncle Sidney is his accomplice?"
"He is not, knowingly. But he will stand or fall with the man he has made. I should have to ride him down before I could get at North."
Her lip curled and the straight-browed little frown came again. "There is no such thing as mercy in business, is there, Mr. Ford? My uncle is an old man and his presidency means more to him—"
"I understand that perfectly," said Ford soberly. "That is why I prefer to step down and out and let some other man have the glory of finishing the extension."
She looked up quickly.
"Would you do that for Uncle Sidney? He hasn't been very lenient with you, has he?"
Ford ignored the query.
"He is your uncle, Miss Alicia; and I'd do it for your sake or not at all."
They had reached the steps of the private car, and Frisbie was waiting with evident impatience for a word with Ford. Miss Adair's eyes signaled emotion, and Ford thought it was resentment. But her parting word was not resentful; it was merely a repetition.
"Go to Mr. Frisbie," she said from the car step; "he is waiting for you." And then: "Remember; whatever happens, you must not resign—not even if Uncle Sidney asks you to."
Frisbie's information, given after Miss Adair had gone in, was rather mystifying. Young Benson, who was just in from the grade work beyond Copah, brought word of a party of strange engineers running lines on the opposite side of the river from the rejected S. L & W. short-cut through the canyon of shale slides. Questioned by Benson, they had told what Frisbie believed to be a fairy tale. The chief of the party claimed to be the newly-elected county surveyor from Copah, running the lines for some mining property recently filed for entry. Benson had not been over curious; but he was observant enough to note that the tale was a misfit in three important particulars. He saw no locating stakes, such as a prospector always sets up conspicuously to mark his claim; and there were no signs of the precious metal, and no holes to indicate an attempt to find it.
"What's your guess, Dick?" said Ford tersely.
The assistant shook his head.
"I haven't any coming to me. But I don't like mysteries."
"Where was this party?"
"About a mile and a half below here. It was going out toward Copah when Jack met it—its work, whatever it was, all done, apparently."
It was one of Frisbie's gifts to be suspicious; but Ford was lacking on that side.
"It's barely possible that the man was telling the truth, in spite of Benson's failure to find any prospect holes," he remarked. "We'll let it go at that until we know something different. It couldn't be a Transcontinental party, this far from home, and we haven't anybody else to fear."
Frisbie dropped the subject as one of the abstractions and took up the concrete.
"What are the orders for to-day?" he asked.
"I don't know. I'm waiting for Mr. Colbrith to say."
"There are two buckboard teams here, in the MacMorrogh stables—came over from Copah last night. What are they for?"
"I don't know. Another of the president's little surprises, I suppose. We'll know when he sends for me."
The expected summons came at that precise moment, transmitted by Penfield. Mr. Colbrith would like to see Mr. Ford in his private state-room in the Nadia. The secretary had a sheaf of telegrams in his hand, and wished to be directed to the wire office. Frisbie took him in charge, and Ford went to obey the summons.
The president was sitting very erect in his swing chair when the young engineer let himself into the box-like compartment, and his voice was at its thinnest when he said: "Be seated, Mr. Ford."
Ford sat down on the divan-couch, and the president plunged at once into business.
"Some time ago, you advised me, as chairman of the executive committee, that you had decided upon a change of route, Mr. Ford," he began raspingly. "What were your reasons for making the change?"
"I stated them in my letter of advice," said Ford; "economy in construction and greater safety in operating, as against a slight increase in the length of the line."
"Twelve miles, I believe you said: that is a very considerable increase, I should say. The great eastern companies are spending millions of dollars, Mr. Ford, to shorten their lines by half-mile cut-offs."
Ford had his reply ready.
"The conditions are entirely different. It will be many years before a fast through service is either practicable or profitable over the extension; and when it comes to that, we shall still have the short line from Denver to Green Butte by forty-two miles. But I explained all this at the time, Mr. Colbrith, and I understood that I had the executive committee's approval of the changed route."
"Qualifiedly, Mr. Ford; only qualifiedly. Yet you have gone ahead in your usual impetuous way, abandoning the short line through the canyon and building the detour. Your motive for haste must have been a very strong one—very strong."
"It was. I am not here to kill time."
"So it appears. But I am here, Mr. Ford, to consider carefully, and to investigate. We shall go first over this route you have abandoned. I wish to see for myself the difficulties you have so painstakingly described."
"I'm quite at your service, of course. But you will find it a hard trip. Indeed, if we drive, we shall have to cross the river and take the other side. The canyon on this side is impassable in places for a man on foot."
"I provided for that," said the president, letting his ferrety eyes rest for a moment upon the reluctant one. "You will find two buckboards with their drivers at the MacMorrogh headquarters. Be good enough to order them around, and we'll start at once. No; no protests, Mr. Ford. My responsibilities are not to be shirked. Penfield will drive with me, and you may take Mr. Frisbie with you, if you see fit. I understand he is implicated with you in this matter."
Ford bridled angrily at the word.
"There is no implication about it, Mr. Colbrith. You continually refer to it as if it were a crime."
"Ah! the word is yours, Mr. Ford. We shall see—we shall see. That is all, for the present."
Ford was raging when he found Frisbie and gave the order for the vehicles.
"He turned me out of his office state-room as if I had been a messenger boy or tramp! Get those teams out, Dick, and give me a chance to cool down. If my job is to last through this day—"
Frisbie laughed. "Go and dip your head in the Pannikin while you wait. Or, better still, chew on this. It's a cipher message that Durgin has just been sending for Penfield to Vice-President North. Wouldn't that make you weep and howl?"
Ford was still puzzling over the meaningless code words when he took his seat in the second of the two buckboards with Frisbie. The first assistant waited until the horses had splashed through the shallows of the river crossing; waited further until the president's vehicle had gained a little start. Then he said: "Is it possible that you had Penfield for a spy on you as long as you did without working out his cipher code? Good Lord! I got that down before I did anything else—last spring when you left me to run the Plug Mountain. Here's what he says to North"—taking the code message and translating: "Ford suspects something. Don't know how much. He and Miss Adair are putting their heads together. She has authority of some kind from her brother. President goes with Ford to examine abandoned route, as arranged. Will wire result later.'"
"'As arranged,'" was Ford's wrathful comment.
"Apparently, everything is arranged for us. Some day, Dick, I'll lose my temper, tie Penfield in a hard knot and throw him into the river! It's like a chapter out of Lucretia Borgia!"
THE RELUCTANT WHEELS
It was possibly an hour after Penfield's cipher message reached the Southwestern Pacific headquarters in the Colorado capital, when a fair-haired young man in London-cut clothes, and with a tourist's quota of hand-luggage, crossed the Denver Union Station platform from the Pullman of a belated Chicago train.
Ascertaining from a gateman that the Plug Mountain day train had long since gone on its way up the canyon, the young man left his many belongings at the check-stand and had himself driven up-town to the Guaranty Building. It was Eckstein who took his card in Mr. North's outer office. The private secretary was dictating to a stenographer, and was impatient of the interruption. But the name on the card wrought a miracle.
"Mr. North? Why, surely, Mr. Adair. He is always at liberty for you. Right through this way"—holding the gate in the counter railing at its widest—"we're mighty glad to see you in Denver, always."
Adair had acquired the monocle habit on his latest run across the Atlantic, and to keep in practice he gave the secretary the coldest of stares through the disconcerting glass. "Really! I'm quite delighted. Who is the other member of the 'we,' Mr.—er—er—"
"Eckstein," prompted the secretary; but he said no more, being prudently anxious to be quit of the transfixing stare before a worse thing should befall.
In the inner room the vice-president was less effusive, but no less cordial. It was a rare thing to see one of the company's directors in the Denver business offices. Mr. North was of the opinion that it would be a good investment of time and effort for all concerned if the members of the board used their privilege oftener. So on through half a dozen polite time-killers to the reluctant query: What could the general manager do for Mr. Adair?
Given leave to speak, Adair stated his needs succinctly. He wanted a special train to Saint's Rest; he wanted it suddenly, and he asked that it be given the right of the road.
"My dear sir!" protested the vice-president, "you mustn't ask impossibilities! You shall have the train at once, of course: you shall have my private car. But when it comes to the right of way, you'll have to appeal to Mr. Ford. Why, he doesn't scruple to lay out the United States mails for his material trains!"
"Um," said Adair. "Where can I reach Ford?"
Mr. North did not equivocate; he never lied when the truth would answer the purpose equally well.
"He is out on the extension; or more correctly speaking, somewhere beyond the present end of the construction telegraph line. I'm afraid you couldn't reach him by wire."
"And the president?" queried the visitor.
"Mr. Colbrith's car is at the end-of-track. You wished to join the party in the Nadia?"
"That is what I had in mind," said Adair, not too anxiously.
Mr. North shook his head.
"I don't think you'd enjoy the run over the construction track. Mr. Colbrith went over it last night because—well, because he believes it to be a presidential duty to inspect everything. If you leave to-day, you will probably meet the Nadia coming out—possibly at Saint's Rest."
Adair suddenly became wary.
"Perhaps that would be the easy thing to do," he said. "I suppose the engineers at Saint's Rest could put me up if I have to stay over night?"
"You needn't ask them. You will have my car—with the best cook this side of Louisiana. Keep it, live in it, till Mr. Colbrith picks you up on his return."
"All right. But you'll give me the special. And let it make as good time as it can, Mr. North; I'm fierce when I have to ride a slow train."
The vice-president's promise was freely given; and to expedite matters, the division superintendent's chief clerk went down to the station with Adair to see the special train properly equipped and started on the mountain-climbing run. Adair left the details to this orderly from the general offices; not knowing how to compass them himself, he had to. If he could have seen the broad grins on the faces of his train crew when Dobson, the clerk, gave them the despatcher's order—but at that moment he was lounging in Mr. North's easiest chair in the central compartment of the "01," reading for the twentieth time a crease-worn telegram.
The telegram was from Alicia, and it was dated at Denver, three days gone. It was not very explicit; on the contrary, it was rather incoherent.
"You would better come on as fast as you can if you want to save your friend's life. He has been tried and found guilty—of just what, I don't know—and will be hanged pretty soon—within a few days, I think."
"Now that's a nice way to stir a fellow up, isn't it?" soliloquized the pleasure-lover. "Just as I was getting ready to go up to Mount Ptarmigan for the shooting. She knew that, too. I'll bet a picayune it's just a girl's scare. Ford's plenty good and able to take care of himself."
That was Mr. Charles Edward Adair's care-free phrasing of it; but three hours later, when the cook of the "01" served him the most appetizing of luncheons in the big open compartment, and the steeply pitched walls of the lower Blue Canyon were still stinting the outlook from the car windows, he began to grow impatient.
"Whereabouts are we now, Johnson?" he asked of the cook's second man.
"Between Cutcliff and No-Horse; yes, sah. 'Bout forty mile from Denver."
"Great Scott! Fifteen miles an hour? Say, Johnson, what do you do when you want 'em to run faster—pull this string?"
"Yes, sah; dat's it," grinned the negro.
Adair pulled the air-cord, and it brought results—of a kind. Only the train came to a sudden stop, instead of going ahead faster; and Conductor Barclay, who had been riding on the engine, came back to see what had happened.
"Did you stop us, Mr. Adair?" he asked pleasantly.
"Not meaning to, you may be sure," said Adair. "But now you're here, I'll ask if there is any objection to my getting off and walking. I could stop and rest and let you overtake me now and then, you know."
The conductor tweaked the air-cord and the train moved on again.
"I've been expecting you'd shout at us," he said good-naturedly. "But we're doing the best we can. There's a freight wreck on ahead, and we've been dallying along, hoping they'd get it picked up by the time we reach it. I thought you'd rather keep moving than to be hung up for three or four hours at the wreck."
Adair saw his helplessness and made the best of it. He was in Mr. North's hands, and if Mr. North was playing for delay, the delay would be forthcoming. None the less, he contrived to make Barclay uncomfortable.
"I'm only a director in the Pacific Southwestern, and I suppose directors don't count," he said nonchalantly. "Yet, I presume, if I should ask it as a personal favor, I might get a conductor's or an engineer's head to take home with me for a souvenir. How would that be? Do you think I could make it win?"
"You could do it, hands down, Mr. Adair. But I hope you won't feel as if you'd got to go into the head-hunting business. It's like the boy throwing stones into the pond; it's fun for the kid, but sort o' hard on the toad-frogs."
Adair laughed. He was not one of those who find it easy to bear malice.
"You don't talk half as bad as you act," he said genially. "Down at bottom I dare say you're a pretty good kind of a fellow. Had anything to eat?"
Barclay shook his head. "No; we was laying off to get coffee and sinkers at Clapp's Mine, if we ever get there."
"'Coffee and sinkers'," said Adair. "That doesn't sound very uplifting. Sit down here and help me out with my contract."
Barclay did it, rather unwillingly. He was not accustomed to eating at the vice-president's table, but there was no resisting the curly-headed young man when he chose to make himself companionable. Barclay sat on the edge of his chair, ate with his knife or fork indifferently, and had small use for the extra spoons and cutlery. But he made a meal to be remembered. Afterward, the young man found a cigar-case, and his own box of Turkish cigarettes; and still the special was going at the same slow cow-gallop up the canyon.
"How many are there of you up ahead?" asked Adair, when Barclay's cigar was going like a factory chimney.
"Only Williams and his fireman."
"No; neither one of 'em, as it happens. Hurry call to go out with you, and both of 'em live too far to go home after the grub-cans."
"Johnson," said the dispenser of hospitality, calling the second man. "Think you could climb over the coal with some dinner for the enginemen? No? Let me make it possible"—flipping a dollar into the ready palm. "Tell the cook it's an order, and if he stints it there'll be consequences."
Barclay grinned his appreciation. The curly-headed young man was far enough removed from any species of railway official hitherto known to the conductor. But Adair was only paving the way.
"Do you know," he said, after a little interval of tobacco-charmed silence, "one of the things I am most anxious to see is a real railroad wreck. Suppose you quicken up a little and let us have our dead time at the scene of this disaster you speak of."
Barclay was tilting uneasily in his chair.
"I reckon they've about got it picked up and cleaned out o' the way by this time, Mr. Adair. I shouldn't be surprised if we could hardly find the place when we get there."
"Nor I," said Adair; and he sat back and chuckled. "It's considerably difficult to sit up and pull your imagination on a man who has been decently good to you, isn't it, Barclay? Let me ask you: are you Mr. North's man?"
"Mr. North is the big boss."
"But this Plug Mountain division is a part of Mr. Ford's line, isn't it?"
"It used to be all his. There's a white man for you, Mr. Adair."
Adair saw his opportunity and used it.
"Now see here, Barclay; I'm only a director, and I don't cut much ice out this way. But back in New York I'm one of three or four people who can tell Mr. North what he can do, and what he can't. You wouldn't want to see Mr. Ford getting it in the neck, would you?"
"By Jacks! There ain't a man in the service that wouldn't fight for him. I tell you, he's white."
"Well, Mr. Ford is in trouble: I don't know but he is likely to lose his job, if I don't see the president before the big ax comes down. That is between us two."
The conductor sprang out of his chair.
"By gravy! Why didn't you say that at first? Say, Mr. Adair, you stand between us and Mr. North—tell him you gave the orders yourself—and you'll have the ride of your life from here to Saint's Rest!"
"Go it," said Adair; and two minutes after Barclay had let himself out of the forward door of the "01," the train took a sudden start and darted ahead at full speed.
This bit of diplomacy on the part of Adair saved two full hours in the run to Saint's Rest. Nevertheless, it was after dark when the "01" pulled into the crowded material yard in the high mountain basin and Leckhard came aboard to find out what had brought this second private-car visitation. He was relieved not to meet North—to be confronted only by a pleasant-faced young man who seemed to have the car all to himself.
"My name is Leckhard," announced the man-of-all-work, "and I represent the engineering department. I saw it was Mr. North's car, and—"
"And you came to see what you could do for the vice-president and general manager," Adair finished for him. "Mighty sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Leckhard, but my name isn't North; it's Adair, and I'm only a director. How much authority is a director allowed—at this altitude and distance from New York?"
"I reckon you might call yourself the ranking officer in the field, Mr. Adair. What you say, goes."
"Then I say 'go'; which means that I'd like to go—on to the end of the extension."
But now the engineer was shaking his head.
"Ask me anything but that, Mr. Adair. None of our enginemen is at this end of the line, and your man Williams, who brought you up from Denver, doesn't know the way. More than that, if we had a man and an engine, I'd be afraid to send you out for a night run. Mr. Ford made it last night with Mr. Colbrith's car, and they used up ten hours in covering less than a hundred and twenty miles, and came within six feet of killing everybody."
Adair had lighted a cigarette, and he did not reply until the match flare had gone out. Then he said, in a way that made Leckhard his friend for life:
"I'm entirely in your hands, Mr. Leckhard; can't turn a wheel unless you say so. And I believe you're telling me the truth, as man to man. Can you reach Ford or Mr. Colbrith by wire?"
"I'm sorry to say I can't. We have only the one wire, and it's on temporary poles most of the way. It broke down on us this morning, and I can't raise the end-of-track."
"Block number two," said Adair cheerfully. "We seem to be out of luck this evening." Then, with searching abruptness: "Do you call yourself Ford's friend, Mr. Leckhard?"
"Rather," said the Saint's Rest Pooh Bah. "He hired me; and when he goes, I go."
"Ah! now we are warming ourselves at the same fire. Let me invite your confidence in one word, Mr. Leckhard. I dislike Mr. North."
The burly engineer laughed again.
"You have a geniusful way of putting your finger on the sore spot without fumbling. We all dislike Mr. North at this end of things—with reason."
"And that reason is?"
"That he'd fire the entire engineering department if he could find half an excuse. I'm afraid he's going to do it, too, in the most effectual way—by forcing Mr. Ford out. If Ford goes, every man in the department will quit with him. I'm afraid it's coming to that."
Johnson, the porter, had lighted the Pintsch globes and was laying the covers for dinner.
"Make it two, Johnson," said Adair; and, then to Leckhard: "You dine with me—don't say no; I couldn't stand it alone." And when that point was settled: "Now, sit down till we thresh, this out a bit finer. How far has this forcing business gone? You're talking to the man who has backed Ford from the first."
"It has gone pretty far. North has obstructed, quietly but persistently, ever since the first blow was struck on the extension. He has delayed material, when he could do it unofficially, he scants us for rolling stock and motive power, he stands in with the MacMorroghs and backs them against Ford every time there is a dispute. Ford is a patient man, Mr. Adair, but I think he has about reached the limit."
"H'm. Do you attach any particular importance to the president's trip over the extension?"
Leckhard shook his head. "I'm only a passenger—I see what goes by the car-windows. Mr. Colbrith was dead set on pushing over to the end-of-track—wouldn't even wait for daylight. You probably know him better than I do—"
"He is my uncle," Adair cut in.
"Oh; then I can't tell you anything about him. He was hot at Ford last night; what for I don't know, unless it was because Ford opposed a night run over a raw construction track with the Nadia. He was right about that, though. If I had been in his place I would have thrown up my job before I would have taken the risk."
Adair appeared to be considering something, and when he had thought it out, the porter had announced dinner and they had taken their places at the table.
"I have told you I am Ford's friend, Mr. Leckhard; I have ridden a couple of thousand miles out of my way to give him a lift. Tell me frankly; have you any reason to believe it will come to blows between him and the president while they are together at the front?—Try this celery; it's as good as you'd get at Sherry's."
Leckhard helped himself to the relish, and waited until the negro, Johnson, had gone back to the cook's galley.
"The little I know comes in a roundabout way," he replied slowly. "Penfield, who is known all over the Southwestern as Mr. North's private detective and spy, is with Mr. Colbrith acting as the president's secretary. Yesterday, while the Nadia was side-tracked here, Penfield had a lot of telegraphing to do for Mr. Colbrith. He did it himself—he's a lightning operator, among other things—and I happened into the office just as he was finishing. His final message was a cipher, to Mr. North, and he signed it with his own name."
"Well?" said Adair.
Again the engineer waited until the negro was out of hearing.
"A little later, just as the Nadia was about to pull out, there came a rush call from Denver for Penfield. I answered and said the car was on the point of leaving, but that I'd take the message and try to catch Penfield if I could. It came, on the run, and it was signed by Eckstein, North's chief clerk. It wasn't ciphered—lack of time, I reckon—and Eckstein took the chance that I wouldn't catch on."
"You kept a copy?" suggested Adair.
"I did. I wasn't able to deliver the original until the Nadia came back from the foot of the pass in the evening to fill the engine tank. But I couldn't make anything out of it. It was an order to Penfield not to let anything interfere with the president's buckboard trip—whatever that might be—with authority to incur any expense that might be necessary, using the telegram as his credential with the MacMorrogh Brothers if more money were needed."
"To pay for the buckboards?" asked Adair.
"You may search me," said Leckhard. "Only it could hardly be that—we have an open account at the Bank of Copah for legitimate expenses. No; there's a nigger in the woodpile, somewhere. Penfield is only a clerk; but for some purpose he is given carte blanche to spend money."
Adair was absently stirring his black coffee.
"All of which points to one conclusion, Mr. Leckhard. They are plotting against Ford—without the president's connivance. But the president is going to be made to swing the club. I know rather more than you do about it—which isn't saying very much. My—a relative of mine who is with the party in the Nadia wired me three days ago from Denver that Ford had been tried and condemned, and was only waiting to be hanged. That's why I am here to-night. You've got to get me to the end-of-track before it comes to blows between Mr. Colbrith and Stuart Ford. I know both men, Mr. Leckhard. If the iron comes to a certain heat, the past master of all the peacemakers won't be able to patch things together."
"Ford will resign," said the engineer.
"That is what I'm afraid of; and we can't let him resign. That would mean Mr. North for everything in sight, and the ultimate ruin of the Pacific Southwestern. On the other hand, I can't have Ford fighting the family—or my uncle—which is just what he will do if he gets his blood up—and doesn't quit in a huff. It's up to you to trundle this car over to the seat of war, Mr. Leckhard."
The division engineer was thinking hard.
"I can't see how it's to be done, right now, Mr. Adair. But I'll tell you what I will do. Our empty material trains come back from the front in the night, as a rule. When they get in, and I can be sure that the track's clear, I'll double one of the construction engines out with you. It will be along toward morning, I'm afraid; but, with nothing in the way, you ought to make the run in four or five hours—say by late breakfast time."
That was the way it was left when Leckhard went back to his telegraph den at ten o'clock; and some six hours later, Adair, sleepily conscious of disturbances, wakened sufficiently to hear the wheels once more trundling monotonously under the "01."
"How far do we go, and what do we do when we get there?" asked Frisbie of his chief, when the two buckboards, heaving and lurching over the rock-strewn talus at the foot of the canyon cliff, had passed beyond sight and sound of the headquarters camp at the mouth of Horse Creek.
"I'm not guessing any more," said Ford crustily. He was finding that his temper deteriorated as the square of his distance from Alicia Adair increased. "The president said he wanted to drive over this short-cut, and he's doing it."
"Humph!" growled Frisbie. "If he wanted to rub salt into your bruises, why didn't he take you in the cart with him? And where do I come in?"
"You are 'implicated' with me; that was his word."
Another mile passed in discomforting plungings. The trail had become all but impassable for the staggering horses; yet the leading buckboard held on doggedly. There were places where both drivers had to get out and lead; bad bits where all save the president descended to walk. But through the worst as well as the best, Mr. Colbrith clung to his seat like a man determined to ride. It was well past noon when the two vehicles reached the western portal of the canyon, and the dottings of the Copah mine workings came in sight on the hillsides to the southward. Ford's driver had fallen a little behind in the final half-mile, and when the gap was closed up, the president was waiting.
"Well, Mr. Ford," he began, somewhat breathless but triumphant, "are you fully satisfied?"
"I have learned nothing that I did not know before we began to build the extension," was the non-committal rejoinder.
"Oh, you haven't? You reported that canyon impracticable for a railroad, and yet I have just driven through it without once dismounting from this buckboard. Moreover, we shall find in Copah to-morrow a re-survey of the line showing its entire practicability, Mr. Ford—a report not made by your engineers."
Ford and Frisbie exchanged swift glances of intelligence. The presence of the strange engineering party in the canyon was sufficiently explained. At first sight the president's expedient seemed childishly puerile to Ford. Then suddenly in a flash of revealment he saw beyond the puerilities—beyond the stubborn old man who, with all his narrow self-will and obstinacy was merely playing the game for others.
"We can discuss these matters later, if you wish," he said placably. "I think you will find our ground well taken. Do you want to drive back as we came? Or will you let me find you an easier road to the mouth of Horse Creek?"
But Mr. Colbrith was not to be balked or turned aside.
"Mr. Ford, I wish to be fair and impartial. I desired to satisfy myself, personally, that this route we have driven over is practicable, and it was also my desire that the investigation should be conducted in your presence. You will admit now that you made a mistake—a very costly mistake for the company—in abandoning this short cut."
"I admit nothing of the kind. The difficulties remain as they were, quite unchanged by our pleasure trip from the end-of-track, Mr. Colbrith. Assuming that the re-survey will report that the north bank of the river is practicable, while the south bank is not, I have only to say that the cost of the two bridges would offset the easier grading conditions, while the danger to future traffic would remain the same. But that is neither here nor there. You must either give us credit for knowing our business, or you must discredit us entirely."
Frisbie was grinding his heel into the hard soil of the mesa. The argument was growing rather acrid; and Penfield and the two drivers were interested listeners. It was high time for a diversion to be made, and the assistant made it.
"We have used five hours getting down here, and we'll need as many going back," he put in. "Unless there is something more to be done on the spot, I think we'd better take the road over the hills. It's with you, Mr. Colbrith."
The president signified his assent by climbing into his buckboard, and the return journey was begun with the two engineers in the lead for pathfinding purposes. Once safely out of earshot, Frisbie voiced his disgust.
"A wild goose-chase, pure and simple! Stuart, that old man is in his second childhood."
"Not at all," said Ford. "He is merely following out North's suggestions. Dick, my name is Dennis."
"Nonsense! Things are no worse than they have been all along."
"My time with the Pacific Southwestern is shorter by just the number of hours it has taken us to drive down here. Mr. Colbrith has convinced himself that I was wrong in abandoning the canyon. To-morrow he will convince himself that I was doubly wrong in approving the detour. I shall hand in my resignation to-night."
"So be it," said Frisbie shortly. "That means good-by to the extension. I'm predicting that it will never get to Green Butte—never get beyond Copah. And your name will go out to the railroad world as that of a man who bit off a number of large things that he couldn't chew."
"Confound you!" said Ford; and after that, Frisbie could get no more than single-syllabled replies to his monologue of Job's comfortings.
The returning route was a detour, winding, through the greater part of it, among and over the swelling heights north of the Pannikin. On each hilltop the vast sweep of the inter-mountain wilderness came into view, and from the highest point in the trail, reached when the sun was dipping toward the western horizon, the eye-sweep took in the broken country lying between the Pannikin and the path of the Transcontinental narrow gauge forty miles away.
Jack's Canyon, the Transcontinental station nearest Copah, was the beginning of a combined pack trail and stage road connecting the Copah district with what had been, before the advent of the Southwestern Extension, its nearest railroad outlet. Along this trail, visible to the buckboarders as a black speck tittuping against the reddening background of the west, galloped a solitary horseman, urging his mount in a way to make Frisbie, getting his glimpse from the hilltop of extended views, call Ford's attention.
"Look at that brute, pushing his horse like that at the end of the day! He ought to be—"
But the hastening rider was getting his deserts, whatever they should be, as he went along. For three hours, with three relays of fresh horses picked up at the stage stations in passing, he had been galloping southward, and to whatever other urging he might confess was added the new one of fear, the fear that in the approaching day's-end he would lose his way.
Seen from the nearer point of view, the tittuping horseman seemed curiously out of harmony with his environment. Instead of the cow-boy "shaps," or overalls, he wore the trousers of civilization, which the rapid night had hitched half-way to his knees. In place of the open-breasted shirt with the rolled-up sleeves there were tailor-made upper clothes, with the collar and cravat also of civilization, and the hat—it was perhaps fortunate for the rider that he had not met any true denizens of the unfettered highlands on the lonely trail from Jack's Canyon. His hat was a Derby of the newest shape; and the cow-men beyond the range are impatient of such head-gear.
Recognition, after one has ridden hard for three hours over a dusty road, is not easy; but there are faces one never forgets, and the features, dust-grimed and sweat-streaked though they were, had still the South-of-Europe outline, the slightly aquiline nose, and the piercing black eyes of Mr. Julius Eckstein, whom we saw, on the morning of this same road-wearying day, welcoming Adair over the counter railing in the Denver office. How does it come that a few short hours later we find him galloping tantivy over the dusty hills, no less than two hundred miles, as the birds fly, from the counter railing of welcomings?
That is the story of another, and a more successful special train than Adair's. No sooner was the care-free young director safely on his way to meet the delays so painstakingly prearranged for him than the wires began to buzz with a cipher message of warning to Penfield. A precious half-hour was lost in ascertaining that the wire connection to the end-of-track was temporarily out of commission; but during that half-hour Mr. North had held his chin in his hand to some good purpose.
With the fresh complications promised by Adair's projection into the field, a stronger man than Penfield should be in command on the firing line. The vice-president decided swiftly that Eckstein was the man; but how to get him to the MacMorrogh headquarters before Adair should arrive?
It proved to be simpler in the outcarrying than in the planning. A special light engine over the Transcontinental to Jack's Canyon—an exchange of courtesies which even fighting railroads make in war as well as in peace—a wire request on the stage company for relays of saddle horses, and the thing was done. And Eckstein, pushing his jaded beast down the final hill in the dusk of the evening, and welcoming, as only the saddle-tormented can welcome, the lights of the headquarters camp, confessed in cursings quite barbaric in their phrasings that he, too, was done.
The conference held that night behind locked doors in the MacMorroghs' commissary office was a council of five, with Eckstein, as the mouthpiece of the vice-president, in the chair. Penfield was present, with no vote, and the three MacMorroghs voted as one; but as to that, there were no divisions. A crisis was imminent, and it must be met.
"As I have said, I am here with power to act," said Eckstein, gripping the chair with wincings after the day of torment. "The plan outlined at first by Mr. North must go through as it was outlined. Part of it has already been carried out, you say: Ford and the president have been over the short-cut together. To-morrow the entire private-car party goes to Copah over the detour. Are the buckboards here for that?"
"They're here wid the drivers. I saw to that part of it myself." It was the youngest of the three MacMorroghs who gave the assurance.
"So far so good," commented the chairman. "The other thing we have to provide for, or rather, to prevent, is the possibility of Mr. Adair's reaching here in time to join the party. The last definite information we had of Mr. Adair he was crawling up Blue Canyon, with a train crew which was under orders to give him ample time to study the scenery. He has probably reached Saint's Rest before this, however, and once there, Leckhard will give him anything in sight. The question is, will he attempt to run the extension to-night?"
The middle MacMorrogh thought not, and his younger brother agreed with him. But the senior partner voted aye, and stuck to it. Thereupon ensued a conflict of opinion. Dan MacMorrogh pointed out that the construction motive power was all at the west end, or in transit eastward; it would be daylight of another day before an engineer familiar with the hazards could be obtained for Adair's special over the construction line. But Brian MacMorrogh argued with equal emphasis that this was a mere begging of chances. Without a telegraph wire to verify the guess, no man could say at what hour one of the trains of empties would pull through to Saint's Rest; and whatever the hour, Leckhard would doubtless turn the engine and crew to double back with Adair's car.
Eckstein was gripping the arms of his chair and setting his teeth deep into his cigar while the probabilities were getting themselves threshed out. At the end of the dispute he said quietly: "It's a hell of a pity we can't have the use of the wire for this one night. But, gentlemen, we can't stop for trifles. There are five of us here in this room who know how much is at stake. One of two things is due to happen. If we can keep Adair out of it for another twelve hours, Ford will be disgraced and asked to resign. If he gets to that point, we're safe. I know Ford's temper. If Mr. Colbrith puts it as he is likely to put it, Ford will say and do things that will make it impossible for Adair or any one else to get him back into the service."
"Thrue for you, Misther Eckstein; ye have 'im down to the crossin' of a 't'," agreed the eldest of the brothers MacMorrogh.
"That is one of the due things," Eckstein went on smoothly. "The other isn't pretty to look at. If Adair gets here in time, it will be another story. He can handle Ford; and he has proved once or twice that he can handle Mr. Colbrith. If he hadn't been out of the way when you went to New York with Mr. North, you'd never have seen the thin edge of this contract, Brian. Well, then what happens? With Adair on the ground to back him, Ford wins out. Do you know what that means? Investigations, muck-rakings, and worse. There are two or three of us here, and some more on the other side of the range, who won't get off with less than ten years apiece. I'm willing to take the chance of a few more years for another play on the red. How is it with the rest of you?"
The elder MacMorrogh spread his hands.
"It's all in the same boat we are. You've a notion in the back par-rt of your head, Misther Eckstein; lave us have it."
"As I've said, we can't stick at trifles. If Adair's train is on the extension, it mustn't get here. Somebody goes up the line on a hand-car to-night and stops it."
"Is it to ditch it, ye mane?" asked the youngest of the brothers in a hoarse whisper.
Eckstein laughed cynically. "What a lot of crude cutthroats you are!" he jeered. "Now if it were Ford, instead of Adair—but pshaw! a rail or two taken up and flung into the river well beyond walking distance from this camp does the business. Only the man who does it wants to make sure he has gone far enough back to cover all the possible chances."
"That's me," said Dan MacMorrogh; and he rose and let himself out, with the younger brother to lock the door behind him.
The door-keeping attended to, the younger brother drew closer into the circle.
"There's wan thing," he said, looking furtively at Eckstein. "I was in Copah this day: I got the buckboards for Misther Colbrith. Goin' past the bank, who would I see but our old bookkeeper, Merriam, chinnin' wid the bank president. I thought he was out o' the way entirely."
Stiff and saddle-sore as he was, Eckstein leaped out of his chair with an oath.
"Merriam? What the devil is he back here for? It's a put-up job!"
It was the chief of the MacMorroghs who flung in the calming word.
"'Tis only a happen-so, Misther Eckstein. Merriam owns a mine or two in the Copah, and ye know the fever: a man can't keep away from thim."
"That may be; but it's a cursed unlucky combination, just the same. I tell you, Brian, he knows too much—this fellow Merriam. He knew what was up when he was steering Frisbie. You told him too much. And afterward, when we gave him the Oregon job, he knew why he was being bribed to go away. You let us in for this: you've got to muzzle him, some way."
The MacMorrogh looked at his remaining brother meaningly. "'Tis up to you, this time, Mickey, b'y. Find your way over to the minin' camp this night, and make a clane job av it.'"
Penfield was moving uneasily in his chair. The plotting waters were deepening swiftly, much too swiftly for him. Loyalty to his superior officer, the unquestioning loyalty that disregards motives entirely and does not look too closely at methods, was his fetish. But these men were not merely loyal to Mr. North. They were criminals—he stuck at the word, but there was no other—fighting for their own hand.
"I guess—I guess I'd better go back to the Nadia," he stammered, trying to keep his voice steady. "Mr. Colbrith may need me."
Eckstein turned on him like a snarling animal.
"No you don't, Arthur, my boy. I know you like a book. You stay here till you're in as deep as the rest of us. Like Merriam, you know too damned much."
Penfield sat still, with the cold chills running up and down his spine, while Eckstein went on talking to the two MacMorroghs.
"This Merriam business complicates things like hell"—he was growing coarsely profane in the grinding mill of events. "But it shows us where we stand. This thing has got to go through, and if it doesn't work out the way we've planned it, it's for us to find another way."
"There's always the wan other way," said the elder MacMorrogh slowly. "'Tis but a drunken fight in wan o' the camps, and Ford tryin' to stop it, as he always does: a bit of a shindy among the b'ys, and this—" crooking his forefinger suggestively.
"Bah!" said Eckstein. "You fellows ought to have lived in the stone age, when a man pulled his enemy to pieces with his bare hands. If it comes to that, there are easier ways—and safer. A premature blast in a rock cut; a weak coupling-pin when he happens to be standing in the way of a pulling engine: they tell me he is always indifferent to his personal safety. But never mind the fashion of it; the point I'm making is that if everything else fails, Ford mustn't live to be the head-foreman of the outfit."
Penfield's face was ashen, and he was cravenly thankful that the lamplight was dim, and that his chair was in the shadow. This was more than he had bargained for; more by the price of a man's life.
Eckstein was lifting himself by painful inches from his chair. A silence as of the grave had fallen upon the two MacMorroghs. It was the senior partner who broke it.
"'Tis as ye say, Misther Eckstein. A man—a safe man, that'll do what he's told to do—will be at Ford's heels till this thing do be settled. And now for yourself: 'tis betther that ye kape dark. Four of us know that you're in the camp—no wan else need know. I've a room and a bed, and ye'll be nadin' the lasht, I'm thinking."
The two MacMorroghs were bestirring themselves, and Penfield was slipping through the door into the commissary when Eckstein's fingers closed upon his arm.
"Your part is to keep tab on the programme," he whispered "Get word instantly to Brian if there is any change. And if you weaken, Arthur, I'll promise you just one thing: I'll pull you in with the rest of us if I have to swear to a string of lies a mile long. Remember that."
Penfield escaped at length, and stumbled through the littered end-of-track yard to where the lighted windows of the Nadia marked the berth of the president's car. Out of the shadow of the car a man rose up and confronted him. It was Frisbie, and he asked a single question:
"Say, Penfield, who was that fellow who rode around to the MacMorroghs' back door just after dark?"
"It was Eckstein." The secretary let slip the name before he could lay hold of his discretion.
"Oh: all right That's all," said the engineer; and he vanished.
Climbing to the observation platform, Penfield let himself into the cheerful central compartment of the Nadia quietly enough to surprise two people who were sitting together on one of the broad divans. The two were Ford and Miss Alicia Adair, with Aunt Hester Adair, reading under the drop-light at the table, for the only other occupant of the compartment. It was Miss Alicia who told the secretary that he was not needed.
"Mr. Colbrith was very tired, and he has gone to bed," she said; and Penfield, still pallid and curiously unready of speech, said he believed he'd go, too.
Ford got up when Penfield had disappeared in the curtained vestibule leading to the state-rooms.
"I shall wait one more day, because you want me to," he said, resuming the conversation which had been broken off by Penfield's incoming. "But I'll tell the truth: I came here to-night to have it over with. We were as near quarreling to-day as I want to come, and if Frisbie hadn't got between—"
"Good Mr. Frisbie!" she said. "Some day I hope to get a chance to be very nice to him."
Ford laughed. The evening had healed many of the woundings of the day.
"If you don't get the chance it won't be Dick's fault—or mine. Meantime, I'll be delighted to pose as his substitute."
She had gone with him to the door, and his last word was a reminder. "Don't forget," he said. "I'm to drive your buckboard to-morrow, whatever happens."
"You are the one who will forget," she retorted. "When Uncle Sidney crooks his finger at you, you'll climb up obediently beside him and let him scold you all the way over to Copah."
"Wait and see," said Ford; and then he said good night, not as he wanted to, but as he must, with Aunt Hester sitting within arm's reach.
Frisbie was sitting up for him when he reached the white tents of the engineers' camp pitched a little apart from the MacMorrogh conglomeration of shacks and storehouses.
"Just one question," said the first assistant, "and I've been staying awake to ask it. Are you still my boss?"
"For one more day," said Ford shortly.
"Well, we can't live more than a day at a time, if we try. That will do to sleep on."
"All right; sleep on it, then."
"In a minute; after I've freed my mind of one little news item. Do you remember that fellow we saw riding in on the Jack's Canyon trail as we were coming back this afternoon?"
"Have you any notion who it was?"
"It was Mr. Julius Eckstein; and he is at present lying doggo in the MacMorrogh quarters. That's all. Now you can turn in and sleep a few lines on that."
THE MILLS OF THE GODS
It was merely by chance that Adair had Michael Gallagher for his engineer when the "01" was made up for the after-midnight run from Saint's Rest to the MacMorrogh headquarters. But it was a chance which was duly gratifying to Leckhard. The little Irishman was Ford's most loyal liegeman, and a word was all that was needed to put him on his mettle. The word was spoken while he was oiling around for the man-killing extra service.
"Pretty well knocked out, Michael?" asked Leckhard, by way of preface.
"I am thot, Misther Leckhard. 'Tis the good half of lasht night, all day yestherday, and thin some."
"It's tough. But if any of the other men were in, I should still ask you to go. Mr. Ford is in a pinch, and Mr. Adair, your passenger, is going to help him out. He can do it if you get him to Horse Creek in time; and I know you'll get him there if the 956 and the '01' will stay on the steel."
"To help Misther Foord out? Thot's me," said Gallagher simply.
"Not having a wire, I can't boost you any from this end. You'll meet Folsom and Graham with the other two sections of empties where you can: you'll run as fast as the Lord'll let you on such a track as you have: but above all, you'll stay on the rails. If you ditch yourself, it'll go hard with Mr. Ford."
"I'll do all thim things and wan more—and thot wan is the shtiffest av thim all: the saints aidin' me, Misther Leckhard, I'll shtay awake."
There was a short siding at the summit of the pass, and by good hap, Gallagher met Folsom with the first string of empties at that point: or rather, giving the bit of good luck full credit, he heard the roaring of Folsom's exhaust as the first of the opposing trains pounded up the dangerous western grade, and hastily backed up and took the summit siding.
Pitching over the hill with the "01" the moment Folsom's tail-lights had passed the outlet switch, Gallagher had a sharp attack of memory. The day before, in the Horse Creek yard, he had seen and remarked a jagged scratch on the side of the Nadia. Hence, he was watching for the narrow rock cuttings, and the three passages perilous on the cliff face were made in safety.
Once off the mountain, however, the greater peril began to assert itself. For a time the Irishman kept himself fully awake and alert by pushing the 956 to the ragged edge of hazard, scurrying over the short tangents and lifting her around the curves in breath-taking spurts. Later this expedient began to lose its fillip. Since the train was running wholly on the air-brakes there was nothing for the fireman to do, and Jackson, the loyalest understudy Gallagher had ever known, tumbled from his box in a doze, staggered across the gang-way into the half-filled tender, and fell like a man anaesthetized full length on the coal. Gallagher did not try to arouse him.
"'Tis hell for wan, an' twice hell for two," he muttered; and then he shifted his right hand to the brake-cock and grasped the hot throttle lever with the ungloved left. And for a time the pain of the burn sufficed.
It was another piece of luck, good or bad, that made Ten Mile station the special train's meeting point with the second train of empties. This time it was Graham, the other engineer, who heard. He had stopped at Ten Mile on the bare chance that the wire between that point and Saint's Rest had been repaired; public opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, an engineer does not run "wild" when he can help it.
The engineer of the third section had come out of the night operator's office disappointed, and was climbing to his engine to pull out, when he heard, or thought he heard, the dull rumble of a train racing down the canyon. It came in sight while he listened, and the yellow flare told him that it was either Gallagher or Folsom doubling back on one of the construction engines. What startled him was the fact that the coming train appeared to be running itself; there was no warning whistle shriek and no slackening of speed.
Graham was a Scotchman, slow of speech, slow to anger, methodical to the thirty-third degree. But in an emergency his brain leveled itself like a ship's compass gimballed to hang plumb in the suddenest typhoon. Three shrill whistle calls sent a sleepy flagman racing to set the switch of the siding. With a clang the reversing lever came over and the steam roared into the cylinders.
The Scotchman had the grade to help him, which was fortunate. When he had the string of empties fairly in retreat, the beam of Gallagher's headlight was shining full in his face and blinding him. For a heart-breaking second he feared that the opposing train would follow him in on the siding; there was but an instant for the flicking of the switch. But by this time the sleepy flagman was wide awake, and he jerked the switch lever for his life the moment Graham's engine had cleared the points. It was the closest possible shave. Gallagher's cab ticked the forward end of the other engine's running board in passing, and if Graham had not been still shoving backward with the throttle wide open, the "01," being wider than its piloting engine, would have had its side ripped out.
Graham had a glimpse into the cab of the 956 as it passed and saw Gallagher, sitting erect on his box with wide-staring eyes. He knew the symptoms, and feared that he had only postponed the catastrophe. The siding was a short one, and he knew that in backing down he must inevitably have shoved the rear end of his train out upon the main line at the lower switch. Once again the level brain righted itself to the emergency. Four sharp shrieks of the whistle for switches, a jamming of the whistle lever to set the canyon echoes yelling in the hope of arousing Gallagher, and Graham slammed his engine into the forward motion without pausing to close the throttle. There was a grinding of fire from the wheels, a running jangle of slack-taking down the long line of empties, and the freight train shot ahead, snatching its rear end out of harm's way just as Gallagher, dreaming that his boiler had burst and that all the fiends of the pit were screeching the news of it, came to life and snapped on the air.
When the stop was made, the little Irishman roused his fireman, got off and footed it up the line to see what he had done. Graham had stopped his engine when he was sure his train was clearing the lower switch, and was on his way back to find out what had happened to Gallagher. The two men met in the shadow of the halted material empties, and it was the Irishman who began it.
"Paste me wan, Scotchie," he said. "'Tis owin' to me."
Without a word the Scotchman gave the blow, catching the little man full in the chest and knocking him half a car-length. That was enough. Gallagher picked himself up out of the gravel, the lust of battle hot upon him.
"Wan more like thot, ye divvle, and I cajo lick ye if ye wor Fin-mac-Coul himself," he panted; and Graham gave it judiciously, this time on the point of the jaw. For five bloody minutes it went on, give and take, down and up; methodically on Graham's part, fiery hot on Gallagher's. And in the end the Irishman had the heavier man backed against the string of empties and yelling for quarter.
"Are you full awake now, ye red-hot blastoderm?" gasped Graham, struggling to free himself when Gallagher gave him leave.
"I am thot, thanks to you, Sandy, lad. 'Twas a foine bit av a scrimmage, an' I'm owin' ye wan. Good night to ye."
"Ye've got a clear track from this," called Graham, swabbing his battered face with a piece of cotton waste drawn from one of the pockets of method. "But ye'd better not take any more cat-naps. Go on with ye, ye wild Irishman; ye're obstructin' the traffic."
For twenty miles below Ten Mile Gallagher sat on his box like a man refreshed. Then the devil of sleep postponed beset him again. Once more the fireman was asleep on the coal, and to the little Irishman's bombardment of wrenches and other missiles he returned only sodden groans. Gallagher nerved himself to fight it through alone. Mile after mile of the time-killing track swung slowly to the rear, and there was not even the flick of speed to help in the grim battle.
Dawn came when the end-of-track camp was still forty miles away, but the breaking day brought no surcease of strugglings. When it came to the bitter end, when his eyelids would close involuntarily and he would wake with a start to wonder dumbly how far the 956 had come masterless, Gallagher took a chew of tobacco and began to rub the spittle into his eyes—the last resort of the sleep-tormented engineman. Like all the other expedients it sufficed for the time; but before long he was nodding again, and dreaming that a thousand devils were burning his eyes out with the points of their red-hot pitchforks.
Out of one of these nightmares he came with a yell of pain to see what figured for the moment as another nightmare. Three hundred feet ahead the track seemed to vanish for three or four rail-lengths. It was second nature to jam on the brakes and to make the sudden stop. Then he sat still and rubbed his smarting eyes and stared again. The curious hallucination persisted strangely. Fifty feet ahead of the stopped engine the glistening lines of the steel ended abruptly, beginning again a car-length or two beyond. Without disturbing the sleeping Jackson, Gallagher got down and crept cautiously out to the break. It was a break. He stooped and felt the rail ends with his hands.
When he straightened up his passenger was standing beside him.
"What is it?" asked Adair. "Have we lost something?"
Gallagher waved a grimy hand at the gap.
"The thrack," he said. "'Twas there whin I pulled me sthring av empties out over ut lasht night. 'Tis gone now, else I'm thot near dead for sleep I can nayther see nor feel sthraight."
Adair was calmly lighting a cigarette.
"Your senses are still in commission," he said; "there is a good-sized piece of track missing. Who sniped it, do you suppose?"
The engineer was shaking his fiery head.
"'Tis beyond me, Misther Adair."
"That's the deuce of it," smiled the young man. "It's beyond the train. How is your engine—pretty good on the broad jump?"
Gallagher was not past laughing.
"She'll not lep thot, this day. But who'd be doin' this job betune dark an' mornin', d'ye think?"
"You will have to ask me something easy, I'm not up in all the little practical jokes of the country. But if I should venture a guess, I should say it was some one who didn't want me to answer the first call for breakfast at your end-of-track camp this morning. What do we do?"
Gallagher was thinking.
"We passed a camp av surfacers tin mile back, and there'd be rails at Arroyo Siding, tin mile back o' thot," he said reflectively.
Adair had passed over to the river side of the line and was looking at a fresh plowing of the embankment.
"The rails have been dragged down here and they are probably in the river," he announced. "If we had men and tools we might fish them out and repair damages."
"Come on, thin," cried the little Irishman, and when he ran back to climb to the footboard of the 956, Adair climbed with him.
Jackson, refreshed by his cat-naps on the coal, was sent to the rear end of the "01" to flag back, and in due time the special picked up the gang of surfacers just turning out to the day's work. An Irish foreman was in command, and to him Gallagher appealed, lucidly but not too gently. The reply was a volley of abuse and a caustic refusal to lend his men to the track-laying department.
Gallagher turned to Adair with his red-apple face wrinkling dismayfully.
"'Tis up to me to push thot felly's face in, Misther Adair; and what wid two nights and a day, shtandin', and wan fight wid a bully twice me size, I'm not man enough."
Adair tossed away the stump of his cigarette.
"You're quite sure that is what is needed?" he queried.
"To knock a grain av sinse into thot Wicklow man?" queried Gallagher. "Sure, it is." And then whispering: "But not for you, Misther Adair; he'd ate you in two bites. L'ave me have a thry wid him."
But Adair was off and fronting the surly MacMorrogh foreman.
"We need a dozen of your men and some tools," he said quietly. "Do we get them?"
"Not by a fistful!" retorted the surly one. "Maybe you think you're enough of a —— —— —— to take 'em."
"I am a better man than you are," was the even-toned rejoinder.
"Prove it, then."
Gallagher, leaning from his cab window, fully awake now, and chuckling and rubbing his hands together softly, saw the blow. It was clean-cut, swift as the lightning's flash, true to a finger's breadth, and the sound of it was as bone upon bone. At its impact the Wicklow man bounded into the air, arched his back like a bow, and pitched on his head in the ditch. When he rose up, roaring blasphemies and doubling his huge fists for the fray, the quiet voice was assailing him again. "Do we get the men and tools?"
Again the lightning-like passes of the hands, and the Wicklow man sat down forcibly and gasped. The Italian surfacers threw aside their picks and shovels and made a ring, dancing excitedly and jeering. The big foreman, whose scepter of authority was commonly a pick-handle for the belaboring of offenders, was not loved.
"Kick-a da shin—kick-a da shin—he like-a da nigger-mans," suggested one of the Italians, but there was no need. Being safely out of range of the catapult fists, the foreman stayed there.
"Take your track gang and be damned to you!" he snarled.
Adair made a forward step and stood over him.
"Are you quite convinced that I am the better man?" he asked very gently.
"It's a trick!" growled the Wicklow man savagely. "I could get onto it in another whirl or two."
"Get up," said the gentle voice. "You'll never have a better chance to learn the trick." But the foreman had the saving grace to shun anti-climaxes.
"G'wan! Take the men, I say; all of 'em, if you like."
"Thanks," said Adair pleasantly. "We'll do it, and we'll take you, as well—to answer for their good behavior. Let me help you up," and he stooped and snapped the big one to his feet as a man would collar a reluctant boy.
"Great judgment!" gasped the foreman. "Say, Mister Cock-o'-the-walk—where do you hide all that muscle?" And without waiting for an answer he piled a dozen of his men upon the engine and followed them, still muttering.
It was a partly surfaced ten miles over which the special train thundered for the third time since dawn-breaking, and Gallagher took the last wheel-turn out of the 956. None the less, the sun was reddening the western mountains when the Italians took ground at the mysterious gap. The rails were found in the stream, as Adair had predicted, and it was a work of minutes only to snake them up the embankment and to spike them lightly into place. But when Adair, for the healing of wounds, had thrust a bank-note into the hand of the Wicklow man, and the special was once more on its unhindered way westward, the sun had fairly topped the eastern range, and Johnson, the porter of the "01," was shouting across the rocketing tender that breakfast was served.
The young man in the London-cut clothes might have climbed back to the car over the coal; or Gallagher would have stopped for him. But he elected to stay in the cab, and he was still there, hanging from the open window on Jackson's side, when the one-car special woke the echoes with its whistle, clattered in over the switches at Horse Creek, and came to a stand opposite the MacMorroghs' commissary.
It was Brian MacMorrogh who came across the tracks to greet Adair, and, since this was their first meeting, he made the mistake of his life in calling the young director by name.
"The top of the morning to you, Misther Adair. Is it Misther Colbrith you'd be looking for?"
"It is," said Adair shortly, not failing to remark that the barrel-bodied, black-bearded man seemed to recognize and to be expecting him.
"'Tis two hours gone they all are," was the oily-voiced explanation. "Up the grade and over to Copah. But they'll be back to-morrow, Heaven savin' thim, and we'll make you comfortable here—as comfortable as we can."
"That will be quickly done," said Adair, swinging down from the engine step. "Just give me a horse and tell me which way they have gone, and I'll overtake them."
But here the barrel-bodied one spread his hands helplessly.
"'Tis just our luck!" he protested, in the keenest self-reproach. "There isn't a horse or a mule in camp that you could get a mile an hour out of. In fact, I'm thinking there isn't anny horses at all!"
THE MAN ON HORSEBACK
Since the weather was rather threatening, and the promise of October in the inter-mountain region is not to be lightly trifled with, Mr. Colbrith pressed for an early start on the seventeen-mile buckboard jaunt to Copah over the detour survey.
It was by his express command that the private-car party was called at daybreak, and that breakfast was served in the Nadia at six o'clock. And at seven sharp, which chanced to be the precise time of day when Adair's commandeered Italians were spiking the last of the displaced rails into position at the gap in the track thirty-three miles away, the buckboards were drawn up at the steps of the president's car.
For reasons charitable, as well as practical, Ford had planned to leave Frisbie out of this second dance of attendance upon the president. The track-layers were well up toward the head of Horse Creek gulch, with Brissac to drive; but during the night the Louisianian had reported in with a touch of mountain fever, and Ford had asked Frisbie to go up and take his place.