It was Judson; and having seen him last toiling away man-fashion at the wreck in the Crosswater Hills, Lidgerwood hailed him.
"Hello, Judson! How did you get here? I thought you were doing a turn with McCloskey."
The small man's grin was ferocious.
"I was, but Mac said he didn't have any further use for me—said I was too much of a runt to be liftin' and pullin' along with growed-up men. I came down with Williams on the '66."
Lidgerwood turned away. He remembered his reluctant consent to McCloskey's proposal touching the espial upon Hallock, and was sorry he had given it. It was too late to recall it now; but neither by word nor look did the superintendent intimate to the discharged engineer that he knew why McCloskey had sent him back to Angels on the engine of the president's special.
Lidgerwood was not making the conventional excuse when he gave the deskful of work as a reason for not accepting the invitation to dine with the president's party in the Nadia. Being the practical as well as the nominal head of the Red Butte line, and the only official with complete authority west of Copah, his daily mail was always heavy, and during his frequent absences the accumulations stored up work for every spare hour he could devote to it.
It was this increasing clerical burden which had led him to ask the general manager for a stenographer, and during one of the later absences the young man had come—a rapid, capable young fellow with the gift of knowing how to make himself indispensable to a superior, coupled with the ability to take care of much of the routine correspondence without specific instructions, and with a disposition to be loyal to his salt.
Climbing the stair to his office on the second floor of the Crow's Nest after the brief exchange of question and answer with Judson, Lidgerwood found his new helper hard at work grinding through the day's train mail.
"Don't scamp your meals, Grady," was his greeting to the stenographer, as he opened his own desk. "This is a pretty busy shop, but it is well to remember that there is always another day coming, and if there isn't, it won't make any difference how much or how little is left undone."
"Colgan wired that you were on Mr. Brewster's special, and I was waiting on the chance that you might want to rush something through when you got in," returned the young Irishman, reaching mechanically for his note-book.
"I shall want to rush a lot of it through after a while, but you'd better go and get your supper now and come back fresh for it," said the superintendent, who was always humane to every one but himself. "Was there anything special in to-day's mail?"
"Only this," turning up a letter marked "Immediate" and bearing the cancellation stamp of the postal car which had passed eastward on Train 202.
Lidgerwood read the marked letter twice before he placed it face down in the "unanswered" basket. It was from Flemister, and it called for a decision which the superintendent was willing to postpone for the moment. After he had read thoughtfully through everything else on the waiting list, he took up the mine-owner's letter again. All things considered, it was a little puzzling. He had not seen Flemister since the day of the rather spiteful conversation, with the building-and-loan theft for a topic, and on that occasion the mine-owner had gone away with threats in his mouth. Yet his letter was distinctly friendly, conveying an offer of neighborly help.
The occasion for the neighborliness arose upon a right-of-way involvement. Acting under instructions from Vice-President Ford, Lidgerwood had already begun to move in the matter of extending the Red Butte Western toward the Nevada gold-fields, and Benson had been running preliminary surveys and making estimates of cost. Of the two more feasible routes, that which left the main line at Little Butte, turning southward up the Wire-Silver gulch, had been favorably reported on by the engineer. The right of way over this route, save for a few miles through an upland valley of cattle ranches, could be acquired from the government, and among the ranch owners only one was disposed to fight the coming of the railroad—for a purely mercenary purpose, Benson declared.
It was about this man, James Grofield, that Flemister wrote. The ranchman, so the letter stated, had passed through Little Butte early in the day, on his way to Red Butte. He would be returning by the accommodation late in the afternoon, and would stop at the Wire-Silver mine, where he had stabled his horses. For some reason he had taken a dislike to Benson, but if Lidgerwood could make it convenient to come over to Little Butte on the evening passenger-train from Angels, the writer of the letter would arrange to keep Grofield over-night, and the right-of-way matter could doubtless be settled satisfactorily.
This was the substance of the mine-owner's letter, and if Lidgerwood hesitated it was partly because he was suspicious of Flemister's sudden friendliness. Then the motive—Flemister's motive—suggested itself, and the suspicion was put to sleep. The Wire-Silver mine was five miles distant from the main line at Little Butte, at the end of a spur; if the extension should be built, it would be a main-line station, with all the advantages accruing therefrom. Flemister was merely putting the personal animosities aside for a good and sufficient business reason.
Lidgerwood looked at his watch. If Grady should not be gone too long, he might be able to work through the pile of correspondence and get away on the evening passenger; and when the stenographer came back the work was attacked with that end in view. But after an hour's rapid dictating, a long-drawn whistle signal announced the incoming of the train he was trying to make and warned him that the race against time had failed.
"It's no use; we'll have to make two bites of it," he said to Grady, and then he left his desk to go downstairs for a breathing moment and the cup of coffee which he meant to substitute for the dinner which the lack of time had made him forego.
Train 205, the train Flemister had suggested that he might take, was just pulling in from the long run across the desert when he reached the foot of the stairs. That it was too late to take this means of reaching Little Butte and the Wire-Silver mine was a small matter; it merely meant that he would be obliged to order out the service-car and go special, if he should finally decide to act upon Flemister's suggestion.
Angels being a meal station, there was a twenty-minute stop for all trains, and the passengers from 205 were crowding the platform and hurrying to the dining-room and lunch-counter when Lidgerwood made his way to the station end of the building. In the men's room, whither he went to order his cup of coffee, there was a mixed throng of travellers, with a sprinkling of trainmen and town idlers, among the latter a number of the lately discharged railroad employees. Lidgerwood marked a group of the trouble-makers withdrawing to a corner of the room as he entered, and while the waiter was serving his coffee, he saw Hallock join the group. It was only a straw, but straws are significant when the wind is blowing from a threatening quarter. Once again Lidgerwood remembered McCloskey's proposal, and his own reluctant assent to it, and now he was not too greatly conscience-stricken when he saw Judson quietly working his way through the crowded room to a point of espial upon the group in the corner.
"Your coffee's getting cold, Mr. Lidgerwood," the man behind the counter warned him, and Lidgerwood whirled around on the pivot stool and turned his back upon the malcontents and their watcher. The keen inner sense, which neither the physiologists nor the psychologists have yet been able to define or to name, apprised him of a threat developing in the distant corner, but he resolutely ignored it, drank his coffee, and presently went his way around the peopled end of the building and back to the office entrance, meaning to go above stairs and put in another hour with Grady before he should decide definitely about making the night run to Little Butte.
His foot was on the threshold of the stairway door when Judson overtook him.
"Mac told me to report to you when I couldn't get at him," the ex-engineman began abruptly. "There's something hatching, but I can't find out what it is. Are you thinking about goin' out on the road anywhere to-night, Mr. Lidgerwood?"
Lidgerwood's decision was taken on the instant.
"Yes; I think I shall go west in my car in an hour or so. Why?"
"There ain't any 'why,' I guess, if you feel like goin'. But what I don't savvy is why them fellows back yonder in the waitin'-room are so dead anxious to find out if you are goin'."
As he spoke, a man who had been skulking behind a truck-load of express freight, so near that he could have touched either of them with an out-stretched arm, withdrew silently in the direction of the lunch-room. He was a tall man with stooping shoulders, and his noiseless retreat was cautiously made, yet not quite cautiously enough, since Judson's sharp eyes marked the shuffling figure vanishing in the shadow cast by the over-hanging shelter roof of the station.
"By cripes!—look at that, will you?" he exclaimed, pointing to the retreating figure. "That's Hallock, and he was listening!"
Lidgerwood shook his head.
"No, that isn't Hallock," he denied. And then, with a bit of the man-driving rasp in his voice: "See here, Judson, don't you let McCloskey's prejudices run away with you; make a memorandum of that and paste it in your hat. I know what you have been instructed to do, and I have given my consent, but it is with the understanding that you will be at least as fair as you would be if McCloskey's bias happened to run the other way. I don't want you to make a case against Hallock unless you can get proof positive that he is disloyal to the company and to me; and I'll tell you here and now that I shall be much better pleased if you can bring me the assurance that he is a true man."
"But that was Hallock," insisted Judson, "or else it was his livin' double."
"No; follow him and you'll see for yourself. It was more like that Ruby Gulch operator who quit in a quarrel with McCloskey a week or two ago. What is his name?—Sheffield."
Judson hastened down the platform to satisfy himself, and Lidgerwood mounted the stair to his office. Grady was still pounding the keys of the type-writer on the batch of letters given him in the busy hour following his return from supper, and the superintendent turned his back upon the clicking activities and went to stand at the window, from which he could look down upon the platform with the waiting passenger-train drawn up beside it.
Seeing the cheerful lights in the side-tracked Nadia, he fell to thinking of Eleanor, opening the door of conscious thought to her and saying to himself that she was never more than a single step beyond the threshold of that door. Looking across to the Nadia, he knew now why he had hesitated so long before deciding to go on the night trip to Timanyoni Park. Chilled hearts follow the analogy of cold hands. When the fire is near, a man will go and spread his fingers to the blaze, though he may be never so well assured that they will ache for it afterward.
But with this thought came another and a more manly one—the woman he loved was in Angels, and she would doubtless remain in Angels or its immediate vicinity for some time; that was unpreventable; but he could still resolve that there should not be a repetition of the old tragedy of the moth and the candle. It was well that at the very outset a duty call had come to enable him to break the spell of her nearness, and it was also well that he had decided not to disregard it.
The train conductor's "All aboard!" shouted on the platform just below his window, drew his attention from the Nadia and the distracting thought of Eleanor's nearness. Train 205 was ready to resume its westward flight, and the locomotive bell was clanging musically. A half-grown moon, hanging low in the black dome of the night, yellowed the glow of the platform incandescents. The last few passengers were hurrying up the steps of the cars, and the conductor was swinging his lantern in the starting signal for the engineer.
At the critical moment, when the train was fairly in motion, Lidgerwood saw Hallock—it was unmistakably Hallock this time—spring from the shadow of a baggage-truck and whip up to the step of the smoker, and a scant half-second later he saw Judson race across the wide platform and throw himself like a self-propelled projectile against and through the closing doors of the vestibule at the forward end of the sleeper.
Judson's dash and his capture of the out-going train were easily accounted for: he had seen Hallock. But where was Hallock going? Lidgerwood was still asking himself the question half-abstractedly when he crossed to his desk and touched the buzzer-push which summoned an operator from the despatcher's room.
"Wire Mr. Pennington Flemister, care of Goodloe, at Little Butte, that I am coming out with my car, and should be with him by eleven o'clock. Then call up the yard office and tell Matthews to let me have the car and engine by eight-thirty, sharp," he directed.
The operator made a note of the order and went out, and the superintendent settled himself in his desk-chair for another hour's hard work with the stenographer. At twenty-five minutes past eight he heard the wheel-grindings of the up-coming service-car, and the weary short-hand man snapped a rubber band upon the notes of the final letter.
"That's all for to-night, Grady, and it's quite enough," was the superintendent's word of release. "I'm sorry to have to work you so late, but I'd like to have those letters written out and mailed before you lock up. Are you good for it?"
"I'm good for anything you say, Mr. Lidgerwood," was the response of the one who was loyal to his salt, and the superintendent put on his light coat and went out and down the stair.
At the outer door he turned up the long platform, instead of down, and walked quickly to the Nadia, persuading himself that he must, in common decency, tell the president that he was going away; persuading himself that it was this, and not at all the desire to warm his hands at the ungrateful fire of Eleanor's mockery, that was making him turn his back for the moment upon the waiting special train.
The president's private car was side-tracked on the short spur at the eastern end of the Crow's Nest, and when Lidgerwood reached it he found the observation platform fully occupied. The night was no more than pleasantly cool, and the half-grown moon, which was already dipping to its early extinguishment behind the upreared bulk of the Timanyonis, struck out stark etchings in silver and blackest shadow upon a ground of fallow dun and vanishing grays. On such nights the mountain desert hides its forbidding face, and the potent spell of the silent wilderness had drawn the young people of the Nadia's party to the out-door trysting-place.
"Hello, Mr. Lidgerwood, is that you?" called Van Lew, when the superintendent came across to the spur track. "I thought you said this was a bad man's country. We have been out here for a solid hour, and nobody has shot up the town or even whooped a single lonesome war-whoop; in fact, I think your village with the heavenly name has gone ingloriously to bed. We're defrauded."
"It does go to bed pretty early—that part of it which doesn't stay up pretty late," laughed Lidgerwood. Then he came closer and spoke to Miss Brewster. "I am going west in my car, and I don't know just when I shall return. Please tell your father that everything we have here is entirely at his service. If you don't see what you want, you are to ask for it."
"Will there be any one to ask when you are gone?" she inquired, neither sorrowing nor rejoicing, so far as he could determine.
"Oh, yes; McCloskey, my trainmaster, will be in from the wreck before morning, and he will turn flip-flaps trying to make things pleasant for you, if you will give him the chance."
She made the adorable little grimace which always carried him swiftly back to a certain summer of ecstatic memories; to a time when her keenest retort had been no more than a playful love-thrust and there had been no bitterness in her mockery.
"Will he make dreadful faces at me, as he did at you this morning when you went down among the smashed cars at the wreck to speak to him?" she asked.
"So you were looking out of the window, too, were you? You are a close observer and a good guesser. That was Mac, and—yes, he will probably make faces at you. He can't help it any more than he can help breathing."
Miss Brewster was running her fingers along the hand-rail as if it were the key-board of a piano. "You say you don't know how long you will be away?" she asked.
"No; but probably not more than the night. I was only providing for the unexpected, which some people say is what always happens."
"Will your run take you as far as the Timanyoni Canyon?"
"Yes; through it, and some little distance beyond."
"You have just said that we are to ask for what we want. Did you mean it?"
"Surely," he replied unguardedly.
"Then we may as well begin at once," she said coolly; and turning quickly to the others: "O all you people; listen a minute, will you? Hush, Carolyn! What do you say to a moonlight ride through one of the grandest canyons in the West in Mr. Lidgerwood's car? It will be something to talk about as long as you live. Don't all speak at once, please."
But they did. There was an instant and enthusiastic chorus of approval, winding up rather dolefully, however, with Miss Doty's, "But your mother will never consent to it, Eleanor!"
"Mr. Lidgerwood will never consent, you mean," put in Miriam Holcombe quietly.
Lidgerwood said what he might without being too crudely inhospitable. His car was entirely at the service of the president's party, of course, but it was not very commodious compared with the Nadia. Moreover, he was going on a business trip, and at the end of it he would have to leave them for an hour or two, or maybe longer. Moreover, again, if they got tired they would have to sleep as they could, though possibly his state-room in the service-car might be made to accommodate the three young women. All this he said, hoping and believing that Mrs. Brewster would not only refuse to go herself but would promptly veto an unchaperoned excursion.
But this was one time when his distantly related kinswoman disappointed him. Mrs. Brewster, cajoled by her daughter, yielded a reluctant consent, going to the car door to tell Lidgerwood that she would hold him responsible for the safe return of the trippers.
"See, now, how fatally easy it is for one to promise more—oh, so very much more!—than one has any idea of performing," murmured the president's daughter, dropping out to walk beside the victim when the party trooped down the long platform of the Crow's Nest to the service-car. And when he did not reply: "Please don't be grumpy."
"It was the maddest notion!" he protested. "Whatever made you suggest it?"
"More churlishness?" she said reproachfully. And then, with ironical sentiment: "There was a time when you would have moved heaven and earth for a chance to take me somewhere with you, Howard."
"To be with you; yes, that is true. But——"
Her rippling laugh was too sweet to be shrill; none the less it held in it a little flick of the whip of malice.
"Listen," she said. "I did it out of pure hatefulness. You showed so plainly this afternoon that you wished to be quit of me—of the entire party—that I couldn't resist the temptation to pay you back with good, liberal interest. Possibly you will think twice before you snub me again, Howard, dear."
Quickly he stopped and faced her. The others were a few steps in advance; were already boarding the service-car.
"One word, Eleanor—and for Heaven's sake let us make it final. There are some things that I can endure and some others that I cannot—will not. I love you; what you said to me the last time we were together made no difference; nothing you can ever say will make any difference. You must take that fact into consideration while you are here and we are obliged to meet."
"Well?" she said, and there was nothing in her tone to indicate that she felt more than a passing interest in his declaration.
"That is all," he ended shortly. "I am, as I told you this afternoon, the same man that I was a year ago last spring, as deeply infatuated and, unhappily, just as far below your ideal of what your lover should be. In justice to me, in justice to Van Lew—"
"I think your conductor is waiting to speak to you," she broke in sweetly, and he gave it up, putting her on the car and turning to confront the man with the green-shaded lantern who proved to be Bradford.
"Any special orders, Mr. Lidgerwood?" inquired the reformed cattle-herder, looking stiff and uncomfortable in his new service uniform—one of Lidgerwood's earliest requirements for men on duty in the train service.
"Yes. Run without stop to Little Butte, unless the despatcher calls you down. Time yourself to make Little Butte by eleven o'clock, or a little later. Who is on the engine?"
"Williams? How does it come that he is doubling out with me? He has just made the run over the Desert Division with the president's car."
"So have I, for that matter," said Bradford calmly; "but we both got a hurry call about fifteen minutes ago."
Lidgerwood held his watch to the light of the green-shaded lantern. If he meant to keep the wire appointment with Flemister, there was no time to call out another crew.
"I don't like to ask you and Williams to double out of your turn, especially when I know of no necessity for it. But I'm in a rush. Can you two stand it?"
"Sure," said the ex-cow-man. Then he ventured a word of his own. "I'll ride up ahead with Williams—you're pretty full up, back here in the car, anyway—and then you'll know that two of your own men are keepin' tab on the run. With the wrecks we're enjoying——"
Lidgerwood was impatient of mysteries.
"What do you mean, Andy?" he broke in. "Anything new?"
"Oh, nothing you could put your finger on. Same old rag-chewin' going on up at Cat Biggs's and the other waterin' troughs about how you've got to be done up, if it costs money."
"That isn't new," objected Lidgerwood irritably.
"Tumble-weeds," said Bradford, "rollin' round over the short-grass. But they show which way the wind's comin' from, and give you the jumps when you wouldn't have 'em natural. Williams had a spell of 'em a few minutes ago when he went over to take the 266 out o' the roundhouse and found one of the back-shop men down under her tinkerin' with her trucks."
"What's that?" was the sharp query.
"That's all there was to it," Bradford went on imperturbably. "Williams asked the shopman politely what in hell he was doing under there, and the fellow crawled out and said he was just lookin' her over to see if she was all right for the night run. Now, you wouldn't think there was any tumble-weed in that to give a man the jumps, but Williams had 'em, all the same. Says he to me, tellin' me about it just now: 'That's all right, Andy, but how in blue blazes did he, or anybody else except Matthews and the caller, know that the 266 was goin' out? that's what I'd like to know.' And I had to pass it up."
Lidgerwood asked a single question.
"Did Williams find that anything had been tampered with?"
"Nothing that you could shoot up the back-shop man for. One of the truck safety-chains—the one on the left side, back—was loose. But it couldn't have hurt anything if it had been taken off. We ain't runnin' on safety-chains these days."
"Safety-chain loose, you say?—so if the truck should jump and swing it would keep on swinging? You tell Williams when you go up ahead that I want that machinist's name."
"H'm," said Bradford; "reckon it was meant to do that?"
"God only knows what isn't meant, these times, Andy. Hold on a minute before you give Williams the word to go." Then he turned to young Jefferis, who had come out on the car platform to light a cigarette. "Will you ask Miss Brewster to step out here for a moment?"
Eleanor came at the summons, and Jefferis gave the superintendent a clear field by dropping off to ask Bradford for a match.
"You sent for me, Howard?" said the president's daughter, and honey could not have matched her tone for sweetness.
"Yes. I shall have to anticipate the Angels gossips a little by telling you that we are in the midst of a pretty bitter labor fight. That is why people go gunning for me. I can't take you and your friends over the road to-night."
"Why not?" she inquired.
"Because it may not be entirely safe."
"Nonsense!" she flashed back. "What could happen to us on a little excursion like this?"
"I don't know, but I wish you would reconsider and go back to the Nadia."
"I shall do nothing of the sort," she said, wilfully. And then, with totally unnecessary cruelty, she added: "Is it a return of the old malady? Are you afraid again, Howard?"
The taunt was too much. Wheeling suddenly, Lidgerwood snapped out a summons to Jefferis: "Get aboard, Mr. Jefferis; we are going."
At the word Bradford ran forward, swinging his lantern, and a moment later the special train shot away from the Crow's Nest platform and out over the yard switches, and began to bore its way into the westward night.
Forty-two miles south-west of Angels, at a point where all further progress seems definitely barred by the huge barrier of the great mountain range, the Red Butte Western, having picked its devious way to an apparent cul-de-sac among the foot-hills and hogbacks, plunges abruptly into the echoing canyon of the Eastern Timanyoni.
For forty added miles the river chasm, throughout its length a narrow, tortuous crevice, with sheer and towering cliffs for its walls, affords a precarious footing for the railway embankment, leading the double line of steel with almost sentient reluctance, as it seems, through the mighty mountain barrier. At its western extremity the canyon forms the gate-way to a shut-in valley of upheaved hills and inferior mountains isolated by wide stretches of rolling grassland. To the eastward and westward of the great valley rise the sentinel peaks of the two enclosing mountain ranges; and across the shut-in area the river plunges from pool to pool, twisting and turning as the craggy and densely forested lesser heights constrain it.
Red Butte, the centre of the evanescent mining excitement which was originally responsible for the building of the railroad, lies high-pitched among the shouldering spurs of the western boundary range. Seeking the route promising the fewest cuts and fills and the easiest grades, Chandler, the construction chief of the building company, had followed the south bank of the river to a point a short distance beyond the stream-fronting cliffs of the landmark hill known as Little Butte; and at the station of the same name he had built his bridge across the Timanyoni and swung his line in a great curve for the northward climb among the hogbacks to the gold-mining district in which Red Butte was the principal camp.
Elsewhere than in a land of sky-piercing peaks and continent-cresting highlands, Little Butte would have been called a true mountain. On the engineering maps of the Red Butte Western its outline appears as a roughly described triangle with five-mile sides, the three angles of the figure marked respectively by Silver Switch, Little Butte station and bridge, and the Wire-Silver mine.
Between Silver Switch and the bridge station, the main line of the railroad follows the base of the triangle, with the precipitous bluffs of the big hill on the left and the torrenting flood of the Timanyoni on the right. Along the eastern side of the triangle, and leaving the main track at Silver Switch, ran the spur which had formerly served the Wire-Silver when the working opening of the mine had been on the eastern slope of the ridge-like hill. For some years previous to the summer of overturnings this spur had been disused, though its track, ending among a group of the old mine buildings five miles away, was still in commission.
Along the western side of the triangle, with Little Butte station for its point of divergence from the main line, ran the new spur, built to accommodate Flemister after he had dug through the hill, ousted the rightful owner of the true Wire-Silver vein, and had transferred his labor hamlet and his plant—or the major part of both—to the western slope of the butte, at this point no more than a narrow ridge separating the eastern and western gulches.
Train 205, with ex-engineer Judson apparently sound asleep in one of the rearward seats of the day coach, was on time when it swung out of the lower canyon portal and raced around the curves and down the grades in its crossing of Timanyoni Park. At Point-of-Rocks Judson came awake sufficiently to put his face to the window, with a shading hand to cut off the car lights; but having thus located the train's placement in the Park-crossing race, he put his knees up against the back of the adjoining seat, pulled his cap over his eyes, and to all outward appearances went to sleep again. Four or five miles farther along, however, there came a gentle grinding of brake-shoes upon the chilled wheel-treads that aroused him quickly. Another flattening of his nose against the window-pane showed him the familiar bulk of Little Butte looming black in the moonlight, and a moment later he had let himself silently into the rear vestibule of the day coach, and was as silently opening the folding doors of the vestibule itself.
Hanging off by the hand-rails, he saw the engine's headlight pick up the switch-stand of the old spur. The train was unmistakably slowing now, and he made ready to jump if the need should arise, picking his place at the track side as the train lights showed him the ground. As the speed was checked, Judson saw what he was expecting to see. Precisely at the instant of the switch passing, a man dropped from the forward step of the smoker and walked swiftly away up the disused track of the old spur. Judson's turn came a moment later, and when his end of the day coach flicked past the switch-stand he, too, dropped to the ground, and, waiting only until he could follow without being detected, set out after the tall figure, which was by that time scarcely more than an indistinct and retreating blur in the moonlight.
The chase led directly up the old spur, but it did not continue quite to the five-mile-distant end of it. A few hundred yards short of the stockade enclosing the old buildings the shadowy figure took to the forest and began to climb the ridge, going straight up, as nearly as Judson could determine. The ex-engineer followed, still keeping his distance. From the first bench above the valley level he looked back and down into the stockade enclosure. All of the old buildings were dark, but one of the two new and unpainted ones was brilliantly lighted, and there were sounds familiar enough to Judson to mark it as the Wire-Silver power-house. Notwithstanding his interest in the chase, Judson was curious enough to stand a moment listening to the sharply defined exhausts of the high-speeded steam-engine driving the generators.
"Say!" he ejaculated, under his breath, "if that engine ain't a dead match for the old 216 pullin' a grade, I don't want a cent! Double cylinder, set on the quarter, and choo-chooin' like it ought to have a pair o' steel rails under it. If I had time I'd go down yonder and break a winder in that power-shack; blamed if I wouldn't!"
But, unhappily, there was no time to spare; as it was, he had lingered too long, and when he came out upon the crest of the narrow ridge and attained a point of view from which he could look down upon the buildings clustering at the foot of the western slope, he had lost the scent. The tall man had disappeared as completely and suddenly as if the earth had opened and swallowed him.
This, in Judson's prefiguring, was a small matter. The tall man, whom the ex-engineer had unmistakably recognized at the moment of train-forsaking as Rankin Hallock, was doubtless on his way to Flemister's head-quarters at the foot of the western slope. Why he should take the roundabout route up the old spur and across the mountain, when he might have gone on the train to Little Butte station and so have saved the added distance and the hard climb, was a question which Judson answered briefly: for some reason of his own, Hallock did not wish to be seen going openly to the Wire-Silver head-quarters. Hence the drop from the train at Silver Switch and the long tramp up the gulch and over the ridge.
Forecasting it thus, Judson lost no time on the summit of mysterious disappearances. Choosing the shortest path he could find which promised to lead him down to the mining hamlet at the foot of the westward-fronting slope, he set his feet in it and went stumbling down the steep declivity, bringing up, finally, on a little bench just above the mine workings. Here he stopped to get his breath and his bearings. From his halting-place the mine head-quarters building lay just below him, at the right of the tunnel entrance to the mine. It was a long log building of one story, with warehouse doors in the nearer gable and lighted windows to mark the location of the offices at the opposite end.
Making a detour to dodge the electric-lighted tunnel mouth, Judson carefully reconnoitred the office end of the head-quarters building. There was a door, with steps giving upon the down-hill side, and there were two windows, both of which were blank to the eye by reason of the drawn-down shades. Two persons, at least, were in the lighted room; Judson could hear their voices, but the thick log walls muffled the sounds to an indistinct murmur. On the mountain-facing side of the building, which was in shadow, the ex-engineer searched painstakingly for some open chink or cranny between the logs, but there was no avenue of observation either for the eye or the ear. Just as he had made up his mind to risk the moonlight on the other side of the head-quarters, a sound like the moving of chairs on a bare floor made him dodge quickly behind the bole of a great mountain pine which had been left standing at the back of the building. The huge tree was directly opposite one of the windows, and when Judson looked again the figure of a man sitting in a chair was sharply silhouetted on the drawn window-shade.
Judson stared, rubbed his eyes, and stared again. It had never occurred to him before that the face of a man, viewed in blank profile, could differ so strikingly from the same face as seen eye to eye. That the man whose shadow was projected upon the window-shade was Rankin Hallock, he could not doubt. The bearded chin, the puffy lips, the prominent nose were all faithfully outlined in the exaggerated shadowgraph. But the hat was worn at an unfamiliar angle, and there was something in the erect, bulking figure that was still more unfamiliar. Judson backed away and stared again, muttering to himself. If he had not traced Hallock almost to the door of Flemister's quarters, there might have been room for the thin edge of the doubt wedge. The unfamiliar pose and the rakish tilt of the soft hat were not among the chief clerk's remembered characteristics; but making due allowance for the distortion of the magnified facial outline, the profile was Hallock's.
Having definitely settled for himself the question of identity, Judson renewed his search for some eavesdropping point of vantage. Risking the moonlight, he twice made the circuit of the occupied end of the building. There was a line of light showing under the ill-fitting door, and with the top step of the down-hill flight for a perching-place one might lay an ear to the crack and overhear. But door and steps were sharply struck out in the moonlight, and they faced the mining hamlet where the men of the day shift were still stirring.
Judson knew the temper of the Timanyoni miners. To be seen crouching on the boss's doorstep would be to take the chance of making a target of himself for the first loiterer of the day shift who happened to look his way. Dismissing the risky expedient, he made a third circuit from moon-glare to shadow, this time upon hands and knees. To the lowly come the rewards of humility. Framed level upon stout log pillars on the down-hill side, the head-quarters warehouse and office sheltered a space beneath its floor which was roughly boarded up with slabs from the log-sawing. Slab by slab the ex-engineer sought for his rat-hole, trying each one softly in its turn. When there remained but three more to be tugged at, the loosened one was found. Judson swung it cautiously aside and wriggled through the narrow aperture left by its removal. A crawling minute later he was crouching beneath the loosely jointed floor of the lighted room, and the avenue of the ear had broadened into a fair highway.
Almost at once he was able to verify his guess that there were only two men in the room above. At all events, there were only two speakers. They were talking in low tones, and Judson had no difficulty in identifying the rather high-pitched voice of the owner of the Wire-Silver mine. The man whose profile he had seen on the window-shade had the voice which belonged to the outlined features, but the listener under the floor had a vague impression that he was trying to disguise it. Judson knew nothing about the letter in which Flemister had promised to arrange for a meeting between Lidgerwood and the ranchman Grofield. What he did know was that he had followed Hallock almost to the door of Flemister's office, and that he had seen a shadowed face on the office window-shade which could be no other than the face of the chief clerk. It was in spite of all this that the impression that the second speaker was trying to disguise his voice persisted. But the ex-engineer of fast passenger-trains was able to banish the impression after the first few minutes of eavesdropping.
Judson had scarcely found his breathing space between the floor timbers, and had not yet overheard enough to give him the drift of the low-toned talk, when the bell of the private-line telephone rang in the room above. It was Flemister who answered the bell-ringer.
"Hello! Yes; this is Flemister.... Yes, I say; this is Flemister; you're talking to him.... What's that?—a message about Mr. Lidgerwood?... All right; fire away."
"Who is it?" came the inquiry, in the grating voice which fitted, and yet did not fit, the man whom Judson had followed from his boarding of the train at Angels to Silver Switch, and from the gulch of the old spur to his disappearance on the wooded slope of Little Butte ridge.
The listener heard the click of the telephone ear-piece replacement.
"It's Goodloe, talking from his station office at Little Butte," replied the mine owner. "The despatcher has just called him up to say that Lidgerwood left Angels in his service-car, running special, at eight-forty, which would figure it here at about eleven, or a little later."
"Who is running it?" inquired the other man rather anxiously, Judson decided.
"Williams and Bradford. A fool for luck, every time. We might have had to ecraser a couple of our friends."
The French was beyond Judson, but the mine-owner's tone supplied the missing meaning, and the listener under the floor had a sensation like that which might be produced by a cold wind blowing up the nape of his neck.
"There is no such thing as luck," rasped the other voice. "My time was damned short—after I found out that Lidgerwood wasn't coming on the passenger. But I managed to send word to Matthews and Lester, telling them to make sure of Williams and Bradford. We could spare both of them, if we have to."
"Good!" said Flemister. "Then you had some such alternative in mind as that I have just been proposing?"
"No," was the crusty rejoinder. "I was merely providing for the hundredth chance. I don't like your alternative."
"Why don't you?"
"Well, for one thing, it's needlessly bloody. We don't have to go at this thing like a bull at a gate. I've had my finger on the pulse of things ever since Lidgerwood took hold. The dope is working all right in a purely natural way. In the ordinary run of things, it will be only a few days or weeks before Lidgerwood will throw up his hands and quit, and when he goes out, I go in. That's straight goods this time."
"You thought it was before," sneered Flemister, "and you got beautifully left." Then: "You're talking long on 'naturals' and the 'ordinary run of things,' but I notice you schemed with Bart Rufford to put him out of the fight with a pistol bullet!"
Judson felt a sudden easing of strains. He had told McCloskey that he would be willing to swear to the voice of the man whom he had overheard plotting with Rufford in Cat Biggs's back room. Afterward, after he had sufficiently remembered that a whiskey certainty might easily lead up to a sober perjury, he had admitted the possible doubt. But now Flemister's taunt made assurance doubly sure. Moreover, the arch-plotter was not denying the fact of the conspiracy with "The Killer."
"Rufford is a blood-thirsty devil—like yourself," the other man was saying calmly. "As I have told you before, I've discovered Lidgerwood's weakness—he can't call a sudden bluff. Rufford's play—the play I told him to make—was to get the drop on him, scare him up good, and chase him out of town—out of the country. He overran his orders—and went to jail for it."
"Well?" said the mine-owner.
"Your scheme, as you outlined it to me in your cipher wire this afternoon, was built on this same weakness of Lidgerwood's, and I agreed to it. As I understood it, you were to toll him up here with some lie about meeting Grofield, and then one of us was to put a pistol in his face and bluff him into throwing up his job. As I say, I agreed to it. He'll have to go when the fight with the men gets hot enough; but he might hold on too long for our comfort."
"Well?" said Flemister again, this time more impatiently, Judson thought.
"He queered your lay-out by carefully omitting to come on the passenger, and now you propose to fall back upon Rufford's method. I don't approve."
Again the mine-owner said "Why don't you?" and the other voice took up the question argumentatively.
"First, because it is unnecessary, as I have explained. Lidgerwood is officially dead, right now. When the grievance committees tell him what has been decided upon, he will put on his hat and go back to wherever it was that he came from."
"And secondly?" suggested Flemister, still with the nagging sneer in his tone.
There was a little pause, and Judson listened until the effort grew positively painful.
"The secondly is a weakness of mine, you'll say, Flemister. I want his job; partly because it belongs to me, but chiefly because if I don't get it a bunch of us will wind up breaking stone for the State. But I haven't anything against the man himself. He trusts me; he has defended me when others have tried to put him wise; he has been damned white to me, Flemister."
"Is that all?" queried the mine-owner, in the tone of the prosecuting attorney who gives the criminal his full length of the rope with which to hang himself.
"All of that part of it—and you are saying to yourself that it is a good deal more than enough. Perhaps it is; but there is still another reason for thinking twice before burning all the bridges behind us. Lidgerwood is Ford's man; if he throws up his job of his own accord, I may be able to swing Ford into line to name me as his successor. On the other hand, if Lidgerwood is snuffed out and there is the faintest suspicion of foul play.... Flemister, I'm telling you right here and now that that man Ford will neither eat nor sleep until he has set the dogs on us!"
There was another pause, and Judson shifted his weight cautiously from one elbow to the other. Then Flemister began, without heat and equally without compunction. The ex-engineer shivered, as if the measured words had been so many drops of ice-water dribbling through the cracks in the floor to fall upon his spine.
"You say it is unnecessary; that Lidgerwood will be pushed out by the labor fight. My answer to that is that you don't know him quite as well as you think you do. If he's allowed to live, he'll stay—unless somebody takes him unawares and scares him off, as I meant to do to-night when I wired you. If he continues to live, and stay, you know what will happen, sooner or later. He'll find you out for the double-faced cur that you are—and after that, the fireworks."
At this the other voice took its turn at the savage sneering.
"You can't put it all over me that way, Flemister; you can't, and, by God, you sha'n't! You're in the hole just as deep as I am, foot for foot!"
"Oh, no, my friend," said the cooler voice. "I haven't been stealing in car-load lots from the company that hires me; I have merely been buying a little disused scrap from you. You may say that I have planned a few of the adverse happenings which have been running the loss-and-damage account of the road up into the pictures during the past few weeks—possibly I have; but you are the man who has been carrying out the plans, and you are the man the courts will recognize. But we're wasting time sitting here jawing at each other like a pair of old women. It's up to us to obliterate Lidgerwood; after which it will be up to you to get his job and cover up your tracks as you can. If he lives, he'll dig; and if he digs, he'll turn up things that neither of us can stand for. See how he hangs onto that building-and-loan ghost. He'll tree somebody on that before he's through, you mark my words! And it runs in my mind that the somebody will be you."
"But this trap scheme of yours," protested the other man; "it's a frost, I tell you! You say the night passenger from Red Butte is late. I know it's late, now; but Cranford's running it, and it is all down-hill from Red Butte to the bridge. Cranford will make up his thirty minutes, and that will put his train right here in the thick of things. Call it off for to-night, Flemister. Meet Lidgerwood when he comes and tell him an easy lie about your not being able to hold Grofield for the right-of-way talk."
Judson heard the creak and snap of a swing-chair suddenly righted, and the floor dust jarred through the cracks upon him when the mine-owner sprang to his feet.
"Call it off and let you drop out of it? Not by a thousand miles, my cautious friend! Want to stay here and keep your feet warm while I go and do it? Not on your tintype, you yapping hound! I'm about ready to freeze you, anyway, for the second time—mark that, will you?—for the second time. No, keep your hands where I can see 'em, or I'll knife you right where you sit! You can bully and browbeat a lot of railroad buckies when you're playing the boss act, but I know you! You come with me or I'll give the whole snap away to Vice-President Ford. I'll tell him how you built a street of houses in Red Butte out of company material and with company labor. I'll prove to him that you've scrapped first one thing and then another—condemned them so you might sell them for your own pocket. I'll——"
"Shut up!" shouted the other man hoarsely. And then, after a moment that Judson felt was crammed to the bursting point with murderous possibilities: "Get your tools and come on. We'll see who's got the yellows before we're through with this!"
There are moments when the primal instincts assert themselves with a sort of blind ferocity, and to Judson, jammed under the floor timbers of Flemister's head-quarters office, came one of these moments when he heard the two men in the room above moving to depart, and found himself caught between the timbers so that he could not retreat.
What had happened he was unable, in the first fierce struggle for freedom, fully to determine. It was as if a living hand had reached down to pin him fast in the tunnel-like space. Then he discovered that a huge splinter on one of the joists was thrust like a great barb into his coat. Ordinarily cool and collected in the face of emergencies, the ex-engineer lost his head for a second or so and fought like a trapped animal. Then the frenzy fit passed and the quick wit reasserted itself. Extending his arms over his head and digging his toes into the dry earth for a purchase, he backed, crab-wise, out of the entangled coat, freed the coat, and made for the narrow exit in a sweating panic of excitement.
Notwithstanding the excitement, however, the recovered wit was taking note of the movements of the men who were leaving the room overhead. They were not going out by the direct way—out of the door facing the moonlight and the mining hamlet. They were passing out through the store-room in the rear. Also, there were other foot-falls—cautious treadings, these—as of some third person hastening to be first at the more distant door of egress.
Judson was out of his dodge-hole and flitting from pine to pine on the upper hill-side in time to see a man leap from the loading platform at the warehouse end of the building and run for the sheltering shadows of the timbering at the mine entrance. Following closely upon the heels of their mysterious file leader came the two whose footsteps Judson had been timing, and these, too, crossed quickly to the tunnel mouth of the mine and disappeared within it.
Judson pursued swiftly and without a moment's hesitation. Happily for him, the tunnel was lighted at intervals by electric incandescents, their tiny filaments glowing mistily against the wet and glistening tunnel roof. Going softly, he caught a glimpse of the two men as they passed under one of the lights in the receding tunnel depths, and a moment later he could have sworn that a third, doubtless the man who had leaped from the loading platform to run and hide in the shadows at the mine mouth, passed the same light, going in the same direction.
A hundred yards deeper into the mountain there was a confirming repetition of the flash-light picture for the ex-engineer. The two men, walking rapidly now, one a step in advance of the other, passed under another of the overhead light bulbs, and this time Judson, watching for the third man, saw him quite plainly. The sight gave him a start. The third man was tall, and he wore a soft hat drawn low over his face.
"Well, I'll be jiggered!" muttered the trailer, pulling his cap down to his ears and quickening his pace. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear that was Hallock again—or Hallock's shadder follerin' him at a good long range!"
The chase was growing decidedly mysterious. The two men in the lead could be no others than Flemister and the chief clerk, presumably on their way to the carrying out of whatever plot they had agreed upon, with Lidgerwood for the potential victim. But since this plot evidently turned upon the nearing approach of Lidgerwood's special train, why were they plunging on blindly into the labyrinthine depths of the Wire-Silver mine? This was an even half of the mystery, and the other half was quite as puzzling. Who was the third man? Was he a confederate in the plot, or was he also following to spy upon the conspirators?
Judson was puzzled, but he did not let his bewilderment tangle the feet of his principal purpose, which was to keep Flemister and his reluctant accomplice in sight. This purpose was presently defeated in a most singular manner. At the end of one of the longer tunnel levels, a black and dripping cavern, lighted only by a single incandescent shining like a star imprisoned in the dismal depths, the ex-engineer saw what appeared to be a wooden bulkhead built across the passage and effectively blocking it. When the two men came to this bulkhead they passed through it and disappeared, and the shock of the confined air in the tunnel told of a door slammed behind them.
Judson broke into a stumbling run, and then stopped short in increasing bewilderment. At the slamming of the door the third man had darted forward out of the shadows to fling himself upon the wooden barrier, beating upon it with his fists and cursing like a madman. Judson saw, understood, and acted, all with the instinctive instantaneousness born of his trade of engine-driving. The two men in advance were merely taking the short cut through the mountain to the old workings on the eastern slope, and the door in the bulkhead, which was doubtless one of the airlocks in the ventilating system of the mine, had fastened itself automatically after Flemister had released it.
Judson was a hundred yards down the tunnel, racing like a trained sprinter for the western exit, before he thought to ask himself why the third man was playing the madman before the locked door. But that was a matter negligible to him; his affair was to get out of the mine with the loss of the fewest possible seconds of time—to win out, to climb the ridge, and to descend the eastern slope to the old workings before the two plotters should disappear beyond the hope of rediscovery.
He did his best, flying down the long tunnel reaches with little regard for the precarious footing, tripping over the cross-ties of the miniature tramway and colliding with the walls, now and then, between the widely separated electric bulbs. Far below, in the deeper levels, he could hear the drumming chatter of the power-drills and the purring of the compressed air, but the upper gangway was deserted, and it was not until he was stumbling through the timbered portal that a watchman rose up out of the shadows to confront and halt him. There was no time to spare for soft words or skilful evasions. With a savage upper-cut that caught the watchman on the point of the jaw and sent him crashing among the picks and shovels of the mine-mouth tool-room, Judson darted out into the moonlight. But as yet the fierce race was only fairly begun. Without stopping to look for a path, the ex-engineer flung himself at the steep hill-side, running, falling, clambering on hands and knees, bursting by main strength through the tangled thickets of young pines, and hurling himself blindly over loose-lying bowlders and the trunks of fallen trees. When, after what seemed like an eternity of lung-bursting struggles, he came out upon the bare summit of the ridge, his tongue was like a dry stick in his mouth, refusing to shape the curses that his soul was heaping upon the alcohol which had made him a wind-broken, gasping weakling in the prime of his manhood.
For, after all the agonizing strivings, he was too late. It was a rough quarter-mile down to the shadowy group of buildings whence the humming of the dynamo and the quick exhausts of the high-speeded steam-engine rose on the still night air. Judson knew that the last lap was not in his trembling muscles or in the thumping heart and the wind-broken lungs. Moreover, the path, if any there were, was either to the right or the left of the point to which he had attained; fronting him there was a steep cliff, trifling enough as to real heights and depths, but an all-sufficient barrier for a spent runner.
The ex-engineer crawled cautiously to the edge of the barrier cliff, rubbed the sweat out of his smarting eyes, and peered down into the half-lighted shadows of the stockaded enclosure. It was not very long before he made them out—two indistinct figures moving about among the disused and dilapidated ore sheds clustering at the track end of the old spur. Now and again a light glowed for an instant and died out, like the momentary brilliance of a gigantic fire-fly, by which the watcher on the cliff's summit knew that the two were guiding their movements by the help of an electric flash-lamp.
What they were doing did not long remain a mystery. Judson heard a distance-diminished sound, like the grinding of rusty wheels upon iron rails, and presently a shadowy thing glided out of one of the ore sheds and took its place upon the track of the old spur. Followed a series of clankings still more familiar to the watcher—the ting of metal upon metal, as of crow-bars and other tools cast carelessly, one upon the other, in the loading of the shadowy vehicle. Making a telescope of his hands to shut out the glare from the lighted windows of the power-house, Judson could dimly discern the two figures mounting to their places on the deck of the thing which he now knew to be a hand-car. A moment later, to the musical click-click of wheels passing over rail-joints, the little car shot through the gate-way in the stockade and sped away down the spur, the two indistinct figures bowing alternately to each other like a pair of grotesque automatons.
Winded and leg-weary as he was, Judson's first impulse prompted him to seek for the path to the end that he might dash down the hill and give chase. But if he would have yielded, another pursuer was before him to show him the futility of that expedient. While the clicking of the hand-car wheels was still faintly audible, a man—the door-hammering madman, Judson thought it must be—materialized suddenly from somewhere in the under-shadows to run down the track after the disappearing conspirators. The engineer saw the racing foot-pursuer left behind so quickly that his own hope of overtaking the car died almost before it had taken shape.
"That puts it up to me again," he groaned, rising stiffly. Then he faced once more toward the western valley and the point of the great triangle, where the lights of Little Butte station and bridge twinkled uncertainly in the distance. "If I can get down yonder to Goodloe's wire in time to catch the super's special before it passes Timanyoni"—he went on, only to drop his jaw and gasp when he held the face of his watch up to the moonlight. Then, brokenly, "My God! I couldn't begin to do it unless I had wings: he said eleven o'clock, and it's ten-ten right now!"
There was the beginning of a frenzied outburst of despairing curses upbubbling to Judson's lips when he realized his utter helplessness and the consequences menacing the superintendent's special. True, he did not know what the consequences were to be, but he had overheard enough to be sure that Lidgerwood's life was threatened. Then, at the climax of despairing helplessness he remembered that there was a telephone in the mine-owner's office—a telephone that connected with Goodloe's station at Little Butte. Here was a last slender chance of getting a warning to Goodloe, and through him, by means of the railroad wire, to the superintendent's special. Instantly Judson forgot his weariness, and raced away down the western slope of the mountain, prepared to fight his way to the telephone if the entire night shift of the Wire-Silver should try to stop him.
It cost ten of the precious fifty minutes to retrace his steps down the mountain-side, and five more, were lost in dodging the mine watchman, who, having recovered from the effects of Judson's savage blow, was prowling about the mine buildings, revolver in hand, in search of his mysterious assailant. After the watchman was out of the way, five other minutes went to the cautious prying open of the window least likely to attract attention—the window upon whose drawn shade the convincing profile had been projected. Judson's lips were dry and his hands were shaking again when he crept through the opening, and dropped into the unfamiliar interior, where the darkness was but thinly diluted by the moonlight filtering through the small, dingy squares of the opposite window. To have the courage of a house-breaker, one must be a burglar in fact; and the ex-engineer knew how swiftly and certainly he would pay the penalty if any one had seen him climbing in at the forced window, or should chance to discover him now that he was in.
But there was a stronger motive than fear, fear for himself, to set him groping for the telephone. The precious minutes were flying, and he knew that by this time the two men on the hand-car must have reached the main line at Silver Switch. Whatever helpful chain of events might be set in motion by communicating with Goodloe, must be linked up quickly.
He found the telephone without difficulty. It was an old-fashioned set, with a crank and bell for ringing up the call at the other end of the line. A single turn of the crank told him that it was cut off somewhere, doubtless by a switch in the office wiring. In a fresh fever of excitement he began a search for the switch, tracing with his fingers the wires which led from the instrument and following where they ran around the end of the room on the wainscoting. In the corner farthest from his window of ingress he found the switch and felt it out. It was a simple cut-out, designed to connect either the office instrument or the mine telephones with the main wire, as might be desired. Under the switch stood a corner cupboard, and in feeling for the wire connections on top of the cupboard, Judson found his fingers running lightly over the bounding surfaces of an object with which he was, unhappily, only too familiar—a long-necked bottle with the seal blown in the glass. The corner cupboard was evidently Flemister's sideboard.
Almost before he knew what he was doing, Judson had grasped the bottle and had removed the cork. Here was renewed strength and courage, and a swift clearing of the brain, to be had for the taking. At the drawing of the cork the fine bouquet of the liquor seemed instantly to fill the room with its subtle and intoxicating essence. With the smell of the whiskey in his nostrils he had the bottle half-way to his lips before he realized that the demon of appetite had sprung upon him out of the darkness, taking him naked and unawares. Twice he put the bottle down, only to take it up again. His lips were parched; his tongue rattled in his mouth, and within there were cravings like the fires of hell, threatening torments unutterable if they should not be assuaged.
"God have mercy!" he mumbled, and then, in a voice which the rising fires had scorched to a hoarse whisper: "If I drink, I'm damned to all eternity; and if I don't take just one swallow, I'll never be able to talk so as to make Goodloe understand me!"
It was the supreme test of the man. Somewhere, deep down in the soul-abyss of the tempted one, a thing stirred, took shape, and arose to help him to fight the devil of appetite. Slowly the fierce thirst burned itself out. The invisible hand at his throat relaxed its cruel grip, and a fine dew of perspiration broke out thickly on his forehead. At the sweating instant the newly arisen soul-captain within him whispered, "Now, John Judson—once for all!" and staggering to the open window he flung the tempting bottle afar among the scattered bowlders, waiting until he had heard the tinkling crash of broken glass before he turned back to his appointed task.
His hands were no longer trembling when he once more wound the crank of the telephone and held the receiver to his ear. There was an answering skirl of the bell, and then a voice said: "Hello! This is Goodloe: what's wanted?"
Judson wasted no time in explanations. "This is Judson—John Judson. Get Timanyoni on your wire, quick, and catch Mr. Lidgerwood's special. Tell Bradford and Williams to run slow, looking for trouble. Do you get that?"
A confused medley of rumblings and clankings crashed in over the wire, and in the midst of the interruption Judson heard Goodloe put down the receiver. In a flash he knew what was happening at Little Butte station. The delayed passenger-train from the west had arrived, and the agent was obliged to break off and attend to his duties.
Anxiously Judson twirled the crank, again and yet again. Since Goodloe had not cut off the connection, the mingled clamor of the station came to the listening ear; the incessant clicking of the telegraph instruments on Goodloe's table, the trundling roar of a baggage-truck on the station platform, the cacophonous screech of the passenger-engine's pop-valve. With the phut of the closing safety-valve came the conductor's cry of "All aboard!" and then the long-drawn sobs of the big engine as Cranford started the train. Judson knew that in all human probability the superintendent's special had already passed Timanyoni, the last chance for a telegraphic warning; and here was the passenger slipping away, also without warning.
Goodloe came back to the telephone when the train clatter had died away, and took up the broken conversation.
"Are you there yet, John?" he called. And when Judson's yelp answered him: "All right; now, what was it you were trying to tell me about the special?"
Judson did not swear; the seconds were too vitally precious. He merely repeated his warning, with a hoarse prayer for haste.
There was another pause, a break in the clicking of Goodloe's telegraph instruments, and then the agent's voice came back over the wire: "Can't reach the special. It passed Timanyoni ten minutes ago."
Judson's heart was in his mouth, and he had to swallow twice before he could go on.
"Where does it meet the passenger?" he demanded.
"You can search me," replied the Little Butte agent, who was not of those who go out of their way to borrow trouble. Then, suddenly: "Hold the 'phone a minute; the despatcher's calling me, right now."
There was a third trying interval of waiting for the man in the darkened room at the Wire-Silver head-quarters; an interval shot through with pricklings of feverish impatience, mingled with a lively sense of the risk he was running; and then Goodloe called again.
"Trouble," he said shortly. "Angels didn't know that Cranford had made up so much time. Now he tries to give me an order to hold the passenger—after it's gone by. So long. I'm going to take a lantern and mog along up the track to see where they come together."
Judson hung up the receiver, reset the wire switch to leave it as he had found it, climbed out through the open window and replaced the sash; all this methodically, as one who sets the death chamber in order after the sheet has been drawn over the face of the corpse. Then he stumbled down the hill to the gulch bottom and started out to walk along the new spur toward Little Butte station, limping painfully and feeling mechanically in his pocket for his pipe, which had apparently been lost in some one of the many swift and strenuous scene-shiftings.
AT SILVER SWITCH
Like that of other railroad officials, whose duties constrain them to spend much time in transit, Lidgerwood's desk-work went with him up and down and around and about on the two divisions, and before leaving his office in the Crow's Nest to go down to the waiting special, he had thrust a bunch of letters and papers into his pocket to be ground through the business-mill on the run to Little Butte.
It was his surreptitious transference of the rubber-banded bunch of letters to the oblivion of the closed service-car desk, observed by Miss Brewster, that gave the president's daughter an opportunity to make partial amends for having turned his business trip into a car-party. Before the special was well out of the Angels yard she was commanding silence, and laying down the law for the others, particularizing Carolyn Doty, though only by way of a transfixing eye.
"Listen a moment, all of you," she called. "We mustn't forget that this isn't a planned excursion for us; it's a business trip for Mr. Lidgerwood, and we are here by our own invitation. We must make ourselves small, accordingly, and not bother him. Savez vous?"
Van Lew laughed, spread his long arms, and swept them all out toward the rear platform. But Miss Eleanor escaped at the door and went back to Lidgerwood.
"There, now!" she whispered, "don't ever say that I can't do the really handsome thing when I try. Can you manage to work at all, with these chatterers on the car?"
She was steadying herself against the swing of the car, with one shapely hand on the edge of the desk, and he covered it with one of his own.
"Yes, I can work," he asserted. "The one thing impossible is not to love you, Eleanor. It's hard enough when you are unkind; you mustn't make it harder by being what you used always to be to me."
"What a lover you are when you forget to be self-conscious!" she said softly; none the less she freed the imprisoned hand with a hasty little jerk. Then she went on with playful austerity: "Now you are to do exactly what you were meaning to do when you didn't know we were coming with you. I'll make them all stay away from you just as long as I can."
She kept her promise so well that for an industrious hour Lidgerwood scarcely realized that he was not alone. For the greater part of the interval the sight-seers were out on the rear platform, listening to Miss Brewster's stories of the Red Desert. When she had repeated all she had ever heard, she began to invent; and she was in the midst of one of the most blood-curdling of the inventions when Lidgerwood, having worked through his bunch of papers, opened the door and joined the platform party. Miss Brewster's animation died out and her voice trailed away into—"and that's all; I don't know the rest of it."
Lidgerwood's laugh was as hearty as Van Lew's or the collegian's.
"Please go on," he teased. Then quoting her: "'And after they had shot up all the peaceable people in the town, they fell to killing each other, and'—Don't let me spoil the dramatic conclusion."
"You are the dramatic conclusion to that story," retorted Miss Brewster, reproachfully. Whereupon she immediately wrenched the conversation aside into a new channel by asking how far it was to the canyon portal.
"Only a mile or two now," was Lidgerwood's rejoinder. "Williams has been making good time." And two minutes later the one-car train, with the foaming torrent of the Timanyoni for its pathfinder, plunged between the narrow walls of the upper canyon, and the race down the grade of the crooked water-trail through the heart of the mountains began.
There was little chance for speech, even if the overawing grandeurs of the stupendous crevice, seen in their most impressive presentment as alternating vistas of stark, moonlighted crags and gulches and depths of blackest shadow, had encouraged it. The hiss and whistle of the air-brakes, the harsh, sustained note of the shrieking wheel-flanges shearing the inner edges of the railheads on the curves, and the stuttering roar of the 266's safety-valve were continuous; a deafening medley of sounds multiplied a hundred-fold by the demoniac laughter of the echoes.
Miss Carolyn clung to the platform hand-rail, and once Lidgerwood thought he surprised Van Lew with his arm about her; thought it, and immediately concluded that he was mistaken. Miriam Holcombe had the opposite corner of the platform, and Jefferis was making it his business to see to it that she was not entirely crushed by the grandeurs.
Miss Brewster, steadying herself by the knob of the closed door, was not overawed; she had seen Rocky Mountain canyons at their best and their worst, many times before. But excitement, and the relaxing of the conventional leash that accompanies it, roused the spirit of daring mockery which was never wholly beyond call in Miss Brewster's mental processes. With her lips to Lidgerwood's ear she said: "Tell me, Howard; how soon should a chaperon begin to make a diversion? I'm only an apprentice, you know. Does it occur to you that these young persons need to be shocked into a better appreciation of the conventions?"
There was a small Pintsch globe in the hollow of the "umbrella roof," with its single burner turned down to a mere pea of light. Lidgerwood's answer was to reach up and flood the platform with a sudden glow of artificial radiance. The chorus of protest was immediate and reproachful.
"Oh, Mr. Lidgerwood! don't spoil the perfect moonlight that way!" cried Miss Doty, and the others echoed the beseeching.
"You'll get used to it in a minute," asserted Lidgerwood, in good-natured sarcasm. "It is so dark here in the canyon that I'm afraid some of you might fall overboard or get hit by the rocks, or something."
"The idea!" scoffed Miss Carolyn. Then, petulantly, to Van Lew: "We may as well go in. There is nothing more to be seen out here."
Lidgerwood looked to Eleanor for his cue, or at least for a whiff of moral support. But she turned traitor.
"You can do the meanest things in the name of solicitude, Howard," she began; but before she could finish he had reached up and turned the gas off with a snap, saying, "All right; anything to please the children." After which, however, he spoke authoritatively to Van Lew and Jefferis. "Don't let your responsibilities lean out over the railing, you two. There are places below here where the rocks barely give a train room to pass."
"I'm not leaning out," said Miss Brewster, as if she resented his care-taking. Then, for his ear alone: "But I shall if I want to."
"Not while I am here to prevent you."
"But you couldn't prevent me, you know."
"Yes, I could."
The special was rushing through the darkest of the high-walled clefts in the lower part of the canyon. "This way," he said, his love suddenly breaking bounds, and he took her in his arms.
She freed herself quickly, breathless and indignantly reproachful.
"I am ashamed for you!" she panted. And then, with carefully calculated malice: "What if Herbert had been looking?"
"I shouldn't care if all the world had been looking," was the stubborn rejoinder. Then, passionately: "Tell me one thing before we go any farther, Eleanor: have you given him the right to call me out?"
"How can you doubt it?" she said; but now she was laughing at him again.
There was safety only in flight, and he fled; back to his desk and the work thereon. He was wading dismally through a thick mass of correspondence, relating to a cattleman's claim for stock killed, and thinking of nothing so little as the type-written words, when the roar of the echoing canyon walls died away, and the train came to a stand at Timanyoni, the first telegraph station in the shut-in valley between the mountain ranges. A minute or two later the wheels began to revolve again, and Bradford came in.
"More maverick railroading," he said disgustedly. "Timanyoni had his red light out, and when I asked for orders he said he hadn't any—thought maybe we'd want to ask for 'em ourselves, being as we was running wild."
"So he thoughtfully stopped us to give us the chance!" snapped Lidgerwood in wrathful scorn. "What did you do?"
"Oh, as long as he had done it, I had him call up the Angels despatcher to find out where we were at. We're on 204's time, you know—ought to have met her here."
"Why didn't we?" asked the superintendent, taking the time-card from its pigeon-hole and glancing at Train 204's schedule.
"She was late out of Red Butte; broke something and had to stop and tie it up; lost a half-hour makin' her get-away."
"Then we reach Little Butte before 204 gets there—is that it?"
"That's about the way the night despatcher has it ciphered out. He gave the Timanyoni plug operator hot stuff for holdin' us up."
Lidgerwood shook his head. The artless simplicity of Red-Butte-Western methods, or unmethods, was dying hard, inexcusably hard.
"Does the night despatcher happen to know just where 204 is, at this present moment?" he inquired with gentle irony.
"I'd be willing to bet a piebald pinto against a no-account yaller dog that he don't. But I reckon he won't be likely to let her get past Little Butte, comin' this way, when he has let us get by Timanyoni goin' t'other way."
"That's all right, Andy; that is the way you would have a right to figure it out if you were running a special on a normally healthy railroad—you'd be justified in running to your next telegraph station, regardless. But the Red Butte Western is an abnormally unhealthy railroad, and you'd better feel your way—pretty carefully, too. From Point-of-Rocks you can see well down toward Little Butte. Tell Williams to watch for 204's headlight, and if he sees it, to take the siding at Silver Switch, the old Wire-Silver spur."
Bradford nodded, and when Lidgerwood reimmersed himself in the cattleman's claim papers, went forward to share Williams's watch in the cab of the 266.
Twenty minutes farther on, the train slowed again, made a momentary stop, and began to screech and grind heavily around a sharp curve. Lidgerwood looked out of the window at his right. The moon had gone behind a huge hill, a lantern was pricking a point in the shadows some little distance from the track, and the tumultuous river was no longer sweeping parallel with the embankment. He shut his desk and went to the rear platform, projecting himself into the group of sight-seers just as the train stopped for the second time.
"Where are we now?" asked Miss Brewster, looking up at the dark mass of the hill whose forested ramparts loomed black in the near foreground.
"At Silver Switch," replied Lidgerwood; and when the bobbing lantern came nearer he called to the bearer of it. "What is it, Bradford?"
"The passenger, I reckon," was the answer. "Williams thought he saw it as we came around Point-o'-Rocks, and he was afraid the despatcher had got balled up some and let 'em get past Little Butte without a meet-order."
For a moment the group on the railed platform was silent, and in the little interval a low, humming sound made itself felt rather than heard; a shuddering murmur, coming from all points of the compass at once, as it seemed, and filling the still night air with its vibrations.
"Williams was right!" rejoined the superintended sharply. "She's coming!" And even as he spoke, the white glare of an electric headlight burst into full view on the shelf-like cutting along the northern face of the great hill, pricking out the smallest details of the waiting special, the closed switch, and the gleaming lines of the rails.
With this powerful spot-light to project its cone of dazzling brilliance upon the scene, the watchers on the railed platform of the superintendent's service-car saw every detail in the swift outworking of the tragic spectacle for which the hill-facing curve was the stage-setting.
When the oncoming passenger-train was within three or four hundred yards of the spur track switch and racing toward it at full speed, a man, who seemed to the onlookers to rise up out of the ground in the train's path, ran down the track to meet the uprushing headlight, waving his arms frantically in the stop signal. For an instant that seemed an age, the passenger engineer made no sign. Then came a short, sharp whistle-scream, a spewing of sparks from rail-head and tire at the clip of the emergency brakes, a crash as of the ripping asunder of the mechanical soul and body, and a wrecked train lay tilted at an angle of forty-five degrees against the bank of the hill-side cutting.
It was a moment for action rather than for words, and when he cleared the platform hand-rail and dropped, running, Lidgerwood was only the fraction of a second ahead of Van Lew and Jefferis. With Bradford swinging his lantern for Williams and his fireman to come on, the four men were at the wreck before the cries of fright and agony had broken out upon the awful stillness following the crash.
There was quick work and heart-breaking to be done, and, for the first few critical minutes, a terrible lack of hands to do it. Cranford, the engineer, was still in his cab, pinned down by the coal which had shifted forward at the shock of the sudden stop. In the wreck of the tender, the iron-work of which was rammed into shapeless crumplings by the upreared trucks of the baggage-car, lay the fireman, past human help, as a hasty side-swing of Bradford's lantern showed.
The baggage-car, riding high upon the crushed tender, was body-whole, but the smoker, day-coach, and sleeper were all more or less shattered, with the smoking-car already beginning to blaze from the broken lamps. It was a crisis to call out the best in any gift of leadership, and Lidgerwood's genius for swift and effective organization came out strong under the hammer-blow of the occasion.
"Stay here with Bradford and Jefferis, and get that engineer out!" he called to Van Lew. Then, with arms outspread, he charged down upon the train's company, escaping as it could through the broken windows of the cars. "This way, every man of you!" he yelled, his shout dominating the clamor of cries, crashing glass, and hissing steam. "The fire's what we've got to fight! Line up down to the river, and pass water in anything you can get hold of! Here, Groner"—to the train conductor, who was picking himself up out of the ditch into which the shock had thrown him—"send somebody to the Pullman for blankets. Jump for it, man, before this fire gets headway!"
Luckily, there were by this time plenty of willing hands to help. The Timanyoni is a man's country, and there were few women in the train's passenger list. Quickly a line was formed to the near-by margin of the river, and water, in hats, in buckets improvised out of pieces of tin torn from the wrecked car-roofs, in saturated coats, cushion covers, and Pullman blankets, hissed upon the fire, beat it down, and presently extinguished it.
Then the work of extricating the imprisoned ones began, light for it being obtained by the backing of Williams's engine to the main line above the switch so that the headlight played upon the scene.
Lidgerwood was fairly in the thick of the rescue work when Miss Brewster, walking down the track from the service-car and bringing the two young women who were afraid to be left behind, launched herself and her companions into the midst of the nerve-racking horror.
"Give us something to do," she commanded, when he would have sent them back; and he changed his mind and set them at work binding up wounds and caring for the injured quite as if they had been trained nurses sent from heaven at the opportune moment.
In a very little time the length and breadth of the disaster were fully known, and its consequences alleviated, so far as they might be with the means at hand. There were three killed outright in the smoker, two in the half-filled day-coach, and none in the sleeper; six in all, including the fireman pinned beneath the wreck of the tender. Cranford, the engineer, was dug out of his coal-covered grave by Van Lew and Jefferis, badly burned and bruised, but still living; and there were a score of other woundings, more or less dreadful.
Red Butte was the nearest point from which a relief-train could be sent, and Lidgerwood promptly cut the telegraph wire, connected his pocket set of instruments, and sent in the call for help. That done he transferred the pocket relay to the other end of the cut wire, and called up the night despatcher at Angels. Fortunately, McCloskey and Dawson were just in with the two wrecking-trains from the Crosswater Hills, and the superintendent ordered Dawson to come out immediately with his train and a fresh crew, if it could be obtained.
Dawson took the wire and replied in person. His crew was good for another tussle, he said, and his train was still in readiness. He would start west at once, or the moment the despatcher could clear for him, and would be at Silver Switch as soon as the intervening miles would permit.