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Benson's Bridge-timbers








From: Red Butte Western

It was on the morning following the startling episode at the Dawsons'
gate that Benson, lately arrived from the west on train 204, came into
the superintendent's office with the light of discovery in his eye. But
the discovery, if any there were, was made to wait upon a word of
friendly solicitude.

"What's this they were telling me down at the lunch-counter just
now--about somebody taking a pot-shot at you last night?" he asked.
"Dougherty said it was Bart Rufford; was it?"

Lidgerwood confirmed the gossip with a nod. "Yes, it was Rufford, so
Dawson says. I didn't recognize him, though; it was too dark."

"Well, I'm mighty glad to see that he didn't get you. What was the row?"

"I don't know, definitely; I suppose it was because I told McCloskey to
discharge his brother a while back. The brother has been hanging about
town and making threats ever since he was dropped from the pay-rolls,
but no one has paid any attention to him."

"A pretty close call, wasn't it?--or was Dougherty only putting on a few
frills to go with my cup of coffee?"

"It was close enough," admitted Lidgerwood half absently. He was
thinking not so much of the narrow escape as of the fresh and
humiliating evidence it had afforded of his own wretched unreadiness.

"All right; you'll come around to my way of thinking after a while. I
tell you, Lidgerwood, you've got to heel yourself when you live in a gun
country. I said I wouldn't do it, but I have done it, and I'll tell you
right now, when anybody in this blasted desert makes monkey-motions at
me, I'm going to blow the top of his head off, quick."

Lidgerwood's gaze was resting on the little drawer in his desk which now
contained nothing but a handful of loose cartridges.

"Hasn't it ever occurred to you, Jack, that I am the one man in the
desert who cannot afford to go armed? I am supposed to stand for law and
order. What would my example be worth if it should be noised around that
I, too, had become a 'gun-toter'?"

"Oh, I'm not going to argue with you," laughed Benson. "You'll go your
own way and do as you please, and probably get yourself comfortably shot
up before you get through. But I didn't come up here to wrangle with you
about your theoretical notions of law and order. I came to tell you that
I have been hunting for those bridge-timbers of mine."

"Well?" queried Lidgerwood; "have you found them?"

"No, and I don't believe anybody will ever find them. It's going to be
another case of Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be
comforted because they are not."

"But you have discovered something?"

"Partly yes, and partly no. I think I told you at the time that they
vanished between two days like a puff of smoke, leaving no trace behind
them. How it was done I couldn't imagine. There is a wagon-road
paralleling the river over there at the Siding, as you know, and the
first thing I did the next morning was to look for wagon-tracks. No set
of wheels carrying anything as heavy as those twelve-by-twelve
twenty-fours had gone over the road."

"How were they taken, then? They couldn't have been floated off down the
river, could they?"

"It was possible, but not at all probable," said the engineer. "My
theory was that they were taken away on somebody's railroad car. There
were only two sources of information, at first--the night operator at
Little Butte twelve miles west, and the track-walker at Point-of-Rocks,
whose boat goes down to within two or three miles of the Gloria bridge.
Goodloe, at Little Butte, reports that there was nothing moving on the
main line after the passing of the midnight freight east; and
Shaughnessy, the track-walker, is just a plain, unvarnished liar: he
knows a lot more than he will tell."

"Still, you are looking a good bit more cheerful than you were last
week," was Lidgerwood's suggestion.

"Yes; after I got the work started again with a new set of timbers, I
spent three or four days on the ground digging for information like a
dog after a woodchuck. There are some prospectors panning on the bar
three miles up the Gloria, but they knew nothing--or if they knew they
wouldn't tell. That was the case with every man I talked to on our side
of the river. But over across the Timanyoni, nearly opposite the mouth
of the Gloria, there is a little creek coming in from the north, and on
this creek I found a lone prospector--a queer old chap who hails from
my neck of woods up in Michigan."

"Go on," said Lidgerwood, when the engineer stopped to light his pipe.

"The old man told me a fairy tale, all right," Benson went on. "He was
as full of fancies as a fig is of seeds. I have been trying to believe
that what he told me isn't altogether a pipe-dream, but it sounds
mightily like one. He says that about two o'clock in the morning of
Saturday, two weeks ago, an engine and a single car backed down from the
west to the Gloria bridge, and a crowd of men swarmed off the train,
loaded those bridge-timbers, and ran away with them, going back up the
line to the west. He tells it all very circumstantially, though he
neglected to explain how he happened to be awake and on guard at any
such unearthly hour."

"Where was he when he saw all this?"

"On his own side of the river, of course. It was a dark night, and the
engine had no headlight. But the loading gang had plenty of lanterns,
and he says they made plenty of noise."

"You didn't let it rest at that?" said the superintendent.

"Oh, no, indeed! I put in the entire afternoon that day on a hand-car
with four of my men to pump it for me, and if there is a foot of the
main line, side-tracks, or spurs, west of the Gloria bridge, that I
haven't gone over, I don't know where it is. The next night I crossed
the Timanyoni and tackled the old prospector again. I wanted to check
him up--see if he had forgotten any of the little frills and details. He
hadn't. On the contrary, he was able to add what seems to me a very
important detail. About an hour after the disappearance of the one-car
train with my bridge-timbers, he heard something that he had heard many
times before. He says it was the high-pitched song of a circular saw. I
asked him if he was sure. He grinned and said he hadn't been brought up
in the Michigan woods without being able to recognize that song wherever
he might hear it."

"Whereupon you went hunting for saw-mills?" asked Lidgerwood.

"That is just what I did, and if there is one within hearing distance of
that old man's cabin on Quartz Creek, I couldn't find it. But I am
confident that there is one, and that the thieves, whoever they were,
lost no time in sawing my bridge-timbers up into board-lumber, and I'll
bet a hen worth fifty dollars against a no-account yellow dog that I
have seen those boards a dozen times within the last twenty-four hours,
without knowing it."

"Didn't see anything of our switch-engine while you were looking for
your bridge-timbers and saw-mills and other things, did you?" queried
Lidgerwood.

"No," was the quick reply, "no, but I have a think coming on that, too.
My old prospector says he couldn't make out very well in the dark, but
it seemed to him as if the engine which hauled away our bridge-timbers
didn't have any tender. How does that strike you?"

Lidgerwood grew thoughtful. The missing engine was of the "saddle-tank"
type, and it had no tender. It was hard to believe that it could be
hidden anywhere on so small a part of the Red Butte Western system as
that covered by the comparatively short mileage in Timanyoni Park. Yet
if it had not been dumped into some deep pot-hole in the river, it was
unquestionably hidden somewhere.

"Benson, are you sure you went over all the line lying west of the
Gloria bridge?" he asked pointedly.

"Every foot of it, up one side and down the other ... No, hold on, there
is that old spur running up on the eastern side of Little Butte; it's
the one that used to serve Flemister's mine when the workings were on
the eastern slope of the butte. I didn't go over that spur. It hasn't
been used for years; as I remember it, the switch connections with the
main line have been taken out."

"You're wrong about that," said Lidgerwood definitely. "McCloskey
thought so too, and told me that the frogs and point-rails had been
taken out at Silver Switch--at both of the main-line ends of the
'Y',--but the last time I was over the line I noticed that the old
switch stands were there, and that the split rails were still in place."

Benson had been tilting comfortably in his chair, smoking his pipe, but
at this he got up quickly and looked at his watch.

"Say, Lidgerwood, I'm going back to the Park on Extra 71, which ought to
leave in about five minutes," he said hurriedly. "Tell me half a dozen
things in just about as many seconds. Has Flemister used that spur since
you took charge of the road?"

"No."

"Have you ever suspected him of being mixed up in the looting?"

"I haven't known enough about him to form an opinion."

Benson stepped to the door communicating with the outer office, and
closed it quietly.

"Your man Hallock out there; how is he mixed up with Flemister?"

"I don't know. Why?"

"Because, the day before yesterday, when I was on the Little Butte
station platform, talking with Goodloe, I saw Flemister and Hallock
walking down the new spur together. When they saw me, they turned around
and began to walk back toward the mine."

"Hallock had business with Flemister, I know that much, and he took half
a day off Thursday to go and see him," said the superintendent.

"Do you happen to know what the business was?"

"Yes, I do. He went at my request."

"H'm," said Benson, "another string broken. Never mind; I've got to
catch that train."

"Still after those bridge-timbers?"

"Still after the boards they have probably been sawed into. And before I
get back I am going to know what's at the upper end of that old Silver
Switch 'Y' spur."

The young engineer had been gone less than half an hour, and Lidgerwood
had scarcely finished reading his mail, when McCloskey opened the door.
Like Benson, the trainmaster also had the light of discovery in his eye.

"More thievery," he announced gloomily. "This time they have been
looting my department. I had ten or twelve thousand feet of high-priced,
insulated copper wire, and a dozen or more telephone sets, in the
store-room. Mr. Cumberley had a notion of connecting up all the Angels
departments by telephone, and it got as far as the purchasing of the
material. The wire and all those telephone sets are gone."

"Well?" said Lidgerwood, evenly. The temptation to take it out upon the
nearest man was still as strong as ever, but he was growing better able
to resist it.

"I've done what I could," snapped McCloskey, seeming to know what was
expected of him, "but nobody knows anything, of course. So far as I
could find out, no one of my men has had occasion to go to the
store-room for a week."

"Who has the keys?"

"I have one, and Spurlock, the line-chief, has one. Hallock has the
third."

"Always Hallock!" was the half-impatient comment. "I hope you don't
suspect him of stealing your wire."

McCloskey tilted his hat over his eyes, and looked truculent enough to
fight an entire cavalry troop.

"That's just what I do," he gritted. "I've got him dead to rights this
time. He was in that store-room day before yesterday, or rather night
before last. Callahan saw him coming out of there."

Lidgerwood sat back in his chair and smiled. "I don't blame you much,
Mac; this thing is getting to be pretty binding upon all of us. But I
think you are mistaken in your conclusion, I mean. Hallock has been
making an inventory of material on hand for the past week or more, and
now that I think of it, I remember having seen your wire and the
telephone sets included in his last sheet of telegraph supplies."

"There it goes again," said the trainmaster sourly. "Every time I get a
half-hitch on that fellow, something turns up to make it slip. But if I
had my way about twenty minutes I'd go and choke him till he'd tell me
what he has done with that wire."

Lidgerwood was smiling again.

"Try to be as fair to him as you can," he advised good-naturedly. "I
know you dislike him, and probably you have good reasons. But have you
stopped to ask yourself what possible use he could make of the stolen
material?"

Again McCloskey's hat went to the pugnacious angle. "I don't know
anything any more; you couldn't prove it by me what day of the week it
is. But I can tell you one thing, Mr. Lidgerwood"--shaking an emphatic
finger--"Flemister has just put a complete system of wiring and
telephones in his mine, and if he had the stuff for the system shipped
in over our railroad, the agent at Little Butte doesn't know anything
about it. I asked Goodloe, by grapples!"

But even this was unconvincing to the superintendent.

"That proves nothing against Hallock, Mac, as you will see when you cool
down a little," he said.

"I know it doesn't," wrathfully; "nothing proves anything any more. I
suppose I've got to say it again: I'm all in, down and out." And he went
away, growling to his hat-brim.

Late in the evening of the same day, Benson returned from the west,
coming in on a light engine that was deadheading from Red Butte to the
Angels shops. He sought out Lidgerwood at once, and flinging himself
wearily into a chair at the superintendent's elbow, made his report of
the day's doings.

"I have, and I haven't," he said, beginning in the midst of things, as
his habit was. "You were right about the track connection at Silver
Switch. It is in; Flemister put it in himself a month ago when he had a
car-load of coal taken up to the back door of his mine."

"Did you go up over the spur?"

"Yes; and I had my trouble for my pains. Before I go any further,
Lidgerwood, I'd like to ask you one question: can we afford to quarrel
with Mr. Pennington Flemister?"

"Benson, we sha'n't hesitate a single moment to quarrel with the biggest
mine-owner or freight-shipper this side of the Crosswater Hills if we
have the right on our side. Spread it out. What did you find?"

Benson sank a little lower in his chair. "The first thing I found was a
couple of armed guards--a pair of tough-looking citizens with guns
sagging at their hips, lounging around the Wire-Silver back door. There
is quite a little nest of buildings at the old entrance to the
Wire-Silver, and a stockade has been built to enclose them. The old spur
runs through a gate in the stockade, and the gate was open; but the two
toughs wouldn't let me go inside. I wrangled with them first, and tried
to bribe them afterward, but it was no go. Then I started to walk around
the outside of the stockade, which is only a high board fence, and they
objected to that. Thereupon I told them to go straight to blazes, and
walked away down the spur, but when I got out of sight around the first
curve I took to the timber on the butte slope and climbed to a point
from which I could look over into Flemister's carefully built
enclosure."

"Well, what did you see?"

"Much or little, just as you happen to look at it. There are half a
dozen buildings in the yard, and two of them are new and unpainted.
Sizing them up from a distance, I said to myself that the lumber in them
hadn't been very long out of the mill. One of them is evidently the
power-house; it has an iron chimney set in the roof, and the power-plant
was running."

For a little time after Benson had finished his report there was
silence, and Lidgerwood had added many squares to the pencillings on his
desk blotter before he spoke again.

"You say two of the buildings are new; did you make any inquiries about
recent lumber shipments to the Wire-Silver?"

"I did," said the young engineer soberly. "So far as our station records
show, Flemister has had no material, save coal, shipped in over either
the eastern or the western spur for several months."

"Then you believe that he took your bridge-timbers and sawed them up
into lumber?"

"I do--as firmly as I believe that the sun will rise to-morrow. And that
isn't all of it, Lidgerwood. He is the man who has your switch-engine.
As I have said, the power-plant was running while I was up there to-day.
The power is a steam engine, and if you'd stand off and listen to it
you'd swear it was a locomotive pulling a light train up an easy grade.
Of course, I'm only guessing at that, but I think you will agree with me
that the burden of proof lies upon Flemister."

Lidgerwood was nodding slowly. "Yes, on Flemister and some others. Who
are the others, Benson?"

"I have no more guesses coming, and I am too tired to invent any.
Suppose we drop it until to-morrow. I'm afraid it means a fight or a
funeral, and I am not quite equal to either to-night."

For a long time after Benson had gone, Lidgerwood sat staring out of his
office window at the masthead electrics in the railroad yard. Benson's
news had merely confirmed his own and McCloskey's conclusion that some
one in authority was in collusion with the thieves who were raiding the
company. Sooner or later it must come to a grapple, and he dreaded it.

It was deep in the night when he closed his desk and went to the little
room partitioned off in the rear of the private office as a
sleeping-apartment. When he was preparing to go to bed, he noticed that
the tiny relay on the stand at his bed's head was silent. Afterward,
when he tried to adjust the instrument, he found it ruined beyond
repair. Some one had connected its wiring with the electric lighting
circuit, and the tiny coils were fused and burned into solid little
cylinders of copper.





Next: Judson's Joke

Previous: The Killer



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