VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of www.fictionstories.ca Informational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


The Challenge








From: Red Butte Western

Lidgerwood was unpleasantly surprised to find that the president's
daughter knew the man whom her father had tersely characterized as "a
born gentleman and a born buccaneer," but the fact remained. When he
came with Flemister into the circle of light cast by the smaller of the
two fires, Miss Brewster not only welcomed the mine-owner; she
immediately introduced him to her friends, and made room for him on the
flat stone which served her for a seat.

Lidgerwood sat on a tie-end a little apart, morosely observant. It is
the curse of the self-conscious soul to find itself often at the
meeting-point of comparisons. The superintendent knew Flemister a
little, as he had admitted to the president; and he also knew that some
of his evil qualities were of the sort which appeal, by the law of
opposites, to the normal woman, the woman who would condemn evil in the
abstract, perhaps, only to be irresistibly drawn by some of its purely
masculine manifestations. The cynical assertion that the worst of men
can win the love of the best of women is something both more and less
than a mere contradiction of terms; and since Eleanor Brewster's manly
ideal was apparently builded upon physical courage as its pedestal,
Flemister, in his dare-devil character, was quite likely to be the man
to embody it.

But just now the "gentleman buccaneer" was not living up to the full
measure of his reputation in the dare-devil field, as Lidgerwood was not
slow to observe. His replies to Miss Brewster and the others were not
always coherent, and his face, seen in the flickering firelight, was
almost ghastly. True, the talk was low-toned and fragmentary; desultory
enough to require little of any member of the group sitting around the
smouldering fire on the spur embankment. Death, in any form, insists
upon its rights, of silence and of respect, and the six motionless
figures lying under the spread Pullman-car sheets on the other side of
the spur track were not to be ignored.

Yet Lidgerwood fancied that of the group circling the fire, Flemister
was the one whose eyes turned oftenest toward the sheeted figures across
the track; sometimes in morbid starings, but now and again with the
haggard side-glance of fear. Why was the mine-owner afraid? Lidgerwood
analyzed the query shrewdly. Was he implicated in the matter of the
loosened rail? Remembering that the trap had been set, not for the
passenger train, but for the special, the superintendent dismissed the
charge against Flemister. Thus far he had done little to incur the
mine-owner's enmity--at least, nothing to call for cold-blooded murder
in reprisal. Yet the man was acting very curiously. Much of the time he
scarcely appeared to hear what Miss Brewster was saying to him.
Moreover, he had lied. Lidgerwood recalled his glib explanation at the
meeting beside the displaced rail. Flemister claimed to have had the
news of the disaster by 'phone: where had he been when the 'phone
message found him? Not at his mine, Lidgerwood decided, since he could
not have walked from the Wire-Silver to the wreck in an hour. It was all
very puzzling, and what little suppositional evidence there was, was
conflicting. Lidgerwood put the query aside finally, but with a mental
reservation. Later he would go into this newest mystery and probe it to
the bottom. Judson would doubtless have a report to make, and this might
help in the probing.

Fortunately, the waiting interval was not greatly prolonged;
fortunately, since for the three young women the reaction was come and
the full horror of the disaster was beginning to make itself felt.
Lidgerwood contrived the necessary diversion when the relief-train from
Red Butte shot around the curve of the hillside cutting.

"Van Lew, suppose you and Jefferis take the women out of the way for a
few minutes, while we are making the transfer," he suggested quietly.
"There are enough of us to do the work, and we can spare you."

This left Flemister unaccounted for, but with a very palpable effort he
shook himself free from the spell of whatever had been shackling him.

"That's right," he assented briskly. "I was just going to suggest that."
Then, indicating the men pouring out of the relief train: "I see that my
buckies have come up on your train to lend a hand; command us just the
same as if we belonged to you. That is what we are here for."

Van Lew and the collegian walked the three young women a little way up
the old spur while the wrecked train's company, the living, the injured,
and the dead, were transferring down the line to the relief-train to be
taken back to Red Butte. Flemister helped with the other helpers, but
Lidgerwood had an uncomfortable feeling that the man was always at his
elbow; he was certainly there when the last of the wounded had been
carried around the wreck, and the relief-train was ready to back away to
Little Butte, where it could be turned upon the mine-spur "Y." It was
while the conductor of the train was gathering his volunteers for
departure that Flemister said what he had apparently been waiting for a
chance to say.

"I can't help feeling indirectly responsible for this, Mr. Lidgerwood,"
he began, with something like a return of his habitual self-possession.
"If I hadn't asked you to come over here to-night----"

Lidgerwood interrupted sharply: "What possible difference would that
have made, Mr. Flemister?"

It was not a special weakness of Flemister's to say the damaging thing
under pressure of the untoward and unanticipated event; it is rather a
common failing of human nature. In a flash he appeared to realize that
he had admitted too much.

"Why--I understood that it was the unexpected sight of your special
standing on the 'Y' that made the passenger engineer lose his head," he
countered lamely, evidently striving to recover himself and to efface
the damaging admission.

It chanced that they were standing directly opposite the break in the
track where the rail ends were still held apart by the small stone.
Lidgerwood pointed to the loosened rail, plainly visible under the
volleying play of the two opposing headlights.

"There is the cause of the disaster, Mr. Flemister," he said hotly; "a
trap set, not for the passenger-train, but for my special. Somebody set
it; somebody who knew almost to a minute when we should reach it. Mr.
Flemister, let me tell you something: I don't care any more for my own
life than a sane man ought to care, but the murdering devil who pulled
the spikes on that rail reached out, unconsciously perhaps, but none the
less certainly, after a life that I would safe-guard at the price of my
own. Because he did that, I'll spend the last dollar of the fortune my
father left me, if needful, in finding that man and hanging him!"

It was the needed flick of the whip for the shaken nerve of the
mine-owner.

"Ah," said he, "I am sure every one will applaud that determination, Mr.
Lidgerwood; applaud it, and help you to see it through." And then, quite
as calmly: "I suppose you will go back from here with your special,
won't you? You can't get down to Little Butte until the track is
repaired, and the wreck cleared. Your going back will make no
difference in the right-of-way matter; I can arrange for a meeting with
Grofield at any time--in Angels, if you prefer."

"Yes," said Lidgerwood absently, "I am going back from here."

"Then I guess I may as well ride down to my jumping-off place with my
men; you don't need us any longer. Make my adieux to Miss Brewster and
the young ladies, will you, please?"

Lidgerwood stood at the break in the track for some minutes after the
retreating relief-train had disappeared around the steep shoulder of the
great hill; was still standing there when Bradford, having once more
side-tracked the service-car on the abandoned mine spur, came down to
ask for orders.

"We'll hold the siding until Dawson shows up with the wrecking-train,"
was the superintendent's reply, "He ought to be here before long. Where
are Miss Brewster and her friends?"

"They are all up at the bonfire. I'm having the Jap launder the car a
little before they move in."

There was another interval of delay, and Lidgerwood held aloof from the
group at the fire, pacing a slow sentry beat up and down beside the
ditched train, and pausing at either turn to listen for the signal of
Dawson's coming. It sounded at length: a series of shrill
whistle-shrieks, distance-softened, and presently the drumming of
hasting wheels.

The draftsman was on the engine of the wrecking-train, and he dropped
off to join the superintendent.

"Not so bad for my part of it, this time," was his comment, when he had
looked the wreck over. Then he asked the inevitable question: "What did
it?"

Lidgerwood beckoned him down the line and showed him the sprung rail.
Dawson examined it carefully before he rose up to say: "Why didn't they
spring it the other way, if they wanted to make a thorough job of it?
That would have put the train into the river."

Lidgerwood's reply was as laconic as the query. "Because the trap was
set for my car, going west; not for the passenger, going east."

"Of course," said the draftsman, as one properly disgusted with his own
lack of perspicacity. Then, after another and more searching scrutiny,
in which the headlight glare of his own engine was helped out by the
burning of half a dozen matches: "Whoever did that, knew his business."

"How do you know?"

"Little things. A regular spike-puller claw-bar was used--the marks of
its heel are still in the ties; the place was chosen to the exact
rail-length--just where your engine would begin to hug the outside of
the curve. Then the rail is sprung aside barely enough to let the wheel
flanges through, and not enough to attract an engineer's attention
unless he happened to be looking directly at it, and in a good light."

The superintendent nodded. "What is your inference?" he asked.

"Only what I say; that the man knew his business. He is no ordinary
hobo; he is more likely in your class, or mine."

Lidgerwood ground his heel into the gravel, and with the feeling that he
was wasting precious time of Dawson's which should go into the
track-clearing, asked another question.

"Fred, tell me; you've known John Judson longer than I have: do you
trust him--when he's sober?"

"Yes." The answer was unqualified.

"I think I do, but he talks too much. He is over here, somewhere,
to-night, shadowing the man who may have done this. He--and the
man--came down on 205 this evening. I saw them both board the train at
Angels as it was pulling out."

Dawson looked up quickly, and for once the reticence which was his
customary shield was dropped.

"You're trusting me, now, Mr. Lidgerwood: who was the man? Gridley?"

"Gridley? No. Why, Dawson, he is the last man I should suspect!"

"All right; if you think so."

"Don't you think so?"

It was the draftsman's turn to hesitate.

"I'm prejudiced," he confessed at length. "I know Gridley; he is a worse
man than a good many people think he is--and not so bad as some others
believe him to be. If he thought you, or Benson, were getting in his
way--up at the house, you know----"

Lidgerwood smiled.

"You don't want him for a brother-in-law; is that it, Fred?"

"I'd cheerfully help to put my sister in her coffin, if that were the
alternative," said Dawson quite calmly.

"Well," said the superintendent, "he can easily prove an alibi, so far
as this wreck is concerned. He went east on 202 yesterday. You knew
that, didn't you?"

"Yes, I knew it, but----"

"But what?"

"It doesn't count," said the draftsman, briefly. Then: "Who was the
other man, the man who came west on 205?"

"I hate to say it, Fred, but it was Hallock. We saw the wreck, all of
us, from the back platform of my car. Williams had just pulled us out on
the old spur. Just before Cranford shut off and jammed on his
air-brakes, a man ran down the track, swinging his arms like a madman.
Of course, there wasn't the time or any chance for me to identify him,
and I saw him only for the second or two intervening, and with his back
toward us. But the back looked like Hallock's; I'm afraid it was
Hallock's."

"But why should he weaken at the last moment and try to stop the train?"
queried Dawson.

"You forget that it was the special, and not the passenger, that was to
be wrecked."

"Sure," said the draftsman.

"I've told you this, Fred, because, if the man we saw were Hallock,
he'll probably turn up while you are at work; Hallock, with Judson at
his heels. You'll know what to do in that event?"

"I guess so: keep a sharp eye on Hallock, and make Judson hold his
tongue. I'll do both."

"That's all," said the superintendent. "Now I'll have Bradford pull us
up on the spur to give you room to get your baby crane ahead; then you
can pull down and let us out."

The shifting took some few minutes, and more than a little skill. While
it was in progress Lidgerwood was in the service-car, trying to
persuade the young women to go to his state-room for a little rest and
sleep on the return run. In the midst of the argument, the door opened
and Dawson came in. From the instant of his entrance it was plain that
he had expected to find the superintendent alone; that he was visibly
and painfully embarrassed.

Lidgerwood excused himself and went quickly to the embarrassed one, who
was still anchoring himself to the door-knob. "What is it, Fred?" he
asked.

"Judson: he has just turned up, walking from Little Butte, he says, with
a pretty badly bruised ankle. He is loaded to the muzzle with news of
some sort, and he wants to know if you'll take him with you to An--" The
draftsman, facing the group under the Pintsch globe at the other end of
the open compartment, stopped suddenly and his big jaw grew rigid. Then
he said, in an awed whisper, "God! let me get out of here!"

"Tell Judson to come aboard," said Lidgerwood; and the draftsman was
twisting at the door-knob when Miriam Holcombe came swiftly down the
compartment.

"Wait, Fred," she said gently. "I have come all the way out here to ask
my question, and you mustn't try to stop me: are you going to keep on
letting it make us both desolate--for always?" She seemed not to see or
to care that Lidgerwood made a listening third.

Dawson's face had grown suddenly haggard, and he, too, ignored the
superintendent.

"How can you say that to me, Miriam?" he returned almost gruffly. "Day
and night I am paying, paying, and the debt never grows less. If it
wasn't for my mother and Faith ... but I must go on paying. I killed
your brother----"

"No," she denied, "that was an accident for which you were no more to
blame than he was: but you are killing me."

Lidgerwood stood by, man-like, because he did not know enough to vanish.
But Miss Brewster suddenly swept down the compartment to drag him out of
the way of those who did not need him.

"You'd spoil it all, if you could, wouldn't you?" she whispered, in a
fine feminine rage; "and after I have moved heaven and earth to get
Miriam to come out here for this one special blessed moment! Go and
drive the others into a corner, and keep them there."

Lidgerwood obeyed, quite meekly; and when he looked again, Dawson had
gone, and Miss Holcombe was sobbing comfortably in Eleanor's arms.

Judson boarded the service-car when it was pulled up to the switch; and
after Lidgerwood had disposed of his passengers for the run back to
Angels, he listened to the ex-engineer's report, sitting quietly while
Judson told him of the plot and of the plotters. At the close he said
gravely: "You are sure it was Hallock who got off of the night train at
Silver Switch and went up the old spur?"

It was a test question, and the engineer did not answer it off-hand.

"I'd say yes in a holy minute if there wasn't so blamed much else tied
on to it, Mr. Lidgerwood. I was sure, at the time, that it was Hallock;
and besides, I heard him talking to Flemister afterward, and I saw his
mug shadowed out on the window curtain, just as I've been telling you.
All I can say crosswise, is that I didn't get to see him face to face
anywhere; in the gulch, or in the office, or in the mine, or any place
else."

"Yet you are convinced, in your own mind?"

"I am."

"You say you saw him and Flemister get on the hand-car and pump
themselves down the old spur; of course, you couldn't identify either of
them from the top of the ridge?"

"That's a guess," admitted the ex-engineer frankly. "All I could see
was that there were two men on the car. But it fits in pretty good: I
hear 'em plannin' what-all they're going to do; foller 'em a good bit
more'n half-way through the mine tunnel; hike back and hump myself over
the hill, and get there in time to see two men--some two men--rushin'
out the hand-car to go somewhere. That ain't court evidence, maybe, but
I've seen more'n one jury that'd hang both of 'em on it."

"But the third man, Judson; the man you saw beating with his fists on
the bulkhead air-lock: who was he?" persisted Lidgerwood.

"Now you've got me guessin' again. If I hadn't been dead certain that I
saw Hallock go on ahead with Flemister--but I did see him; saw 'em both
go through the little door, one after the other, and heard it slam
before the other dub turned up. No," reading the question in the
superintendent's eye, "not a drop, Mr. Lidgerwood; I ain't touched not,
tasted not, n'r handled not--'r leastwise, not to drink any," and here
he told the bottle episode which had ended in the smashing of
Flemister's sideboard supply.

Lidgerwood nodded approvingly when the modest narrative reached the
bottle-smashing point.

"That was fine, John," he said, using the ex-engineer's Christian name
for the first time in the long interview. "If you've got it in you to do
such a thing as that, at such a time, there is good hope for you. Let's
settle this question once for all: all I ask is that you prove up on
your good intentions. Show me that you have quit, not for a day or a
week, but for all time, and I shall be only too glad to see you pulling
passenger-trains again. But to get back to this crime of to-night: when
you left Flemister's office, after telephoning Goodloe, you walked down
to Little Butte station?"

"Yes; walked and run. There was nobody there but the bridge watchman.
Goodloe had come on up the track to find out what had happened."

"And you didn't see Flemister or Hallock again?"

"No."

"Flemister told us he got the news by 'phone, and when he said it the
wreck was no more than an hour old. He couldn't have walked down from
the mine in that time. Where could he have got the message, and from
whom?"

Judson was shaking his head.

"He didn't need any message--and he didn't get any. I'd put it up this
way: after that rail-joint was sprung open, they'd go back up the old
spur on the hand-car, wouldn't they? And on the way they'd be pretty
sure to hear Cranford when he whistled for Little Butte. That'd let 'em
know what was due to happen, right then and there. After that, it'd be
easy enough. All Flemister had to do was to rout out his miners over his
own telephones, jump onto the hand-car again, and come back in time to
show up to you."

Lidgerwood was frowning thoughtfully.

"Then both of them must have come back; or, no--that must have been your
third man who tried to flag Cranford down. Judson, I've got to know who
that third man is. He has complicated things so that I don't dare move,
even against Flemister, until I know more. We are not at the ultimate
bottom of this thing yet."

"We're far enough to put the handcuffs onto Mr. Pennington Flemister any
time you say," asserted Judson. "There was one little thing that I
forgot to put in the report: when you get ready to take that missing
switch-engine back, you'll find it choo-chooin' away up yonder in
Flemister's new power-house that he's built out of boards made from Mr.
Benson's bridge-timbers."

"Is that so? Did you see the engine?" queried the superintendent
quickly.

"No, but I might as well have. She's there, all right, and they didn't
care enough to even muffle her exhaust."

Lidgerwood took a slender gold-banded cigar from his desk-box, and
passed the box to the ex-engineer.

"We'll get Mr. Pennington Flemister--and before he is very many hours
older," he said definitely. And then: "I wish we were a little more
certain of the other man."

Judson bit the end from his cigar, but he forbore to light it. The Red
Desert had not entirely effaced his sense of the respect due to a
superintendent riding in his own private car.

"It's a queer sort of a mix-up, Mr. Lidgerwood," he said, fingering the
cigar tenderly. "Knowin' what's what, as some of us do, you'd say them
two'd never get together, unless it was to cut each other's throats."

Lidgerwood nodded. "I've heard there was bad blood between them: it was
about that building-and-loan business, wasn't it?"

"Shucks! no; that was only a drop in the bucket," said Judson, surprised
out of his attitude of rank-and-file deference. "Hallock was the
original owner of the Wire-Silver. Didn't you know that?"

"No."

"He was, and Flemister beat him out of it--lock, stock, and barrel: just
simply reached out an' took it. Then, when he'd done that, he reached
out and took Hallock's wife--just to make it a clean sweep, was the way
he bragged about it."

"Heavens and earth!" ejaculated the listener. Then some of the hidden
things began to define themselves in the light of this astounding
revelation: Hallock's unwillingness to go to Flemister for the proof of
his innocence in the building-and-loan matter; his veiled warning that
evil, and only evil, would come upon all concerned if Lidgerwood should
insist; the invasion of the service-car at Copah by the poor demented
creature whose cry was still for vengeance upon her betrayer. Truly,
Flemister had many crimes to answer for. But the revelation made
Hallock's attitude all the more mysterious. It was unaccountable save
upon one hypothesis--that Flemister was able to so play upon the man's
weaknesses as to make him a mere tool in his hands. But Judson was going
on to elucidate.

"First off, we all thought Hallock'd kill Flemister. Rankin was never
much of a bragger or much of a talker, but he let out a few hints, and,
accordin' to Red Desert rulin's, Flemister wasn't much better than a
dead man, right then. But it blew over, some way, and now----"

"Now he is Flemister's accomplice in a hanging matter, you would say.
I'm afraid you are right, Judson," was the superintendent's comment; and
with this the subject was dropped.

The early dawn of the summer morning was graying over the desert when
the special drew into the Angels yard. Lidgerwood had the yard crew
place the service-car on the same siding with the Nadia, and near
enough so that his guests, upon rising, could pass across the platforms.

That done, and he saw to the doing of it himself, he climbed the stair
in the Crow's Nest, meaning to snatch a little sleep before the labors
and hazards of a new day should claim him. But McCloskey, the
dour-faced, was waiting for him in the upper corridor--with news that
would not wait.

"The trouble-makers have sent us their ultimatum at last," he said
gruffly. "We cancel the new 'Book of Rules' and reinstate all the men
that have been discharged, or a strike will be declared and every wheel
on the line will stop at midnight to-night."

Weary to the point of mental stagnation, Lidgerwood still had resilience
enough left to rise to the new grapple.

"Is the strike authorized by the labor union leaders?" he asked.

McCloskey shook his head. "I've been burning the wires to find out. It
isn't; the Brotherhoods won't stand for it, and our men are pulling it
off by their lonesome. But it'll materialize, just the same. The
strikers are in the majority, and they'll scare the well-affected
minority to a standstill. Business will stop at twelve o'clock to-night."

"Not entirely," said the superintendent, with anger rising. "The mails
will be carried, and perishable freight will continue moving. Get every
man you can enlist on our side, and buy up all the guns you can find and
serve them out; we'll prepare to fight with whatever weapons the other
side may force us to use. Does President Brewster know anything about
this?"

"I guess not. They had all gone to bed in the Nadia when the grievance
committee came up."

"That's good; he needn't know it. He is going over to the Copperette,
and we must arrange to get him and his party out of town at once. That
will eliminate the women. See to engaging the buckboards for them, and
call me when the president's party is ready to leave. I'm going to rest
up a little before we lock horns with these pirates, and you'd better
do the same after you get things shaped up for to-night's hustle."

"I'm needing it, all right," admitted the trainmaster. And then; "Was
this passenger wreck another of the 'assisted' ones?"

"It was. Two men broke a rail-joint on Little Butte side-cutting for my
special--and caught the delayed passenger instead. Flemister was one of
the two."

"And the other?" said McCloskey.

Lidgerwood did not name the other.

"We'll get the other man in good time, and if there is any law in this
God-forsaken desert we'll hang both of them. Have you unloaded it all?
If you have, I'll turn in."

"All but one little item, and maybe you'll rest better if I don't tell
you that right now."

"Give it a name," said Lidgerwood crisply.

"Bart Rufford has broken jail, and he is here, in Angels."

McCloskey was watching his chief's face, and he was sorry to see the
sudden pallor make it colorless. But the superintendent's voice was
quite steady when he said:

"Find Judson, and tell him to look out for himself. Rufford won't
forgive the episode of the 'S'-wrench. That's all--I'm going to bed."





Next: Storm Signals

Previous: At Silver Switch



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 429