Informational Site NetworkInformational Site Network
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories

The Dipsomaniac

From: Red Butte Western

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

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

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

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.

Next: At Silver Switch

Previous: The Shadowgraph

Add to Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network

Viewed 330