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


The Red Desert








From: Red Butte Western

In the beginning the Red Desert, figuring unpronounceably under its
Navajo name of Tse-nastci--Circle-of-Red-Stones--was shunned alike by
man and beast, and the bravest of the gold-hunters, seeking to penetrate
to the placer ground in the hill gulches between the twin Timanyoni
ranges, made a hundred-mile detour to avoid it.

Later, the discoveries of rich "pocket" deposits in the Red Butte
district lifted the intermontane hill country temporarily to the high
plane of a bonanza field. In the rush that followed, a few prudent ones
chose the longer detour; others, hardier and more temerarious, outfitted
at Copah, and assaulting the hill barrier of the Little Pinons at
Crosswater Gap, faced the jornada through the Land of Thirst.

Of these earliest of the desert caravans, the railroad builders,
following the same trail and pointing toward the same destination in the
gold gulches, found dismal reminders. In the longest of the thirsty
stretches there were clean-picked skeletons, and they were not always
the relics of the patient pack-animals. In which event Chandler, chief
of the Red Butte Western construction, proclaimed himself Eastern-bred
and a tenderfoot by compelling the grade contractors to stop and bury
them.

Why the railroad builders, with Copah for a starting-point and Red Butte
for a terminus, had elected to pitch their head-quarters camp in the
western edge of the desert, no later comer could ever determine. Lost,
also, is the identity of the camp's sponsor who, visioning the things
that were to be, borrowed from the California pioneers and named the
halting-place on the desert's edge "Angels." But for the more material
details Chandler was responsible. It was he who laid out the division
yards on the bald plain at the foot of the first mesa, planting the
"Crow's Nest" head-quarters building on the mesa side of the gridironing
tracks, and scattering the shops and repair plant along the opposite
boundary of the wide right-of-way.

The town had followed the shops, as a sheer necessity. First and always
the railroad nucleus, Angels became in turn, and in addition, the
forwarding station for a copper-mining district in the Timanyoni
foot-hills, and a little later, when a few adventurous cattlemen had
discovered that the sun-cured herbage of the desert borders was
nutritious and fattening, a stock-shipping point. But even in the day of
promise, when the railroad building was at its height and a handful of
promoters were plotting streets and town lots on the second mesa, and
printing glowing tributes--for strictly Eastern distribution--to the dry
atmosphere and the unfailing sunshine, the desert leaven was silently at
work. A few of the railroad men transplanted their families; but apart
from these, Angels was a man's town with elemental appetites, and with
only the coarse fare of the frontier fighting line to satisfy them.

Farther along, the desert came more definitely to its own. The rich Red
Butte "pockets" began to show signs of exhaustion, and the gulch and ore
mining afforded but a precarious alternative to the thousands who had
gone in on the crest of the bonanza wave. Almost as tumultuously as it
had swept into the hill country, the tide of population swept out. For
the gulch hamlets between the Timanyonis there was still an industrial
reason for being; but the railroad languished, and Angels became the
weir to catch and retain many of the leavings, the driftwood stranded in
the slack water of the outgoing tide. With the railroad, the Copperette
Mine, and the "X-bar-Z" pay-days to bring regularly recurring moments of
flushness, and with every alternate door in Mesa Avenue the entrance to
a bar, a dance-hall, a gambling den, or the three in combination, the
elemental appetites grew avid, and the hot breath of the desert fanned
slow fires of brutality that ate the deeper when they penetrated to the
punk heart of the driftwood.

It was during this period of deflagration and dry rot that the Eastern
owners of the railroad lost heart. Since the year of the Red Butte
inrush there had been no dividends; and Chandler, summoned from another
battle with the canyons in the far Northwest, was sent in to make an
expert report on the property. "Sell it for what it will bring," was the
substance of Chandler's advice; but there were no bidders, and from this
time on a masterless railroad was added to the spoils of war--the
inexpiable war of the Red Desert upon its invaders.

At the moment of the moribund railroad's purchase by the Pacific
Southwestern, the desert was encroaching more and more upon the town
planted in its western border. In the height of Angels's prosperity
there had been electric lights and a one-car street tramway, a bank,
and a Building and Loan Association attesting its presence in rows of
ornate cottages on the second mesa--alluring bait thrown out to catch
the potential savings of the railroad colonists.

But now only the railroad plant was electric-lighted; the single
ramshackle street-car had been turned into a chile-con-carne stand;
the bank, unable to compete with the faro games and the roulette wheels,
had gone into liquidation; the Building and Loan directors had long
since looted the treasury and sought fresh fields, and the cottages were
chiefly empty shells.

Of the charter members of the Building and Loan Association, shrewdest
of the many boom-time schemes for the separation of the pay-roll man
from his money, only two remained as residents of Angels the decadent.
One of these was Gridley, the master-mechanic, and the other was
Hallock, chief clerk for a diminishing series of imported
superintendents, and now for the third time the disappointed applicant
for the headship of the Red Butte Western.

Associated for some brief time in the real-estate venture, and hailing
from the same far-away Eastern State and city, these two had been at
first yoke-fellows, and afterward, as if by tacit consent, inert
enemies. As widely separated as the poles in characteristics, habits,
and in their outlook upon life, they had little in common, and many
antipathies.

Gridley was a large man, virile of face and figure, and he marched in
the ranks of the full-fed and the self-indulgent. Hallock was big-boned
and cadaverous of face, but otherwise a fair physical match for the
master-mechanic; a dark man with gloomy eyes and a permanent frown.
Jovial good-nature went with the master-mechanic's gray eyes twinkling
easily to a genial smile, but it stopped rather abruptly at the
straight-lined, sensual mouth, and found a second negation in the brutal
jaw which was only thinly masked by the neatly trimmed beard. Hallock's
smile was bitter, and if he had a social side no one in Angels had ever
discovered it. In a region where fellowship in some sort, if it were
only that of the bottle and the card-table, was any man's for the
taking, he was a hermit, an ascetic; and his attitude toward others, all
others, so far as Angels knew, was that of silent and morose ferocity.

It was in an upper room of the "Crow's Nest" head-quarters building that
these two, the master-mechanic and the acting superintendent, met late
in the evening of the day when Vice-President Ford had kept his
appointment in Copah with Lidgerwood.

Gridley, clad like a gentleman, and tilting comfortably in his chair as
he smoked a cigar that neither love nor money could have bought in
Angels, was jocosely sarcastic. Hallock, shirt-sleeved, unkempt, and
with the permanent frown deepening the furrow between his eyes, neither
tilted nor smoked.

"They tell me you have missed the step up again, Hallock," said the
smoker lazily, when the purely technical matter that had brought him to
Hallock's office had been settled.

"Who tells you?" demanded the other; and a listener, knowing neither,
would have remarked the curious similarity of the grating note in both
voices as infallibly as a student of human nature would have contrasted
the two men in every other personal characteristic.

"I don't remember," said Gridley, good-naturedly refusing to commit his
informant, "but it's on the wires. Vice-President Ford is in Copah, and
the new superintendent is with him."

Hallock leaned forward in his chair.

"Who is the new man?" he asked.

"Nobody seems to know him by name. But he is a friend of Ford's all
right. That is how he gets the job."

Hallock took a plug of black tobacco from his pocket, and cut a small
sliver from it for a chew. It was his one concession to appetite, and he
made it grudgingly.

"A college man, I suppose," he commented. "Otherwise Ford wouldn't be
backing him."

"Oh, yes, I guess it's safe to count on that."

"And a man who will carry out the Ford policy?"

Gridley's eyes smiled, but lower down on his face the smile became a
cynical baring of the strong teeth.

"A man who may try to carry out the Ford idea," he qualified; adding,
"The desert will get hold of him and eat him alive, as it has the
others."

"Maybe," said Hallock thoughtfully. Then, with sudden heat, "It's hell,
Gridley! I've hung on and waited and done the work for their
figure-heads, one after another. The job belongs to me!"

This time Gridley's smile was a thinly veiled sneer.

"What makes you so keen for it, Hallock?" he asked. "You have no use for
the money, and still less for the title."

"How do you know I don't want the salary?" snapped the other. "Because
I don't have my clothes made in New York, or blow myself across the
tables in Mesa Avenue, does it go without saying that I have no use for
money?"

"But you haven't, you know you haven't," was the taunting rejoinder.
"And the title, when you have, and have always had, the real authority,
means still less to you."

"Authority!" scoffed the chief clerk, his gloomy eyes lighting up with
slow fire, "this maverick railroad don't know the meaning of the word.
By God! Gridley, if I had the club in my hands for a few months I'd show
'em!"

"Oh, I guess not," said the cigar-smoker easily. "You're not built right
for it, Hallock; the desert would give you the horse-laugh."

"Would it? Not before I had squared off a few old debts, Gridley; don't
you forget that."

There was a menace in the harsh retort, and the chief clerk made no
attempt to conceal it.

"Threatening, are you?" jeered the full-fed one, still good-naturedly
sarcastic. "What would you do, if you had the chance, Rankin?"

"I'd kill out some of the waste and recklessness, if it took the last
man off the pay-rolls; and I'd break even with at least one man over in
the Timanyoni, if I had to use the whole Red Butte Western to pry him
loose!"

"Flemister again?" queried the master-mechanic. And then, in mild
deprecation, "You are a bad loser, Hallock, a damned bad loser. But I
suppose that is one of your limitations."

A silence settled down upon the upper room, but Gridley made no move to
go. Out in the yards the night men were making up a westbound freight,
and the crashing of box-cars carelessly "kicked" into place added its
note to the discord of inefficiency and destructive breakage.

Over in the town a dance-hall piano was jangling, and the raucous voice
of the dance-master calling the figures came across to the Crow's Nest
curiously like the barking of a distant dog. Suddenly the barking voice
stopped, and the piano clamor ended futilely in an aimless tinkling. For
climax a pistol-shot rang out, followed by a scattering volley. It was a
precise commentary on the time and the place that neither of the two men
in the head-quarters upper room gave heed to the pistol-shots, or to the
yelling uproar that accompanied them.

It was after the shouting had died away in a confused clatter of hoofs,
and the pistol cracklings were coming only at intervals and from an
increasing distance, that the corridor door opened and the night
despatcher's off-trick man came in with a message for Hallock.

It was a mere routine notification from the line-end operator at Copah,
and the chief clerk read it sullenly to the master-mechanic.

"Engine 266, Williams, engineer, and Blackmar, fireman, with service-car
Naught-One, Bradford, conductor, will leave Copah at 12:01 A.M., and run
special to Angels. By order of Howard Lidgerwood, General
Superintendent."

Gridley's pivot-chair righted itself with a snap. But he waited until
the off-trick man was gone before he said, "Lidgerwood! Well, by all the
gods!" then, with a laugh that was more than half a snarl, "There is a
chance for you yet, Rankin."

"Why, do you know him?"

"No, but I know something about him. I've got a line on New York, the
same as you have, and I get a hint now and then. I knew that Lidgerwood
had been considered for the place, but I was given to understand that he
would refuse the job if it were offered to him."

"Why should he refuse?" demanded Hallock.

"That is where my wire-tapper fell down; he couldn't tell."

"Then why do you say there is still a chance for me?"

"Oh, on general principles, I guess. If it was an even break that he
would refuse, it is still more likely that he won't stay after he has
seen what he is up against, don't you think?"

Hallock did not say what he thought. He rarely did.

"Of course, you made inquiries about him when you found out he was a
possible; I'd trust you to do that, Gridley. What do you know?"

"Not much that you can use. He is out of the Middle West; a young man
and a graduate of Purdue. He took the Civil degree, but stayed two years
longer and romped through the Mechanical. He ought to be pretty well up
on theory, you'd say."

"Theory be damned!" snapped the chief clerk. "What he'll need in the Red
Desert will be nerve and a good gun. If he has the nerve, he can buy the
gun."

"But having the gun he couldn't always be sure of buying the nerve, eh?
I guess you are right, Rankin; you usually are when you can forget to be
vindictive. And that brings us around to the jumping-off place again. Of
course, you will stay on with the new man--if he wants you to?"

"I don't know. That is my business, and none of yours."

It was a bid for a renewal of the quarrel which was never more than half
veiled between these two. But Gridley did not lift the challenge.

"Let it go at that," he said placably. "But if you should decide to
stay, I want you to let up on Flemister."

The morose antagonism died out of Hallock's eyes, and in its place came
craft.

"I'd kill Flemister on sight, if I had the sand; you know that, Gridley.
Some day it may come to that. But in the meantime----"

"In the meantime you have been snapping at his heels like a fice-dog,
Hallock; holding out ore-cars on him, delaying his coal supplies,
stirring up trouble with his miners. That was all right, up to
yesterday. But now it has got to stop."

"Not for any orders that you can give," retorted the chief clerk, once
more opening the door for the quarrel.

The master-mechanic got up and flicked the cigar ash from his
coat-sleeve with a handkerchief that was fine enough to be a woman's.

"I am not going to come to blows with you. Rankin--not if I can help
it," he said, with his hand on the door-knob. "But what I have said
will have to go as it lies. Shoot Flemister out of hand, if you feel
like it, but quit hampering his business."

Hallock stood up, and when he was on his feet his big frame made him
look still more a fair match physically for the handsome
master-mechanic.

"Why?" The single word shot out of the loose-lipped mouth like an
explosive bullet.

Gridley opened the door and turned upon the threshold.

"I might borrow the word from you and say that Flemister's business and
mine are none of yours. But I won't do that. I'll merely say that
Flemister may need a little Red Butte Western nursing in the Ute Valley
irrigation scheme he is promoting, and I want you to see that he gets
it. You may take that as a word to the wise, or as a kicked-in hint to a
blind mule; whichever you please. You can't afford to fight me, Hallock,
and you know it. Sleep on it a few hours, and you'll see it in that way,
I'm sure. Good-night."





Next: A Little Brother Of The Cows

Previous: Collars-and-cuffs



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 431