Francis Lynde.

The Taming of Red Butte Western online

. (page 14 of 20)
Online LibraryFrancis LyndeThe Taming of Red Butte Western → online text (page 14 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


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 _écraser_ 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!"




XVII

THE DIPSOMANIAC


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


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryFrancis LyndeThe Taming of Red Butte Western → online text (page 14 of 20)