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The Taming of Red Butte Western By Francis Lynde Characters: 23201

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"This switching-engine mystery opens up a field that I've been trying to get into for some little time, Mac," the superintendent began, after the half-hour had elapsed and the trainmaster had returned to the private office. "Sit down and we'll thresh it out. Here are some figures showing loss and expense in the general maintenance account. Look them over and tell me what you think."

"Wastage, you mean?" queried the trainmaster, glancing at the totals in the auditor's statement.

"That is what I have been calling it; a reckless disregard for the value of anything and everything that can be included in a requisition. There is a good deal of that, I know; the right-of-way is littered from end to end with good material thrown aside. But I'm afraid that isn't the worst of it."

The trainmaster was nursing a knee and screwing his face into the reflective scheme of distortion.

"Those things are always hard to prove. Short of a military guard, for instance, you couldn't prevent Angels from raiding the company's coal-yard for its cook-stoves. That's one leak, and the others are pretty much like it. If a company employee wants to steal, and there isn't enough common honesty among his fellow-employees to hold him down, he can steal fast enough and get away with it."

"By littles, yes, but not in quantity," pursued Lidgerwood.

"'Mony a little makes a mickle,' as my old grandfather used to say," McCloskey went on. "If everybody gets his fingers into the sugar-bowl--"

Lidgerwood swung his chair to face McCloskey.

"We'll pass up the petty thieveries, for the present, and look a little higher," he said gravely. "Have you found any trace of those two car-loads of company lumber lost in transit between here and Red Butte two weeks ago?"

"No, nor of the cars themselves. They were reported as two Transcontinental flats, initials and numbers plainly given in the car-record. They seem to have disappeared with the lumber."

"Which means?" queried the superintendent.

"That the numbers, or the initials, or both, were wrongly reported. It means that it was a put-up job to steal the lumber."

"Exactly. And there was a mixed car-load of lime and cement lost at about the same time, wasn't there?"

"Yes."

Lidgerwood's swing-chair "righted itself to the perpendicular with a snap."

"Mac, the Red Butte mines are looking up a little, and there is a good bit of house-building going on in the camp just now: tell me, what man or men in the company's service would be likely to be taking a flyer in Red Butte real estate?"

"I don't know of anybody. Gridley used to be interested in the camp. He went in pretty heavily on the boom, and lost out-so they all say. So did your man out there in the pig-pen desk," with a jerk of his thumb to indicate the outer office.

"They are both out of it," said Lidgerwood shortly. Then: "How about Sullivan, the west-end supervisor of track? He has property in Red Butte, I am told."

"Sullivan is a thief, all right, but he does it openly and brags about it; carries off a set of bridge-timbers, now and then, for house-sills, and makes a joke of it with anybody who will listen."

Lidgerwood dismissed Sullivan abruptly.

"It is an organized gang, and it must have its members pretty well scattered through the departments-and have a good many members, too," he said conclusively. "That brings us to the disappearance of the switching-engine again. No one man made off with that, single-handed, Mac."

"Hardly."

"It was this gang we are presupposing-the gang that has been stealing lumber and lime and other material by the car-load."

"Well?"

"I believe we'll get to the bottom of all the looting on this switching-engine business. They have overdone it this time. You can't put a locomotive in your pocket and walk off with it. You say you've wired Copah?"

"Yes."

"Who was at the Copah key-Mr. Leckhard?"

"No. I didn't want to advertise our troubles to a main-line official. I got the day-despatcher, Crandall, and told him to keep his mouth shut until he heard of it some other way."

"Good. And what did Crandall say?"

"He said that the '16 had never gone out through the Copah yards; that it couldn't get anywhere if it had without everybody knowing about it."

Lidgerwood's abstracted gaze out of the office window became a frown of concentration.

"But the object, McCloskey-what possible profit could there be in the theft of a locomotive that can neither be carried away nor converted into salable junk?"

The trainmaster shook his head. "I've stewed over that till I'm threatened with softening of the brain," he confessed.

"Never mind, you have a comparatively easy job," Lidgerwood went on. "That engine is somewhere this side of the Crosswater Hills. It is too big to be hidden under a bushel basket. Find it, and you'll be hot on the trail of the car-load robbers."

McCloskey got upon his feet as if he were going at once to begin the search, but Lidgerwood detained him.

"Hold on; I'm not quite through yet. Sit down again and have a smoke."

The trainmaster squinted sourly at the extended cigar-case. "I guess not," he demurred. "I cut it out, along with the toddies, the day I put on my coat and hat and walked out of the old F. & P.M. offices without my time-check."

"If it had to be both or neither, you were wise; whiskey and railroading don't go together very well. But about this other matter. Some years ago there was a building and loan association started here in Angels, the ostensible object being to help the railroad men to own their homes. Ever hear of it?"

"Yes, but it was dead and buried before my time."

"Dead, but not buried," corrected Lidgerwood. "As I understand it, the railroad company fathered it, or at all events, some of the officials took stock in it. When it died there was a considerable deficit, together with a failure on the part of the executive committee to account for a pretty liberal cash balance."

"I've heard that much," said the trainmaster.

"Then we'll bring it down to date," Lidgerwood resumed. "It appears that there are twenty-five or thirty of the losers still in the employ of this company, and they have sent a committee to me to ask for an investigation, basing the demand on the assertion that they were coerced into giving up their money to the building and loan people."

"I've heard that, too," McCloskey admitted. "The story goes that the house-building scheme was promoted by the old Red Butte Western bosses, and if a man didn't take stock he got himself disliked. If he did take it, the premiums were held out on the pay-rolls. It smells like a good, old-fashioned graft, with the lid nailed on."

"There wouldn't seem to be any reasonable doubt about the graft," said the superintendent. "But my duty is clear. Of course, the Pacific Southwestern Company isn't responsible for the side-issue schemes of the old Red Butte Western officials. But I want to do strict justice. These men charge the officials of the building and loan company with open dishonesty. There was a balance of several thousand dollars in the treasury when the explosion came, and it disappeared."

"Well?" said the trainmaster.

"The losers contend that somebody ought to make good to them. They also call attention to the fact that the building and loan treasurer, who was never able satisfactorily to explain the disappearance of the cash balance, is still on the railroad company's pay-rolls."

McCloskey sat up and tilted the derby to the back of his head. "Gridley?" he asked.

"No; for some reasons I wish it were Gridley. He is able to fight his own battles. It comes nearer home, Mac. The treasurer was Hallock."

McCloskey rose noiselessly, tiptoed to the door of communication with the outer office, and opened it with a quick jerk. There was no one there.

"I thought I heard something," he said. "Didn't you think you did?"

Lidgerwood shook his head.

"Hallock has gone over to the storekeeper's office to check up the time-rolls. He won't be back to-day."

McCloskey closed the door and returned to his chair.

"If I say what I think, you'll be asking me for proofs, Mr. Lidgerwood, and I have none. Besides, I'm a prejudiced witness. I don't like Hallock."

Quite unconsciously Lidgerwood picked up a pencil and began adding more squares to the miniature checker-board on his desk blotter. It was altogether subversive of his own idea of fitness to be discussing his chief clerk with his trainmaster, but McCloskey had proved himself an honest partisan and a fearless one, and Lidgerwood was at a pass where the good counsel of even a subordinate was not to be despised.

"I don't want to do Hallock an injustice," he went on, after a hesitant pause, "neither do I wish to dig up the past, for him or for anybody. I was hoping that you might know some of the inside details, and so make it easier for me to get at the truth. I can't believe that Hallock was culpably responsible for the disappearance of the money."

By this time McCloskey had his hat tilted to the belligerent angle.

"I'm not a fair witness," he reiterated. "There's been gossip, and I've listened to it."

"About this building and loan mess?"

"No; about the wife."

"To Hallock's discredit, you mean?"

"You'd think so: there was a scandal of some sort; I don't know what it was-never wanted to know. But there are men here in Angels who hint that Hallock killed the woman and sunk her body in the Timanyoni."

"Heavens!" exclaimed Lidgerwood, under his breath. "I can't believe that, Mac."

"I don't know as I do, but I can tell you a thing that I do know, Mr. Lidgerwood: Hallock is a devil out of hell when it comes to paying a grudge. There was a freight-conductor named Jackson that he had a shindy with in Mr. Ferguson's time, and it came to blows. Hallock got the worst of the fist-fight, but Ferguson made a joke of it and wouldn't fire Jackson. Hallock bided his time like an Indian, and worked it around so that Jackson got promoted to a passenger run. After that it was easy."

"How so?"

"It was the devil's own game. Jackson was a handsome young fellow, and Hallock set a woman on him-a woman out of Cat Biggs's dance-hall. From that to holding out fares to get more money to squander was only a step for the young fool, and he took it. Having baited the trap and set it, Hallock sprung it. One fine day Jackson was caught red-handed and turned over to the company lawyers. There had been a good bit of talk and they made an example of him. He's got a couple of years to serve yet, I believe."

Lidgerwood was listening thoughtfully. The story which had ended so disastrously for the young conductor threw a rather lurid sidelight upon Jackson's accuser. Fairness was the superintendent's fetish, and the revenge which would sleep on its wrongs and go about deliberately and painstakingly to strike a deadly blow in the dark was revolting to him. Yet he was just enough to distinguish between gross vindictiveness and an evil which bore no relation to the vengeful one.

"A financially honest man might still have a weakness for playing even in a personal quarrel," he commented. "Your story proves nothing more than that."

"I know it."

"But I am going to run the other thing down, too," Lidgerwood insisted. "Hallock shall have a chance to clear himself, but if he can't do it, he can't stay with me."

At this the trainmaster changed front so suddenly that Lidgerwood began to wonder if his estimate of the man's courage was at fault.

"D

on't do that, Mr. Lidgerwood, for God's sake don't stir up the devil in that long-haired knife-fighter at such a time as this!" he begged. "The Lord knows you've got trouble enough on hand as it is, without digging up something that belongs to the has-beens."

"I know, but justice is justice," was the decisive rejoinder. "The question is still a live one, as the complaint of the grievance committee proves. If I dodge, my refusal to investigate will be used against us in the labor trouble which you say is brewing. I'm not going to dodge, McCloskey."

The contortions of the trainmaster's homely features indicated an inward struggle of the last-resort nature. When he had reached a conclusion he spat it out.

"You haven't asked my advice, Mr. Lidgerwood, but here it is anyway. Flemister, the owner of the Wire-Silver mine over in Timanyoni Park, was the president of that building and loan outfit. He and Hallock are at daggers drawn, for some reason that I've never understood. If you could get them together, perhaps they could make some sort of a statement that would quiet the kickers for the time being, at any rate."

Lidgerwood looked up quickly. "That's odd," he said. "No longer ago than yesterday, Gridley suggested precisely the same thing."

McCloskey was on his feet again and fumbling behind him for the door-knob.

"I'm all in," he grimaced. "When it comes to figuring with Gridley and Flemister and Hallock all in the same breath, I'm done."

Lidgerwood made a memorandum on his desk calendar to take the building and loan matter up with Hallock the following day. But another wreck intervened, and after the wreck a conference with the Red Butte mine-owners postponed all office business for an additional twenty-four hours. It was late in the evening of the third day when the superintendent's special steamed home from the west, and Lidgerwood, who had dined in his car, went directly to his office in the Crow's Nest.

He had scarcely settled himself at his desk for an attack upon the accumulation of mail when Benson came in. It was a trouble call, and the young engineer's face advertised it.

"It's no use talking, Lidgerwood," he began, "I can't do business on this railroad until you have killed off some of the thugs and highbinders."

Lidgerwood flung the paper-knife aside and whirled his chair to face the new complaint.

"What is the matter now, Jack?" he snapped.

"Oh, nothing much-when you're used to it; only about a thousand dollars' worth of dimension timber gone glimmering. That's all."

"Tell it out," rasped the superintendent. The mine-owners' conference, from which he had just returned, had been called to protest against the poor service given by the railroad, and knowing his present inability to give better service, he had temporized until it needed but this one more touch of the lash to make him lose his temper hopelessly.

"It's the Gloria bridge," said Benson. "We had the timbers all ready to pull out the old and put in the new, and the shift was to be made to-day between trains. Last night every stick of the new stock disappeared."

Lidgerwood was not a profane man, but what he said to Benson in the coruscating minute or two which followed resolved itself into a very fair imitation of profanity, inclusive and world-embracing.

"And you didn't have wit enough to leave a watchman on the job!" he chafed-this by way of putting an apex to the pyramid of objurgation. "By heavens! this thing has got to stop, Benson. And it's going to stop, if we have to call out the State militia and picket every cursed mile of this rotten railroad!"

"Do it," said Benson gruffly, "and when it's done you notify me and I'll come back to work." And with that he tramped out, and was too angry to remember to close the door.

Lidgerwood turned back to his desk, savagely out of humor with Benson and with himself, and raging inwardly at the mysterious thieves who were looting the company as boldly as an invading army might. At this, the most inauspicious moment possible, his eye fell upon the calendar memorandum, "See Hallock about B/L.," and his finger was on the chief clerk's bell-push before he remembered that it was late, and that there had been no light in Hallock's room when he had come down the corridor to his own door.

The touch of the push-button was only a touch, and there was no answering skirl of the bell in the adjoining room. But, as if the intention had evoked it, a shadow crossed behind the superintendent's chair and came to rest at the end of the roll-top desk. Lidgerwood looked up with his eyes aflame. It was Hallock who was standing at the desk's end, and he was pointing to the memorandum on the calendar pad.

"You made that note three days ago," he said abruptly. "I saw your train come in and your light go on. What bill of lading was it you wanted to see me about?"

For an instant Lidgerwood failed to understand. Then he saw that in abbreviating he had unconsciously used the familiar sign, "B/L," the common abbreviation of "bill of lading." At another time he would have turned Hallock's very natural mistake into an easy introduction to a rather delicate subject. But now he was angry.

"Sit down," he rapped out. "That isn't 'bill of lading'; it's 'building and loan.'"

Hallock dragged the one vacant chair into the circle illuminated by the shaded desk-electric, and sat on the edge of it, with his hands on his knees. "Well?" he said, in the grating voice that was so curiously like the master-mechanic's.

"We can cut out the details," this from the man who, under other conditions, would have gone diplomatically into the smallest details. "Some years ago you were the treasurer of the Mesa Building and Loan Association. When the association went out of business, its books showed a cash balance in the treasury. What became of the money?"

Hallock sat as rigid as a carved figure flanking an Egyptian propylon, which his attitude suggested. He was silent for a time, so long a time that Lidgerwood burst out impatiently, "Why don't you answer me?"

"I was just wondering if it is worth while for you to throw me overboard," said the chief clerk, speaking slowly and quite without heat. "You are needing friends pretty badly just now, if you only knew it, Mr. Lidgerwood."

The cool retort, as from an equal in rank, added fresh fuel to the fire.

"I'm not buying friends with concessions to injustice and crooked dealing," Lidgerwood exploded. "You were in the railroad service when the money was paid over to you, and you are in the railroad service now. I want to know where the money went."

"It is none of your business, Mr. Lidgerwood," said the carved figure with the gloomy eyes that never blinked.

"By heavens! I'm making it my business, Hallock! These men who were robbed say that you are an embezzler, a thief. If you are not, you've got to clear yourself. If you are, you can't stay in the Red Butte service another day: that's all."

Again there was a silence surcharged with electric possibilities. Lidgerwood bit the end from a cigar and lost three matches before he succeeded in lighting it. Hallock sat perfectly still, but the sallow tinge in his gaunt face had given place to a stony pallor. When he spoke, it was still without anger.

"I don't care a damn for your chief clerkship," he said calmly, "but for reasons of my own I am not ready to quit on such short notice. When I am ready, you won't have to discharge me. Upon what terms can I stay?"

"I've stated them," said the one who was angry. "Discharge your trust; make good in dollars and cents, or show cause why you were caught with an empty cash-box."

For the first time in the interview the chief clerk switched the stare of the gloomy eyes from the memorandum desk calendar, and fixed it upon his accuser.

"You seem to take it for granted that I was the only grafter in the building and loan business," he objected. "I wasn't; on the contrary, I was only a necessary cog in the wheel. Somebody had to make the deductions from the pay-rolls, and--"

"I'm not asking you to make excuses," stormed Lidgerwood. "I'm telling you that you've got to make good! If the money was used legitimately, you, or some of your fellow-officers in the company, should be able to show it. If the others left you to hold the bag, it is due to yourself, to the men who were held up, and to me, that you set yourself straight. Go to Flemister-he was your president, wasn't he?-and get him to make a statement that I can show to the grievance committee. That will let you out, and me, too."

Hallock stood up and leaned over the desk end. His saturnine face was a mask of cold rage, but his eyes were burning.

"If I thought you knew what you're saying," he began in the grating voice, "but you don't-you can't know!" Then, with a sudden break in the fierce tone: "Don't send me to Flemister for my clearance-don't do it, Mr. Lidgerwood. It's playing with fire. I didn't steal the money; I'll swear it on a stack of Bibles a mile high. Flemister will tell you so if he is paid his price. But you don't want me to pay the price. If I do--"

"Go on," said Lidgerwood, frowning, "if you do, what then?"

Hallock leaned still farther over the desk end.

"If I do, you'll get what you are after-and a good deal more. Again I am going to ask you if it is worth while to throw me overboard."

Lidgerwood was still angry enough to resent this advance into the field of the personalities.

"You've had my last word, Hallock, and all this talk about consequences that you don't explain is beside the mark. Get me that statement from Flemister, and do it soon. I am not going to have it said that we are fighting graft in one place and covering it up in another."

Hallock straightened up and buttoned his coat.

"I'll get you the statement," he said, quietly; "and the consequences won't need any explaining." His hand was on the door-knob when he finished saying it, and Lidgerwood had risen from his chair. There was a pause, while one might count five.

"Well?" said the superintendent.

"I was thinking again," said the man at the door. "By all the rules of the game-the game as it is played here in the desert-I ought to be giving you twenty-four hours to get out of gunshot, Mr. Lidgerwood. Instead of that I am going to do you a service. You remember that operator, Rufford, that you discharged a few days ago?"

"Yes."

"Bart Rufford, his brother, the 'lookout' at Red Light's place, has invited a few of his friends to take notice that he intends to kill you. You can take it straight. He means it. And that was what brought me up here to-night-not that memorandum on your desk calendar."

For a long time after the door had jarred to its shutting behind Hallock, Lidgerwood sat at his desk, idle and abstractedly thoughtful. Twice within the interval he pulled out a small drawer under the roll-top and made as if he would take up the weapon it contained, and each time he closed the drawer to break with the temptation to put the pistol into his pocket.

Later, after he had forced himself to go to work, a door slammed somewhere in the despatcher's end of the building, and automatically his hand shot out to the closed drawer. Then he made his decision and carried it out. Taking the nickel-plated thing from its hiding-place, and breaking it to eject the cartridges, he went to the end door of the corridor, which opened into the unused space under the rafters, and flung the weapon to the farthest corner of the dark loft.

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