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   Chapter 7 THE KILLER

The Taming of Red Butte Western By Francis Lynde Characters: 22010

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Lidgerwood had found little difficulty in getting on the companionable side of Dawson, so far as the heavy-muscled, silent young draftsman had a companionable side; and an invitation to the family dinner-table at the Dawson cottage on the low mesa above the town had followed, as a matter of course.

Once within the home circle, with Benson to plead his cause with the meek little woman whose brown eyes held the shadow of a deep trouble, Lidgerwood had still less difficulty in arranging to share Benson's permanent table welcome. Though Martha Dawson never admitted it, even to her daughter, she stood in constant terror of the Red Desert and its representative town of Angels, and the presence of the superintendent as the member of the household promised to be an added guaranty of protection.

Lidgerwood's acceptance as a table boarder in the cottage on the mesa being hospitably prompt, he was coming and going as regularly as his oversight of the three hundred miles of demoralization permitted before the buffoonery of the Red Butte Western suddenly laughed itself out, and war was declared. In the interval he had come to concur very heartily in Benson's estimate of the family, and to share-without Benson's excuse, and without any reason that could be set in words-the young engineer's opposition to Gridley as Miss Faith's possible choice.

There was little to be done in this field, however. Gridley came and went, not too often, figuring always as a friend of the family, and usurping no more of Miss Dawson's time and attention than she seemed willing to bestow upon him. Lidgerwood saw no chance to obstruct and no good reason for obstructing. At all events, Gridley did not furnish the reason. And the first time Lidgerwood found himself sitting out the sunset hour after dinner on the tiny porch of the mesa cottage, with Faith Dawson as his companion-this while the joke was still running its course-his talk was not of Gridley, nor yet of Benson; it was of himself.

"How long is it going to be before you are able to forget that I am constructively your brother's boss, Miss Faith?" he asked, when she had brought him a cushion for the back of the hard veranda chair in which he was trying to be luxuriously lazy.

"Oh, do I remember it?-disagreeably?" she laughed. And then, with charming na?veté: "I am sure I try not to."

"I am beginning to wish you would try a little harder," he ventured, endeavoring to put her securely upon the plane of companionship. "It is pretty lonesome sometimes, up here on the top round of the Red-Butte-Western ladder of authority."

"You mean that you would like to leave your official dignity behind you when you come to us here on the mesa?" she asked.

"That's the idea precisely. You have no conception how strenuous it is, wearing the halo all the time, or perhaps I should say, the cap and bells."

She smiled. Frederic Dawson, the reticent, had never spoken of the attitude of the Red Butte Western toward its new boss, but Gridley had referred to it quite frequently and had made a joke of it. Without knowing just why, she had resented Gridley's attitude; this notwithstanding the master-mechanic's genial affability whenever Lidgerwood and his difficulties were the object of discussion.

"They are still refusing to take you seriously?" she said. "I hope you don't mind it too much."

"Personally, I don't mind it at all," he assured her-which was sufficiently true at the moment. "The men are acting like a lot of foolish schoolboys bent on discouraging the new teacher. I am hoping they will settle down to a sensible basis after a bit, and take me and the new order of things for granted."

Miss Dawson had something on her mind; a thing not gathered from Gridley or from any one else in particular, but which seemed to take shape of itself. The effect of setting it in speech asked for a complete effacement of Lidgerwood the superintendent, and that was rather difficult. But she compassed it.

"I don't think you ought to take them so much for granted-the men, I mean," she cautioned. "I can't help feeling afraid that some of the joking is not quite good-natured."

"I fancy very little of it is what you would call good-natured," he rejoined evenly. "Very much of it is thinly disguised contempt."

"For your authority?"

"For me, personally, first; and for my authority as a close second."

"Then you are anticipating trouble when the laugh is over?"

He shook his head. "I'm hoping No, as I said a moment ago, but I'm expecting Yes."

"And you are not afraid?"

It would have been worth a great deal to him if he could have looked fearlessly into the clear gray eyes of questioning, giving her a brave man's denial. But instead, his gaze went beyond her and he said: "You surely wouldn't expect me to confess it if I were afraid, would you? Don't you despise a coward, Miss Dawson?"

The sun was sinking behind the Timanyonis, and the soft glow of the western sky suffused her face, illuminating it with rare radiance. It was not, in the last analysis, a beautiful face, he told himself, comparing it with another whose outlines were bitten deeply and beyond all hope of erasure into the memory page. Yet the face warming softly in the sunset glow was sweet and winsome, attractive in the best sense of the overworked word. At the moment Lidgerwood rather envied Benson-or Gridley, whichever one of the two it was for whom Miss Dawson cared the most.

"There are so many different kinds of cowards," she said, after the reflective interval.

"But they are all equally despicable?" he suggested.

"The real ones are, perhaps. But our definitions are often careless. My grandfather, who was a captain of volunteers in the Civil War, used to say that real cowardice is either a psychological condition or a soul disease, and that what we call the physical symptoms of it are often misleading."

"For example?" said Lidgerwood.

"Grandfather used to be fond of contrasting the camp-fire bully and braggart, as one extreme, with the soldier who was frankly afraid of getting killed, as the other. It was his theory that the man who dodged the first few bullets in a battle was quite likely to turn out to be the real hero."

Lidgerwood could not resist the temptation to probe the old wound.

"Suppose, under some sudden stress, some totally unexpected trial, a man who was very much afraid of being afraid found himself morally and physically unable to do the courageous thing. Wouldn't he be, to all intents and purposes, a real coward?"

She took time to think.

"No," she said finally, "I wouldn't say that. I should wait until I had seen the same man tried under conditions that would give him time, to think first and to act afterward."

"Would you really do that?" he asked doubtfully.

"Yes, I should. A trial of the kind you describe isn't quite fair. Acute presence of mind in an emergency is not a supreme test of anything except of itself; least of all, perhaps, is it a test of courage-I mean courage of that quality which endures to-day and faces without flinching the threatening to-morrow."

"And you think the man who might be surprised into doing something very disgraceful on the spur of the moment might still have that other kind of courage, Miss Faith?"

"Certainly." She was far enough from making any personal application of the test case suggested by the superintendent. But in a world which took its keynote from the harsh discords of the Red Desert, these little thoughtful talks with a man who was most emphatically not of the Red Desert were refreshing. And she could scarcely have been Martha Dawson's daughter or Frederic Dawson's sister without having a thoughtful cast of mind.

Lidgerwood rose and felt in his pockets for his after-dinner cigar.

"You are much more charitable than most women, Miss Dawson," he said gravely; after which he left abruptly, and went back to his desk in the Crow's Nest.

As we have seen, this bit of confidential talk between the superintendent and Faith Dawson fell in the period of the jesting horse-laugh; fell, as it chanced, on a day when the horse-laugh was at its height. Later, after the storm broke, there were no more quiet evenings on the cottage porch for a harassed superintendent. Lidgerwood came and went as before, when the rapidly recurring wrecks did not keep him out on the line, but he scrupulously left his troubles behind him when he climbed to the cottage on the mesa.

Quite naturally, his silence on the one topic which was stirring the Red Desert from the Crosswater Hills to Timanyoni Canyon was a poor mask. The increasing gravity of the situation wrote itself plainly enough in his face, and Faith Dawson was sorry for him, giving him silent sympathy, unasked, if not wholly unexpected. The town talk of Angels, what little of it reached the cottage, was harshly condemnatory of the new superintendent; and public opinion, standing for what it was worth, feared no denial when it asserted that Lidgerwood was doing what he could to earn his newer reputation.

After the mysterious disappearance of the switching-engine, mystery still unsolved and apparently unsolvable, he struck fast and hard, searching painstakingly for the leaders in the rebellion, reprimanding, suspending, and discharging until McCloskey warned him that, in addition to the evil of short-handing the road, he was filling Angels with a growing army of ex-employees, desperate and ripe for anything.

"I can't help it, Mac," was his invariable reply. "Unless they put me out of the fight I shall go on as I have begun, staying with it until we have a railroad in fact, or a forfeited charter. Do the best you can, but let it be plainly and distinctly understood that the man who isn't with us is against us, and the man who is against us is going to get a chance to hunt for a new job every time."

Whereupon the trainmaster's homely face would take on added furrowings of distress.

"That's all right, Mr. Lidgerwood; that is stout, two-fisted talk all right; and I'm not doubting that you mean every word of it. But, they'll murder you."

"That is neither here nor there, what they will do to me. I handled them with gloves at first, but they wanted the bare fist. They've got it now, and as I have said before, we are going to fight this thing through to a complete and artistic finish. Who goes east on 202 to-day?"

"It is Judson's run, but he is laying off."

"What is the matter with him, sick?"

"No; just plain drunk."

"Fire him. I won't have a single solitary man in the train service who gets drunk. Tell him so."

"All right; one more stick of dynamite, with a cap and fuse in it, turned loose under foot," prophesied McCloskey gloomily. "Judson goes."

"Never mind the dynamite. Now, what has been done with Johnston, that conductor who turned in three dollars as the total cash collections for a hundred-and-fifty-mile run?"

"I've had him up. He grinn

ed and said that that was all the money there was, everybody had tickets."

"You don't believe it?"

"No; Grantby, the superintendent of the Ruby Mine, came in on Johnston's train that morning and he registered a kick because the Ruby Gulch station agent wasn't out of bed in time to sell him a ticket. He paid Johnston on the train, and that one fare alone was five dollars and sixty cents."

Lidgerwood was adding another minute square to the pencilled checker-board on his desk blotter.

"Discharge Johnston and hold back his time-check. Then have him arrested for stealing, and wire the legal department at Denver that I want him prosecuted."

Again McCloskey's rough-cast face became the outward presentment of a soul in anxious trouble.

"Call it done-and another stick of dynamite turned loose," he acquiesced. "Is there anything else?"

"Yes. What have you found out about that missing switch-engine?" This had come to be the stereotyped query, vocalizing itself every time the trainmaster showed his face in the superintendent's room.

"Nothing, yet. I'm hunting for proof."

"Against the men you suspect? Who are they, and what did they do with the engine?"

McCloskey became dumb.

"I don't dare to say part of it till I can say it all, Mr. Lidgerwood. You hit too quick and too hard. But tell me one thing: have you had to report the loss of that engine to anybody higher up?"

"I shall have to report it to General Manager Frisbie, of course, if we don't find it."

"But haven't you already reported it?"

"No; that is, I guess not. Wait a minute."

A touch of the bell-push brought Hallock to the door of the inner office. The green shade was pulled low over his eyes, and he held the pen he had been using as if it were a dagger.

"Hallock, have you reported the disappearance of that switching-engine to Mr. Frisbie?" asked the superintendent.

The answer seemed reluctant, and it was given in the single word of assent.

"When?" asked Lidgerwood.

"In the weekly summary for last week; you signed it," said the chief clerk.

"Did I tell you to include that particular item in the report?" Lidgerwood did not mean to give the inquiry the tang of an implied reproof, but the fight with the outlaws was beginning to make his manner incisive.

"You didn't need to tell me; I know my business," said Hallock, and his tone matched his superior's.

Lidgerwood looked at McCloskey, and, at the trainmaster's almost imperceptible nod, said, "That's all," and Hallock disappeared and closed the door.

"Well?" queried Lidgerwood sharply, when they had privacy again.

McCloskey was shifting uneasily from one foot to the other.

"My name's Scotch, and they tell me I've got Scotch blood in me," he began. "I don't like to shoot my mouth off till I know what I'm doing. I suppose I quarrelled with Hallock once a day, regular, before you came on the job, Mr. Lidgerwood, and I'll say again that I don't like him-never did. That's what makes me careful about throwing it into him now."

"Go on," said Lidgerwood.

"Well, you know he wanted to be superintendent of this road. He kept the wires to New York hot for a week after he found out that the P. S-W. was in control. He missed it, and you naturally took it over his head-at least, maybe that's the way he looks at it."

"Take it for granted and get to the point," urged Lidgerwood, always impatient of preliminary bush-beating.

"There isn't any point, if you don't see any," said McCloskey stubbornly. "But I can tell you how it would strike me, if I had to be wearing your shoes just now. You've got a man for your chief clerk who has kept this whole town guessing for two years. Some say he isn't all to the bad; some say he is a woman-killer; but they all agree that he's as spiteful as an Indian. He wanted your job: supposing he still wants it."

"Stick to the facts, Mac," said the superintendent. "You're theorizing now, you know."

"Well, by gravels, I will!" rasped McCloskey, pushed over the cautionary edge by Lidgerwood's indifference to the main question at issue. "What I know don't amount to much yet, but it all leans one way. Hallock puts in his daytime scratching away at his desk out there, and you'd think he didn't know it was this year. But when that desk is shut up, you'll find him at the roundhouse, over in the freight yard, round the switch shanties, or up at Biggs's-anywhere he can get half a dozen of the men together. I haven't found a man yet that I could trust to keep tab on him, and I don't know what he's doing; but I can guess."

"Is that all?" said Lidgerwood quietly.

"No, it isn't! That switch-engine dropped out two weeks ago last Tuesday night. I've been prying into this locked-up puzzle-box every way I could think of ever since. Hallock knows where that engine went!"

"What makes you think so?"

"I'll tell you. Robinson, the night-crew engineer, was a little late leaving her that night. His fireman had gone home, and so had the yardmen. After he had crossed the yard coming out, he saw a man sneaking toward the shifter, keeping in the shadow of the coal-chutes. He was just curious enough to want to know who it was, and he made a little sneak of his own. When he found it was Hallock, he went home and thought no more about it till I got him to talk."

Lidgerwood had gone back to the pencil and the blotting-pad and the making of squares.

"But the motive, Mac?" he questioned, without looking up. "How could the theft or the destruction of a locomotive serve any purpose that Hallock might have in view?"

McCloskey did not mean any disrespect to his superior officer when he retorted: "I'm no 'cyclop?dia. There are lots of things I don't know. But unless you call it off, I'm going to know a few more of them before I quit."

"I don't call it off, Mac; find out what you can. But I can't believe that Hallock is heading this organized robbery and rebellion."

"Somebody is heading it, to a dead moral certainty, Mr. Lidgerwood; the licks are coming too straight and too well-timed."

"Find the man if you can, and we'll eliminate him. And, by the way, if it comes to the worst, how will Hepburn, the town marshal, stand?"

The trainmaster shook his head.

"I don't know. Jack's got plenty of sand, but he was elected out of the shops, and by the railroad vote. If it comes to a show-down against the men who elected him--"

"That is what I mean," nodded Lidgerwood. "It will come to a show-down sooner or later, if we can't nip the ringleaders. Young Rufford and a dozen more of the dropped employees are threatening to get even. That means train-wrecking, misplaced switches, arson-anything you like. At the first break there are going to be some very striking examples made of all the wreckers and looters we can land on."

McCloskey's chair faced the window, and he was scowling and mouthing at the tall chimney of the shop power-plant across the tracks. Where had he fallen upon the idea that this carefully laundered gentleman, who never missed his daily plunge and scrub, and still wore immaculate linen, lacked the confidence of his opinions and convictions? The trainmaster knew, and he thought Lidgerwood must also know, that the first blow of the vengeful ones would be directed at the man rather than at the company's property.

"I guess maybe Hepburn will do his duty when it comes to the pinch," he said finally. And the subject having apparently exhausted itself, he went about his business, which was to call up the telegraph operator at Timanyoni to ask why he had broken the rule requiring the conductor and engineer, both of them, to sign train orders in his presence.

Thereupon, quite in keeping with the militant state of affairs on a harassed Red Butte Western, ensued a sharp and abusive wire quarrel at long range; and when it was over, Timanyoni was temporarily stricken from the list of night telegraph stations pending the hastening forward of a relief operator, to take the place of the one who, with many profane objurgations curiously clipped in rattling Morse, had wired his opinion of McCloskey and the new superintendent, closely interwoven with his resignation.

It was after dark that evening when Lidgerwood closed his desk on the pencilled blotting-pad and groped his way down the unlighted stair to the Crow's Nest platform.

The day passenger from the east was in, and the hostler had just coupled Engine 266 to the train for the night run to Red Butte. Lidgerwood marked the engine's number, and saw Dawson talking to Williams, the engineer, as he turned the corner at the passenger-station end of the building. Later, when he was crossing the open plaza separating the railroad yard from the town, he thought he heard the draftsman's step behind him, and waited for Dawson to come up.

His hand was on the latch of the door-yard gate when a man rose out of the gloom.

The rearward darkness, made blacker by contrast with the white beam of the 266's headlight, yielding no one and no further sounds, he went on, past the tar-paper-covered hotel, past the flanking of saloons and the false-fronted shops, past the "Arcade" with its crimson sidewalk eye setting the danger signal for all who should enter Red-Light Sammy's, and so up to the mesa and to the cottage of seven-o'clock dinners.

His hand was on the latch of the dooryard gate when a man rose out of the gloom-out of the ground at his feet, as it appeared to Lidgerwood-and in the twinkling of an eye the night and the starry dome of it were effaced for the superintendent in a flash of red lightning and a thunder-clap louder than the crash of worlds.

When he began to realize again, Dawson was helping him to his feet, and the draftsman's mother was calling anxiously from the door.

"What was it?" Lidgerwood asked, still dazed and half blinded.

"A man tried to kill you," said Dawson in his most matter-of-fact tone. "I happened along just in time to joggle his arm. That, and your quick drop, did the business. Not hurt, are you?"

Lidgerwood was gripping the gate and trying to steady himself. A chill, like a violent attack of ague, was shaking him to the bone.

"No," he returned, mastering the chattering teeth by the supremest effort of will. "Thanks to you, I guess-I'm-not hurt. Who w-was the man?"

"It was Rufford. He followed you from the Crow's Nest. Williams saw him and put me on, so I followed him."

"Williams? Then he isn't--"

"No," said Dawson, anticipating the query. "He is with us, and he is swinging the best of the engineers into line. But come into the house and let me give you a drop of whiskey. This thing has got on your nerves a bit-and no wonder."

But Lidgerwood clung to the gate-palings for yet another steadying moment.

"Rufford, you said: you mean the discharged telegraph operator?"

"Worse luck," said Dawson. "It was his brother Bart, the 'lookout' at Red-Light Sammy's; the fellow they call 'The Killer'."

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