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   Chapter 9 JUDSON'S JOKE

The Taming of Red Butte Western By Francis Lynde Characters: 23045

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Barton Rufford, ex-distiller of illicit whiskey in the Tennessee mountains, ex-welsher turned informer and betraying his neighbor law-breakers to the United States revenue officers, ex-everything which made his continued stay in the Cumberlands impossible, was a man of distinction in the Red Desert.

In the wider field of the West he had been successively a claim-jumper, a rustler of unbranded cattle, a telegraph operator in collusion with a gang of train-robbers, and finally a faro "lookout": the armed guard who sits at the head of the gaming-table in the untamed regions to kill and kill quickly if a dispute arises.

Angels acknowledged his citizenship without joy. A cold-blooded murderer, with an appalling record; and a man with a temper like smoking tow, an itching trigger-finger, the eye of a duck-hawk, and cat-like swiftness of movement, he tyrannized the town when the humor was on him; and as yet no counter-bully had come to chase him into oblivion.

For Lidgerwood to have earned the enmity of this man was considered equivalent to one of three things: the superintendent would throw up his job and leave the Red Desert, preferably by the first train; or Rufford would kill him; or he must kill Rufford. Red Butte Western opinion was somewhat divided as to which horn of the trilemma the victim of Rufford's displeasure would choose, all admitting that, for the moment, the choice lay with the superintendent. Would Lidgerwood fight, or run, or sit still and be slain? In the Angels roundhouse, on the second morning following the attempt upon Lidgerwood's life at the gate of the Dawson cottage, the discussion was spirited, not to say acrimonious.

"I'm telling you hyenas that Collars-and-Cuffs ain't going to run away," insisted Williams, who was just in from the all-night trip to Red Butte and return. "He ain't built that way."

Lester, the roundhouse foreman, himself a man-queller of no mean repute, thought differently. Lidgerwood would, most likely, take to the high grass and the tall timber. The alternative was to "pack a gun" for Rufford-an alternative quite inconceivable to Lester when it was predicated of the superintendent.

"I don't know about that," said Judson, the discharged-and consequently momentarily sobered-engineer of the 271. "He's fooled everybody more than once since he lit down in the Red Desert. First crack everybody said he didn't know his business, 'cause he wore b'iled shirts: he does know it. Next, you could put your ear to the ground and hear that he didn't have the sand to round up the maverick R.B.W. He's doing it. I don't know but he might even run a bluff on Bart Rufford, if he felt like it."

"Come off, John!" growled the big foreman. "You needn't be afraid to talk straight over here. He hit you when you was down, and we all know you're only waitin' for a chance to hit back."

Judson was a red-headed man, effusively good-natured when he was in liquor, and a quick-tempered fighter of battles when he was not.

"Don't you make any such mistake!" he snapped. "That's what McCloskey said when he handed me the 'good-by.' 'You'll be one more to go round feelin' for Mr. Lidgerwood's throat, I suppose,' says he. By cripes! what I said to Mac I'm sayin' to you, Bob Lester. I know good and well a-plenty when I've earned my blue envelope. If I'd been in the super's place, the 271 would have had a new runner a long time ago!"

"Oh, hell! I say he'll chase his feet," puffed Broadbent, the fat machinist who was truing off the valve-seats of the 195. "If Rufford doesn't make him, there's some others that will."

Judson flared up again.

"Who you quotin' now, Fatty? One o' the shop 'prentices? Or maybe it's Rank Hallock? Say, what's he doin' monkeyin' round the back shop so much lately? I'm goin' to stay round here till I get a chance to lick that scrub."

Broadbent snorted his derision of all mere enginemen.

"You rail-pounders'd better get next to Rankin Hallock," he warned. "He's the next sup'rintendent of the R.B.W. You'll see the 'pointment circular the next day after that jim-dandy over in the Crow's Nest gets moved off'n the map."

"Well, I'm some afeared Bart Rufford's likely to move him," drawled Clay, the six-foot Kentuckian who was filing the 195's brasses at the bench. "Which the same I ain't rejoicin' about, neither. That little cuss is shore a mighty good railroad man. And when you ain't rubbin' his fur the wrong way, he treats you white."

"For instance?" snapped Hodges, a freight engineer who had been thrice "on the carpet" in Lidgerwood's office for over-running his orders.

"Oh, they ain't so blame' hard to find," Clay retorted. "Last week, when we was out on the Navajo wreck, me and the boy didn't have no dinner-buckets. Bradford was runnin' the super's car, and when Andy just sort o' happened to mention the famine up along, the little man made that Jap cook o' his'n get us up a dinner that'd made your hair frizzle. He shore did."

"Why don't you go and take up for him with Bart Rufford?" sneered Broadbent, stopping his facing machine to set in a new cut on the valve-seat.

"Not me. I've got cold feet," laughed the Kentuckian. "I'm like the little kid's daddy in the Sunday-school song: I ain't got time to die yet-got too much to do."

It was Williams's innings, and what he said was cautionary.

"Dry up, you fellows; here comes Gridley."

The master-mechanic was walking down the planked track from the back shop, carrying his years, which showed only in the graying mustache and chin beard, and his hundred and eighty pounds of well-set-up bone and muscle, jauntily. Now, as always, he was the beau ideal of the industrial field-officer; handsome in a clean-cut masculine way, a type of vigor-but also, if the signs of the full face and the eager eyes were to be regarded, of the elemental passions.

Angelic rumor hinted that he was a periodic drunkard: he was both more and less than that. Like many another man, Henry Gridley lived a double life; or, perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say that there were two Henry Gridleys. Lidgerwood, the Dawsons, the little world of Angels at large, knew the virile, accomplished mechanical engineer and master of men, which was his normal personality. What time the other personality, the elemental barbarian, yawned, stretched itself, and came awake, the unspeakable dens of the Copah lower quarter engulfed him until the nether-man had gorged himself on degradation.

To his men, Gridley was a tyrant, exacting, but just; ruling them, as the men of the desert could only be ruled, with the mailed fist. Yet there was a human hand inside of the steel gauntlet, as all men knew. Having once beaten a bullying gang-boss into the hospital at Denver, he had promptly charged himself with the support of the man's family. Other generous roughnesses were recorded of him, and if the attitude of the men was somewhat tempered by wholesome fear, it was none the less loyal.

Hence, when he entered the roundhouse, industrious silence supplanted the discussion of the superintendent's case. Glancing at the group of enginemen, and snapping out a curt criticism of Broadbent's slowness on the valve-seats, he beckoned to Judson. When the discharged engineer had followed him across the turn-table, he faced about and said, not too crisply, "So your sins have found you out one more time, have they, John?"

Judson nodded.

"What is it this time, thirty days?"

Judson shook his head gloomily. "No, I'm down and out."

"Lidgerwood made it final, did he? Well, you can't blame him."

"You hain't heard me sayin' anything, have you?" was the surly rejoinder.

"No, but it isn't in human nature to forget these little things." Then, suddenly: "Where were you day before yesterday between noon and one o'clock, about the time you should have been taking your train out?"

Judson had a needle-like mind when the alcohol was out of it, and the sudden query made him dissemble.

"About ten o'clock I was playin' pool in Rafferty's place with the butt end of the cue. After that, things got kind o'hazy."

"Well, I want you to buckle down and think hard. Don't you remember going over to Cat Biggs's about noon, and sitting down at one of the empty card-tables to drink yourself stiff?"

Judson could not have told, under the thumbscrews, why he was prompted to tell Gridley a plain lie. But he did it.

"I can't remember," he denied. Then then needle-pointed brain got in its word, and he added, "Why?"

"I saw you there when I was going up to dinner. You called me in to tell me what you were going to do to Lidgerwood if he slated you for getting drunk. Don't you remember it?"

Judson was looking the master-mechanic fairly in the eyes when he said, "No, I don't remember a thing about that."

"Try again," said Gridley, and now the shrewd gray eyes under the brim of the soft-rolled felt hat held the engineer helpless.

"I guess-I do-remember it-now," said Judson, slowly, trying, still ineffectually, to break Gridley's masterful eyehold upon him.

"I thought you would," said the master-mechanic, without releasing him. "And you probably remember, also, that I took you out into the street and started you home."

"Yes," said Judson, this time without hesitation.

"Well, keep on remembering it; you went home to Maggie, and she put you to bed. That is what you are to keep in mind."

Judson had broken the curious eye-grip at last, and again he said, "Why?"

Gridley hooked his finger absently in the engineer's buttonhole.

"Because, if you don't, a man named Rufford says he'll start a lead mine in you. I heard him say it last night-overheard him, I should say. That's all."

The master-mechanic passed on, going out by the great door which opened for the locomotive entering-track. Judson hung upon his heel for a moment, and then went slowly out through the tool-room and across the yard tracks to the Crow's Nest.

He found McCloskey in his office above stairs, mouthing and grimacing over the string-board of the new time-table.

"Bart's afraid he can't duck without dying."

"Well?" growled the trainmaster, when he saw who had opened and closed the door. "Come back to tell me you've sworn off? That won't go down with Mr. Lidgerwood. When he fires, he means it."

"You wait till I ask you for my job back again, won't you, Jim McCloskey?" said the disgraced one hotly. "I hain't asked it yet; and what's more, I'm sober."

"Sure you are," muttered McCloskey. "You'd be better-natured with a drink or two in you. What's doing?"

"That's what I came over here to find out," said Judson steadily. "What is the boss going to do about this flare-up with Bart Rufford?"

The trainmaster shrugged.

"You've got just as many guesses as anybody, John. What you can bet on is that he will do something different."

Judson had slouched to the window. When he spoke, it was without turning his head.

"You said something yesterday morning about me feeling for the boss's throat along with that gang up-town that's trying to drink itself up to the point of hitting him back. It don't strike me that way, Mac."

"How does it strike you?"

Judson turned slowly, crossed the room, and sat down in the only vacant chair.

"You know what's due to happen, Mac. Rufford won't try it on again the way he tried it night before last. I heard up-town that he has posted his de-fi: Mr. Lidgerwood shoots him on sight or he shoots Mr. Lidgerwood on sig

ht. You can figure that out, can't you?"

"Not knowing Mr. Lidgerwood much better than you do, John, I'm not sure that I can."

"Well, it's easy. Bart'll walk up to the boss in broad daylight, drop him, and then fill him full o'lead after he's down. I've seen him-saw him do it to Bixby, Mr. Brewster's foreman at the Copperette."

"Say the rest of it," commanded McCloskey.

"I've been thinking. While I'm laying round with nothing much to do, I believe I'll keep tab on Bart for a little spell. I don't love him much, nohow."

McCloskey's face contortion was intended to figure as a derisive smile. "Pshaw, John!" he commented, "he'd skin you alive. Why, even Jack Hepburn is afraid of him!"

"Jack is? How do you know that?"

McCloskey shrugged again.

"Are you with us, John?" he asked cautiously.

"I ain't with Bart Rufford and the tin-horns," said Judson negatively.

"Then I'll tell you a fairy tale," said the trainmaster, lowering his voice. "I gave you notice that Mr. Lidgerwood would do something different: he did it, bright and early this morning; went to Jake Schleisinger, who had to try twice before he could remember that he was a justice of the peace, and swore out a warrant for Rufford's arrest, on a charge of assault with intent to kill."

"Sure," said Judson, "that's what any man would do in a civilized country, ain't it?"

"Yes, but not here, John-not in the red-colored desert, with Bart Rufford's name in the body of the warrant."

"I don't know why not," insisted the engineer stubbornly. "But go on with the story; it ain't any fairy tale, so far."

"When he'd got the warrant, Schleisinger protesting all the while that Bart'd kill him for issuing it, Mr. Lidgerwood took it to Hepburn and told him to serve it. Jack backed down so fast that he fell over his feet. Said to ask him anything else under God's heavens and he'd do it-anything but that."

"Huh!" said Judson. "If I'd took an oath to serve warrants I'd serve 'em, if it did make me sick at my stomach." Then he got up and shuffled away to the window again, and when next he spoke his voice was the voice of a broken man.

"I lied to you a minute ago, Mac. I did want my job back. I came over here hopin' that you and Mr. Lidgerwood might be seein' things a little different by this time. I've quit the whiskey."

McCloskey wagged his shaggy head.

"So you've said before, John, and not once or twice either."

"I know, but every man gets to the bottom, some time. I've hit bed-rock, and I've just barely got sense enough to know it. Let me tell you, Mac, I've pulled trains on mighty near every railroad in this country-and then some. The Red Butte is my last ditch. With my record I couldn't get an engine anywhere else in the United States. Can't you see what I'm up against?"

The trainmaster nodded. He was human.

"Well, it's Maggie and the babies now," Judson went on. "They don't starve, Mac, not while I'm on top of earth. Don't you reckon you could make some sort of a play for me with the boss, Jim? He's got bowels."

McCloskey did not resent the familiarity of the Christian name, neither did he hold out any hope of reinstatement.

"No, John. One or two things I've learned about Mr. Lidgerwood: he doesn't often hit when he's mad, and he doesn't take back anything he says in cold blood. I'm afraid you've cooked your last goose."

"Let me go in and see him. He ain't half as hard-hearted as you are, Jim."

The trainmaster shook his head. "No, it won't do any good. I heard him tell Hallock not to let anybody in on him this morning."

"Hallock be-Say, Mac, what makes him keep that-" Judson broke off abruptly, pulled his hat over his eyes, and said, "Reckon it's worth while to shove me over to the other side, Jim McCloskey?"

"What other side?" demanded McCloskey.

Judson scoffed openly. "You ain't making out like you don't know, are you? Who was behind that break of Rufford's last night?"

"There didn't need to be anybody behind it. Bart thinks he has a kick coming because his brother was discharged."

"But there was somebody behind it. Tell me, Mac, did you ever see me too drunk to read my orders and take my signals?"

"No, don't know as I have."

"Well, I never was. And I don't often get too drunk to hear straight, either, even if I do look and act like the biggest fool God ever let live. I was in Cat Biggs's day before yesterday noon, when I ought to have been down here taking 202 east. There were two men in the back room putting their heads together. I don't know whether they knew I was on the other side of the partition or not. If they did, they probably didn't pay any attention to a drivellin' idiot that couldn't wrap his tongue around an order for more whiskey."

"Go on!" snapped McCloskey, almost viciously.

"They were talking about 'fixing' the boss. One of 'em was for the slow and safe way: small bets and a good many of 'em. The other was for pulling a straight flush on Mr. Lidgerwood, right now. Number One said no, that things were moving along all right, and it wasn't worth while to rush. Then something was said about a woman; I didn't catch her name or just what the hurry man said about her, only it was something about Mr. Lidgerwood's bein' in shape to mix up in it. At that Number One flopped over. 'Pull it off whenever you like!' says he, savage-like."

McCloskey sprang from his chair and towered over the smaller man.

"One of those men was Bart Rufford: who was the other one, Judson?"

Judson was apparently unmoved. "You're forgettin' that I was plum' fool drunk, Jim. I didn't see either one of 'em."

"But you heard?"

"Yes, one of 'em was Rufford, as you say, and up to a little bit ago I'd 'a' been ready to swear to the voice of the one you haven't guessed. But now I can't."

"Why can't you do it now?"

"Sit down and I'll tell you. I've been jarred. Everything I've told you so far, I can remember, or it seems as if I can, but right where I broke off a cog slipped. I must 'a' been drunker than I thought I was. Gridley says he was going by and he says I called him in and told him, fool-wise, all the things I was going to do to Mr. Lidgerwood. He says he hushed me up, called me out to the sidewalk, and started me home. Mac, I don't remember a single wheel-turn of all that, and it makes me scary about the other part."

McCloskey relapsed into his swing-chair.

"You said you thought you recognized the other man by his voice. It sounds like a drunken pipe-dream, the whole of it; but who did you think it was?"

Judson rose up, jerked his thumb toward the door of the superintendent's business office, and said, "Mac, if the whiskey didn't fake the whole business for me-the man who was mumblin' with Bart Rufford was-Hallock!"

"Hallock?" said McCloskey; "and you said there was a woman in it? That fits down to the ground, John. Mr. Lidgerwood has found out something about Hallock's family tear-up, or he's likely to find out. That's what that means!"

What more McCloskey said was said to an otherwise empty room. Judson had opened the door and closed it, and was gone.

Summing up the astounding thing afterward, those who could recall the details and piece them together traced Judson thus:

It was ten-forty when he came down from McCloskey's office, and for perhaps twenty minutes he had been seen lounging at the lunch-counter in the station end of the Crow's Nest. At about eleven one witness had seen him striking at the anvil in Hepburn's shop, the town marshal being the town blacksmith in the intervals of official duty.

Still later, he had apparently forgotten the good resolution declared to McCloskey, and all Angels saw him staggering up and down Mesa Avenue, stumbling into and out of the many saloons, and growing, to all appearances, more hopelessly irresponsible with every fresh stumble. This was his condition when he tripped over the doorstep into the "Arcade," and fell full length on the floor of the bar-room. Grimsby, the barkeeper, picked him up and tried to send him home, but with good-natured and maudlin pertinacity he insisted on going on to the gambling-room in the rear.

The room was darkened, as befitted its use, and a lighted lamp hung over the centre of the oval faro table as if the time were midnight instead of midday. Eight men, five of them miners from the Brewster copper mine, and three of them discharged employees of the Red Butte Western, were the bettors; Red-Light himself, in sombrero and shirt-sleeves, was dealing, and Rufford, sitting on a stool at the table's end, was the "lookout."

When Judson reeled in there was a pause, and a movement to put him out. One of the miners covered his table stakes and rose to obey Rufford's nod. But at this conjuncture the railroad men interfered. Judson was a fellow craftsman, and everybody knew that he was harmless in his cups. Let him stay-and play, if he wanted to.

So Judson stayed, and stumbled round the table, losing his money and dribbling foolishness. Now faro is a silent game, and more than once an angry voice commanded the foolish one to choose his place and to shut his mouth. But the ex-engineer seemed quite incapable of doing either. Twice he made the wavering circuit of the oval table, and when he finally gripped an empty chair it was the one nearest to Rufford on the right, and diagonally opposite to the dealer.

What followed seemed to have no connecting sequence for the other players. Too restless to lose more than one bet in the place he had chosen, Judson tried to rise, tangled his feet in the chair, and fell down, laughing uproariously. When he struggled to the perpendicular again, after two or three ineffectual attempts, he was fairly behind Rufford's stool.

One man, who chanced to be looking, saw the "lookout" start and stiffen rigidly in his place, staring straight ahead into vacancy. A moment later the entire circle of witnesses saw him take a revolver from the holster on his hip and lay it upon the table, with another from the breast pocket of his coat to keep it company. Then his hands went quickly behind him, and they all heard the click of the handcuffs.

The man in the sombrero and shirt-sleeves was first to come alive.

"Duck, Bart!" he shouted, whipping a weapon from its convenient shelf under the table's edge. But Judson, trained to the swift handling of many mechanisms in the moment of respite before a wreck or a derailment, was ready for him.

"Bart's afraid he can't duck without dying," he said grimly, screening himself behind his captive. Then to the others, in the same unhasting tone: "Some of you fellows just quiet Sammy down till I get out of here with this peach of mine. I've got the papers, and I know what I'm doin'; if this thing I'm holdin' against Bart's back should happen to go off--"

That ended it, so far as resistance was concerned. Judson backed quickly out through the bar-room, drawing his prisoner backward after him; and a moment later Angels was properly electrified by the sight of Rufford, the Red Desert terror, marching sullenly down to the Crow's Nest, with a fiery-headed little man at his elbow, the little man swinging the weapon which had been made to simulate the cold muzzle of the revolver when he had pressed it into Rufford's back at the gaming-table.

It was nothing more formidable than a short, thick "S"-wrench, of the kind used by locomotive engineers in tightening the nuts of the piston-rod packing glands.

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