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The Taming of Red Butte Western By Francis Lynde Characters: 10808

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The jocosely spectacular arrest of Barton Rufford, with its appeal to the grim humor of the desert, was responsible for a brief lull in the storm of antagonism evoked by Lidgerwood's attempt to bring order out of the chaos reigning in his small kingdom. For a time Angels was a-grin again, and while the plaudits were chiefly for Judson, the figure of the correctly clothed superintendent who was courageous enough to appeal to the law, loomed large in the reflected light of the red-headed engineer's cool daring.

For the space of a week there were no serious disasters, and Lidgerwood, with good help from McCloskey and Benson, continued to dig persistently into the mystery of the wholesale robberies. With Benson's discoveries for a starting-point, the man Flemister was kept under surveillance, and it soon became evident to the three investigators that the owner of the Wire-Silver mine had been profiting liberally at the expense of the railroad company in many ways. That there had been connivance on the part of some one in authority in the railroad service, was also a fact safely assumable; and each added thread of evidence seemed more and more to entangle the chief clerk.

But behind the mystery of the robberies, Lidgerwood began to get glimpses of a deeper mystery involving Flemister and Hallock. Angelic tradition, never very clearly defined and always shot through with prejudice, spoke freely of a former friendship between the two men. Whether the friendship had been broken, or whether, for reasons best known to themselves, they had allowed the impression to go out that it had been broken, Lidgerwood could not determine from the bits of gossip brought in by the trainmaster. But one thing was certain: of all the minor officials in the railway service, Hallock was the one who was best able to forward and to conceal Flemister's thieveries.

It was in the midst of these subterranean investigations that Lidgerwood had a call from the owner of the Wire-Silver. On the Saturday in the week of surcease, Flemister came in on the noon train from the west, and it was McCloskey who ushered him into the superintendent's office. Lidgerwood looked up and saw a small man wearing the khaki of the engineers, with a soft felt hat to match. The snapping black eyes, with the straight brows almost meeting over the nose, suggested Goethe's Mephistopheles, and Flemister shaved to fit the part, with curling mustaches and a dagger-pointed imperial. Instantly Lidgerwood began turning the memory pages in an effort to recall where he had seen the man before, but it was not until Flemister began to speak that he remembered his first day in authority, the wreck at Gloria Siding, and the man who had driven up in a buckboard to hold converse with the master-mechanic.

"I've been trying to find time for a month or more to come up and get acquainted with you, Mr. Lidgerwood," the visitor began, when Lidgerwood had waved him to a chair. "I hope you are not going to hold it against me that I haven't done it sooner."

Lidgerwood's smile was meant to be no more than decently hospitable.

"We are not standing much upon ceremony in these days of reorganization," he said. Then, to hold the interview down firmly to a business basis: "What can I do for you, Mr. Flemister?"

"Nothing-nothing on top of earth; it's the other way round. I came to do something for you-or, rather, for one of your subordinates. Hallock tells me that the ghost of the old Mesa Building and Loan Association still refuses to be laid, and he intimates that some of the survivors are trying to make it unpleasant for him by accusing him to you."

"Yes," said Lidgerwood, studying his man shrewdly by the road of the eye, and without prejudice to the listening ear.

"As I understand it, the complaint of the survivors is based upon the fact that they think they ought to have had a cash dividend forthcoming on the closing up of the association's affairs," Flemister went on; and Lidgerwood again said, "Yes."

"As Hallock has probably told you, I had the misfortune to be the president of the company. Perhaps it's only fair to say that it was a losing venture from the first for those of us who put the loaning capital into it. As you probably know, the money in these mutual benefit companies is made on lapses, but when the lapses come all in a bunch--"

"I am not particularly interested in the general subject, Mr. Flemister," Lidgerwood cut in. "As the matter has been presented to me, I understand there was a cash balance shown on the books, and that there was no cash in the treasury to make it good. Since Hallock was the treasurer, I can scarcely do less than I have done. I am merely asking him-and you-to make some sort of an explanation which will satisfy the losers."

"There is only one explanation to be made," said the ex-building-and-loan president, brazenly. "A few of us who were the officers of the company were the heaviest losers, and we felt that we were entitled to the scraps and leavings."

"In other words, you looted the treasury among you," said Lidgerwood coldly. "Is that it, Mr. Flemister?"

The mine-owner laughed easily. "I'm not going to quarrel with you over the word," he returned. "Possibly the proceeding was a little informal, if you measure it by some of the more highly civilized standards."

"I don't care to go into that," was Lidgerwood'

s comment, "but I cannot evade my responsibility for the one member of your official staff who is still on my pay-roll. How far was Hallock implicated?"

"He was not implicated at all, save in a clerical way."

"You mean that he did not share in the distribution of the money?"

"He did not."

"Then it is only fair that you should set him straight with the others, Mr. Flemister."

The ex-president did not reply at once. He took time to roll a cigarette leisurely, to light it, and to take one or two deep inhalations, before he said: "It's a rather disagreeable thing to do, this digging into old graveyards, don't you think? I can understand why you should wish to be assured of Hallock's non-complicity, and I have assured you of that; but as for these kickers, really I don't know what you can do with them unless you send them to me. And if you do that, I am afraid some of them may come back on hospital stretchers. I haven't any time to fool with them at this late day."

Lidgerwood felt his gorge rising, and a great contempt for Flemister was mingled with a manful desire to pitch him out into the corridor. It was a concession to his unexplainable pity for Hallock that made him temporize.

"As I said before, you needn't go into the ethics of the matter with me, Mr. Flemister," he said. "But in justice to Hallock, I think you ought to make a statement of some kind that I can show to these men who, very naturally, look to me for redress. Will you do that?"

"I'll think about it," returned the mine-owner shortly; but Lidgerwood was not to be put off so easily.

"You must think of it to some good purpose," he insisted. "If you don't, I shall be obliged to put my own construction upon your failure to do so, and to act accordingly."

Flemister's smile showed his teeth.

"You're not threatening me, are you, Mr. Lidgerwood?"

"Oh, no; there is no occasion for threats. But if you don't make me that statement, fully exonerating Hallock, I shall feel at liberty to make one of my own, embodying what you have just told me. And if I am compelled to do this, you must not blame me if I am not able to place the matter in the most favorable light for you."

This time the visitor's smile was a mere baring of the teeth.

"Is it worth your while to make it a personal quarrel with me, Mr. Lidgerwood?" he asked, with a thinly veiled menace in his tone.

"I am not looking for quarrelsome occasions with you or with any one," was the placable rejoinder. "And I hope you are not going to force me to show you up. Is there anything else? If not, I'm afraid I shall have to ask you to excuse me. This is one of my many busy days."

After Flemister had gone, Lidgerwood was almost sorry that he had not struck at once into the matter of the thieveries. But as yet he had no proof upon which to base an open accusation. One thing he did do, however, and that was to summon McCloskey and give instructions pointing to a bit of experimental observation with the mine-owner as the subject.

"He can't get away from here before the evening train, and I should like to know where he goes and what be does with himself," was the form the instructions took. "When we find out who his accomplices are, I shall have something more to say to him."

"I'll have him tagged," promised the trainmaster; and a few minutes later, when the Wire-Silver visitor sauntered up Mesa Avenue in quest of diversion wherewith to fill the hours of waiting for his train, a small man, red-haired, and with a mechanic's cap pulled down over his eyes, kept even step with him from dive to dive.

Judson's report, made to the trainmaster that evening after the westbound train had left, was short and concise.

"He went up and sat in Sammy's game and didn't come out until it was time to make a break for his train. I didn't see him talking to anybody after he left here." This was the wording of the report.

"You are sure of that, are you, John?" questioned McCloskey.

Judson hung his head. "Maybe I ain't as sure as I ought to be. I saw him go into Sammy's, and saw him come out again, and I know he didn't stay in the bar-room. I didn't go in where they keep the tiger. Sammy don't love me any more since I held Bart Rufford up with an S-wrench, and I was afraid I might disturb the game if I went buttin' in to make sure that Flemister was there. But I guess there ain't no doubt about it."

Thus Judson, who was still sober, and who meant to be faithful according to his gifts. He was scarcely blameworthy for not knowing of the existence of a small back room in the rear of the gambling-den; or for the further unknowledge of the fact that the man in search of diversion had passed on into this back room after placing a few bets at the silent game, appearing no more until he had come out through the gambling-room on his way to the train. If Judson had dared to press his espial, he might have been the poorer by the loss of blood, or possibly of his life; but, living to get away with it, he would have been the richer for an important bit of information. For one thing, he would have known that Flemister had not spent the afternoon losing his money across the faro-table; and for another, he might have made sure, by listening to the subdued voices beyond the closed door, that the man he was shadowing was not alone in the back room to which he had retreated.

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