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   Chapter 13 BITTER-SWEET

The Taming of Red Butte Western By Francis Lynde Characters: 27001

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Taking his cue from certain passages in the book of painful memories, Lidgerwood meant to obey his first impulse, which prompted him to follow Mr. Brewster to the private office state-room in the forward end of the car, disregarding the couple in the tête-à-tête contrivance. But the triumphantly beautiful young woman in the nearer half of the crooked-backed seat would by no means sanction any such easy solution of the difficulty.

"Not a word for me, Howard?" she protested, rising and fairly compelling him to stop and speak to her. Then: "For pity's sake! what have you been doing to yourself to make you look so hollow-eyed and anxious?" After which, since Lidgerwood seemed at a loss for an answer to the half-solicitous query, she presented her companion of the "S"-shaped chair. "Possibly you will shake hands a little less abstractedly with Mr. Van Lew. Herbert, this is Mr. Howard Lidgerwood, my cousin, several times removed. He is the tyrant of the Red Butte Western, and I can assure you that he is much more terrible than he looks-aren't you, Howard?"

Lidgerwood shook hands cordially enough with the tall young athlete who, it seemed, would never have done increasing his magnificent stature as he rose up out of his half of the lounging-seat.

"Glad to meet you, Mr. Lidgerwood, I'm sure," said the young man, gripping the given hand until Lidgerwood winced. "Miss Eleanor has been telling me about you-marooned out here in the Red Desert. By Jove! don't you know I believe I'd like to try it awhile myself. It's ages since I've had a chance to kill a man, and they tell me--"

Lidgerwood laughed, recognizing Miss Brewster's romancing gift, or the results of it.

"We shall have to arrange a little round-up of the bad men from Bitter Creek for you, Mr. Van Lew. I hope you brought your armament along-the regulation 45's, and all that."

Miss Brewster laughed derisively.

"Don't let him discourage you, Herbert," she mocked. "Bitter Creek is in Wyoming-or is it in Montana?" this with a quick little eye-stab for Lidgerwood, "and the name of Mr. Lidgerwood's refuge is Angels. Also, papa says there is a hotel there called the 'Celestial.' Do you live at the Celestial, Howard?"

"No, I never properly lived there. I existed there for a few weeks until Mrs. Dawson took pity on me. Mrs. Dawson is from Massachusetts."

"Hear him!" scoffed Miss Eleanor, still mocking. "He says that as if to be 'from Massachusetts' were a patent of nobility. He knows I had the cruel misfortune to be born in Colorado. But tell me, Howard, is Mrs. Dawson a charming young widow?"

"Mrs. Dawson is a very charming middle-aged widow, with a grown son and a daughter," said Lidgerwood, a little stiffly. It seemed entirely unnecessary that she should ridicule him before the athlete.

"And the daughter-is she charming, too? But that says itself, since she must also date 'from Massachusetts.'" Then to Van Lew: "Every one out here in the Red Desert is 'from' somewhere, you know."

"Miss Dawson is quite beneath your definition of charming, I imagine," was Lidgerwood's rather crisp rejoinder; and for the third time he made as if he would go on to join the president in the office state-room.

"You are staying to luncheon with us, aren't you?" asked Miss Brewster. "Or do you just drop in and out again, like the other kind of angels?"

"Your father commands me, and he says I am to stay. And now, if you will excuse me--"

This time he succeeded in getting away, and up to the luncheon hour talked copper and copper prospects to Mr. Brewster in the seclusion of the president's office compartment. The call for the midday meal had been given when Mr. Brewster switched suddenly from copper to silver.

"By the way, there were a few silver strikes over in the Timanyonis about the time of the Red Butte gold excitement," he remarked. "Some of them have grown to be shippers, haven't they?"

"Only two, of any importance," replied the superintendent: "the Ruby, in Ruby Gulch, and Flemister's Wire-Silver, at Little Butte. You couldn't call either of them a bonanza, but they are both shipping fair ore in good quantities."

"Flemister," said the president reflectively. "He's a character. Know him personally, Howard?"

"A little," the superintendent admitted.

"A little is a-plenty. It wouldn't pay you to know him very well," laughed the big man good-naturedly. "He has a somewhat paralyzing way of getting next to you financially. I knew him in the old Leadville days; a born gentleman, and also a born buccaneer. If the men he has held up and robbed were to stand in a row, they'd fill a Denver street."

"He is in his proper longitude out here, then," said Lidgerwood rather grimly. "This is the 'hold-up's heaven.'"

"I'll bet Flemister is doing his share of the looting," laughed the president. "Is he alone in the mine?"

"I don't know that he has any partners. Somebody told me, when I first came over here, that Gridley, our master-mechanic, was in with him; but Gridley says that is a mistake-that he thinks too much of his reputation to be Flemister's partner."

"Hank Gridley," mused the president; "Hank Gridley and 'his reputation'! It would certainly be a pity if that were to get corroded in any way. There is a man who properly belongs to the Stone Age-what you might call an elemental "scoundrel."

"You surprise me!" exclaimed Lidgerwood. "I didn't like him at first, but I am convinced now that it was only unreasoning prejudice. He appeals to me as being anything but a scoundrel."

"Well, perhaps the word is a bit too savage," admitted Gridley's accuser. "What I meant was that he has capabilities that way, and not much moral restraint. He is the kind of man to wade through fire and blood to gain his object, without the slightest thought of the consequences to others. Ever hear the story of his marriage? No? Remind me of it some time, and I'll tell you. But we were speaking of Flemister. You say the Wire-Silver has turned out pretty well?"

"Very well indeed, I believe. Flemister seems to have money to burn."

"He always has, his own or somebody else's. It makes little difference to him. The way he got the Wire-Silver would have made Black-Beard the pirate turn green with envy. Know anything about the history of the mine?"

Lidgerwood shook his head.

"Well, I do; just happen to. You know how it lies-on the western slope of Little Butte ridge?"

"Yes."

"That is where it lies now. But the original openings were made on the eastern slope of the butte. They didn't pan out very well, and Flemister began to look for a victim to whom he could sell. About that time a man, whose name I can never recall, took up a claim on the western slope of the ridge directly opposite Flemister. This man struck it pretty rich, and Flemister began to bully him on the plea that the new discovery was only a continuation of his own vein straight through the hill. You can guess what happened."

"Fairly well," said Lidgerwood. "Flemister lawed the other man out."

"He did worse than that; he drove straight into the hill, past his own lines, and actually took the money out of the other man's mine to use as a fighting fund. I don't know how the courts sifted it out, finally; I didn't follow it up very closely. But Flemister put the other man to the wall in the end-'put it all over him,' as your man Bradford would say. There was some domestic tragedy involved, too, in which Flemister played the devil with the other man's family; but I don't know any of the details."

"Yet you say Flemister is a born gentleman, as well as a born buccaneer?"

"Well, yes; he behaves himself well enough in decent company. He isn't exactly the kind of man you can turn down short-he has education, good manners, and all that, you know; but if he were hard up I shouldn't let him get within roping distance of my pocket-book, or, if I had given him occasion to dislike me, within easy pistol range."

"Wherein he is neither better nor worse than a good many others who take the sunburn of the Red Desert," was Lidgerwood's comment, and just then the waiter opened the door a second time to say that luncheon was served.

"Don't forget to remind me that I'm to tell you Gridley's story, Howard," said the president, rising out of the depths of his lounging-chair and stripping off the dust-coat, "Reads like a romance-only I fancy it was anything but a romance for poor Lizzie Gridley. Let's go and see what the cook has done for us."

At luncheon Lidgerwood was made known to the other members of the private-car party. The white-haired old man who had been dozing in his chair was Judge Holcombe, Van Lew's uncle and the father of the prettier of the two young women who had been entertaining Jefferis, the curly-headed collegian. Jefferis laughingly disclaimed relationship with anybody; but Miss Carolyn Doty, the less pretty but more talkative of the two young women, confessed that she was a cousin, twice removed, of Mrs. Brewster.

Quite naturally, Lidgerwood sought to pair the younger people when the table gathering was complete, and was not entirely certain of his prefiguring. Eleanor Brewster and Van Lew sat together and were apparently absorbed in each other to the exclusion of all things extraneous. Jefferis had Miss Doty for a companion, and the affliction of her well-balanced tongue seemed to affect neither his appetite nor his enjoyment of what the young woman had to say.

Miriam Holcombe had fallen to Lidgerwood's lot, and at first he thought that her silence was due to the fact that young Jefferis had gotten upon the wrong side of the table. But after she began to talk, he changed his mind.

"Tell me about the wrecked train we passed a little while ago, Mr. Lidgerwood," she began, almost abruptly. "Was any one killed?"

"No; it was a freight, and the crew escaped. It was a rather narrow escape, though, for the engineer, and fireman."

"You were putting it back on the track?" she asked.

"There isn't much of it left to put back, as you may have observed," said Lidgerwood. Then he told her of the explosion and the fire.

She was silent for a few moments, but afterward she went on, half-gropingly he thought.

"Is that part of your work-to get the trains on the track when they run off?"

He laughed. "I suppose it is-or at least, in a certain sense, I'm responsible for it. But I am lucky enough to have a wrecking-boss-two of them, in fact, and both good ones."

She looked up quickly, and he was sure that he surprised something more than a passing interest in the serious eyes-a trouble depth, he would have called it, had their talk been anything more than the ordinary conventional table exchange.

"We saw you go down to speak to two of your men: one who wore his hat pulled down over his eyes and made dreadful faces at you as he talked--"

"That was McCloskey, our trainmaster," he cut in.

"And the other--?"

"Was wrecking-boss Number Two," he told her, "my latest apprentice, and a very promising young subject. This was his first time out under my administration, and he put McCloskey and me out of the running at once."

"What did he do?" she asked, and again he saw the groping wistfulness in her eyes, and wondered at it.

"I couldn't explain it without being unpardonably technical. But perhaps it can best be summed up in saying that he is a fine mechanical engineer with the added gift of knowing how to handle men."

"You are generous, Mr. Lidgerwood, to-to a subordinate. He ought to be very loyal to you."

"He is. And I don't think of him as a subordinate-I shouldn't even if he were on my pay-roll instead of on that of the motive-power department. I am glad to be able to call him my friend, Miss Holcombe."

Again a few moments of silence, during which Lidgerwood was staring gloomily across at Miss Brewster and Van Lew. Then another curiously abrupt question from the young woman at his side.

"His college, Mr. Lidgerwood; do you chance to know where he was graduated?"

At another moment Lidgerwood might have wondered at the young woman's persistence. But now Benson's story of Dawson's terrible misfortune was crowding all purely speculative thoughts out of his mind.

"He took his engineering course in Carnegie, but I believe he did not stay through the four years," he said gravely.

Miss Holcombe was looking down the table, down and across to where her father was sitting, at Mr. Brewster's right. When she spoke again the personal note was gone; and after that the talk, what there was of it, was of the sort that is meant to bridge discomforting gaps.

In the dispersal after the meal, Lidgerwood attached himself to Miss Doty; this in sheer self-defense. The desert passage was still in its earlier stages, and Miss Carolyn's volubility promised to be the less of two evils, the greater being the possibility that Eleanor Brewster might seek to re-open a certain spring of bitterness at which he had been constrained to drink deeply and miserably in the past.

The self-defensive expedient served its purpose admirably. For the better part of the desert run, the president slept in his state-room, Mrs. Brewster and the judge dozed in their respective easy-chairs, and Jefferis and Miriam Holcombe, after roaming for an uneasy half-hour from the rear platform to the cook's galley forward, went up ahead, at one of the stops, to ride-by the superintendent's permission-in the en

gine cab with Williams. Miss Brewster and Van Lew were absorbed in a book of plays, and their corner of the large, open compartment was the one farthest removed from the double divan which Lidgerwood had chosen for Miss Carolyn and himself.

Later, Van Lew rolled a cigarette and went to the smoking-compartment, which was in the forward end of the car; and when next Lidgerwood broke Miss Doty's eye-hold upon him, Miss Brewster had also disappeared-into her state-room, as he supposed. Taking this as a sign of his release, he gently broke the thread of Miss Carolyn's inquisitiveness, and went out to the rear platform for a breath of fresh air and surcease from the fashery of a neatly balanced tongue.

When it was quite too late to retreat, he found the deep-recessed observation platform of the Nadia occupied. Miss Brewster was not in her state-room, as he had mistakenly persuaded himself. She was sitting in one of the two platform camp-chairs, and she was alone.

"I thought you would come, if I only gave you time enough," she said, quite coolly. "Did you find Carolyn very persuasive?"

He ignored the query about Miss Doty, replying only to the first part of her speech.

"I thought you had gone to your state-room. I hadn't the slightest idea that you were out here."

"Otherwise you would not have come? How magnificently churlish you can be, upon occasion, Howard!"

"It doesn't deserve so hard a name," he rejoined patiently. "For the moment I am your father's guest, and when he asked me to go to Angels with him--"

-"He didn't tell you that mamma and Judge Holcombe and Carolyn and Miriam and Herbert and Geof. Jefferis and I were along," she cut in maliciously. "Howard, don't you know you are positively spiteful, at times!"

"No," he denied.

"Don't contradict me, and don't be silly." She pushed the other chair toward him. "Sit down and tell me how you've been enduring the interval. It is more than a year, isn't it?"

"Yes. A year, three months, and eleven days." He had taken the chair beside her because there seemed to be nothing else to do.

"How mathematically exact you are!" she gibed. "To-morrow it will be a year, three months, and twelve days; and the day after to-morrow-mercy me! I should go mad if I had to think back and count up that way every day. But I asked you what you had been doing."

He spread his hands. "Existing, one way and another. There has always been my work."

"'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,'" she quoted. "You are excessively dull to-day, Howard. Hasn't it occurred to you?"

"Thank you for expressing it so delicately. It seems to be my misfortune to disappoint you, always."

"Yes," she said, quite unfeelingly. Then, with a swift relapse into pure mockery: "How many times have you fallen in love during the one year, three months, and eleven days?"

His frown was almost a scowl. "Is it worth while to make an unending jest of it, Eleanor?"

"A jest?-of your falling in love? No, my dear cousin, several times removed, no one would dare to jest with you on that subject. But tell me; I am really and truly interested. Will you confess to three times? That isn't so very many, considering the length of the interval."

"No."

"Twice, then? Think hard; there must have been at least two little quickenings of the heartbeats in all that time."

"No."

"Still no? That reduces it to one-the charming Miss Dawson--"

"You might spare her, even if you are not willing to spare me. You know well enough there has never been any one but you, Eleanor; that there never will be any one but you."

The train was passing the western confines of the waterless tract, and a cool breeze from the snowcapped Timanyonis was sweeping across the open platform. It blew strands of the red-brown hair from beneath the closely fitting travelling-hat; blew color into Miss Brewster's cheeks and a daring brightness into the laughing eyes.

"What a pity!" she said in mock sympathy.

"That I can't measure up to your requirements of the perfect man? Yes, it is a thousand pities," he agreed.

"No; that isn't precisely what I meant. The pity is that I seem to you to be unable to appreciate your many excellencies and your-constancy."

"I think you were born to torment me," he rejoined gloomily. "Why did you come out here with your father? You must have known that I was here."

"Not from any line you have ever written," she retorted. "Alicia Ford told me, otherwise I shouldn't have known."

"Still, you came. Why? Were you curious?"

"Why should I be curious, and what about?-the Red Desert? I've seen deserts before."

"I thought you might be curious to know what disposition the Red Desert was making of such a failure as I am," he said evenly. "I can forgive that more easily than I can forgive your bringing of the other man along to be an on-looker."

"Herbert, you mean? He is a good boy, a nice boy-and perfectly harmless. You'll like him immensely when you come to know him better."

"You like him?" he queried.

"How can you ask-when you have just called him 'the other man'?"

Lidgerwood turned in his chair and faced her squarely.

"Eleanor, I had my punishment over a year ago, and I have been hoping you would let it suffice. It was hard enough to lose you without being compelled to stand by and see another man win you. Can't you understand that?"

She did not answer him. Instead, she whipped aside from that phase of the subject to ask a question of her own.

"What ever made you come out here, Howard?"

"To the superintendency of the Red Butte Western? You did."

"I?"

"Yes, you."

"It is ridiculous!"

"It is true."

"Prove it-if you can; but you can't."

"I am proving it day by day, or trying to. I didn't want to come, but you drove me to it."

"I decline to take any such hideous responsibility," she laughed lightly. "There must have been some better reason; Miss Dawson, perhaps."

"Quite likely, barring the small fact that I didn't know there was a Miss Dawson until I had been a month in Angels."

"Oh!" she said half spitefully. And then, with calculated malice, "Howard, if you were only as brave as you are clever!... Why can't you be a man and strike back now and then?"

"Strike back at the woman I love? I'm not quite down to that, I hope, even if I was once too cowardly to strike for her."

"Always that! Why won't you let me forget?"

"Because you must not forget. Listen: two weeks ago-only two weeks ago-one of the Angels-er-peacemakers stood up in his place and shot at me. What I did made me understand that I had gained nothing in a year."

"Shot at you?" she echoed, and now he might have discovered a note of real concern in her tone if his ear had been attuned to hear it. "Tell me about it. Who was it? and why did he shoot at you?"

His answer seemed to be indirection itself.

"How long do you expect to stay in Angels and its vicinity?" he asked.

"I don't know. This is partly a pleasure trip for us younger folk. Father was coming out alone, and I-that is, mamma decided to come and make a car-party of it. We may stay two or three weeks, if the others wish it. But you haven't answered me. I want to know who the man was, and why he shot at you."

"Exactly; and you have answered yourself. If you stay two weeks, or two days, in Angels you will doubtless hear all you care to about my troubles. When the town isn't talking about what it is going to do to me, it is gossiping about the dramatic arrest of my would-be assassin."

"You are most provoking!" she declared. "Did you make the arrest?"

"Don't shame me needlessly; of course I didn't. One of our locomotive engineers, a man whom I had discharged for drunkenness, was the hero. It was a most daring thing. The desperado is known in the Red Desert as 'The Killer,' and he has had the entire region terrorized so completely that the town marshal of Angels, a man who has never before shirked his duty, refused to serve the warrant. Judson, the engineer, made the capture-took the 'terror' from his place in a gambling-den, disarmed him, and brought him in. Judson himself was unarmed, and he did the trick with a little steel wrench such as engineers use about a locomotive."

Miss Brewster, being Colorado-born, was deeply interested.

"Now you are no longer dull, Howard!" she exclaimed. "Tell me in words just how Mr. Judson did it."

"It was an old dodge, so old that it seemed new to everybody. As I told you, Judson was discharged for drunkenness. All Angels knows him for a fighter to the finish when he is sober, and for the biggest fool and the most harmless one when he is in liquor. He took advantage of this, reeled into the gambling-place as if he were too drunk to see straight, played the fool till he got behind his man-after which the matter simplified itself. Rufford, the desperado, had no means of knowing that the cold piece of metal Judson was pressing against his back was not the muzzle of a loaded revolver, and he had every reason for supposing that it was; hence, he did all the things Judson told him to do."

Miss Eleanor did not need to vocalize her approval of Judson; the dark eyes were alight with excitement.

"How fine!" she applauded. "Of course, after that, you took Mr. Judson back into the railway service?"

"Indeed, I did nothing of the sort; nor shall I, until he demonstrates that he means what he says about letting the whiskey alone."

"'Until he demonstrates'-don't be so cold-blooded, Howard! Possibly he saved your life."

"Quite probably. But that has nothing to do with his reinstatement as an engineer of passenger-trains. It would be much better for Rufford to kill me than for me to let Judson have the chance to kill a train-load of innocent people."

"And yet, a few moments ago, you called yourself a coward, cousin mine. Could you really face such an alternative without flinching?"

"It doesn't appeal to me as a question involving any special degree of courage," he said slowly. "I am a great coward, Eleanor-not a little one, I hope."

"It doesn't appeal to you?-dear God!" she said. "And I have been calling you ... but would you do it, Howard?"

He smiled at her sudden earnestness.

"How generous your heart is, Eleanor, when you let it speak for itself! If you will promise not to let it change your opinion of me-you shouldn't change it, you know, for I am the same man whom you held up to scorn the day we parted-if you will promise, I'll tell you that for weeks I have gone about with my life in my hands, knowing it. It hasn't required any great amount of courage; it merely comes along in the line of my plain duty to the company-it's one of the things I draw my salary for."

"You haven't told me why this desperado wanted to kill you-why you are in such a deep sea of trouble out here, Howard," she reminded him.

"No; it is a long story, and it would bore you if I had time to tell it. And I haven't time, because that is Williams's whistle for the Angels yard."

He had risen and was helping his companion to her feet when Mrs. Brewster came to the car door to say:

"Oh, you are out here, are you, Howard? I was looking for you to let you know that we dine in the Nadia at seven. If your duties will permit--"

Lidgerwood's refusal was apologetic but firm.

"I am very sorry, Cousin Jessica," he protested. "But I left a deskful of stuff when I ran away to the wreck this morning, and really I'm afraid I shall have to beg off."

"Oh, don't be so dreadfully formal!" said the president's wife impatiently. "You are a member of the family, and all you have to do is to say bluntly that you can't come, and then come whenever you can while we are here. Carolyn Doty is dying to ask you a lot more questions about the Red Desert. She confided to me that you were the most interesting talker--"

Miss Eleanor's interruption was calculated to temper the passed-on praise.

"He has been simply boring me to death, mamma, until just a few minutes ago. I shall tell Carolyn that she is too easily pleased."

Mrs. Brewster, being well used to Eleanor's flippancies, paid no attention to her daughter.

"You will come to us whenever you can, Howard; that is understood," she said. And so the social matter rested.

Lidgerwood was half-way down the platform of the Crow's Nest, heading for his office and the neglected desk, when Williams's engine came backing through one of the yard tracks on its way to the roundhouse. At the moment of its passing, a little man with his cap pulled over his eyes dropped from the gangway step and lounged across to the head-quarters building.

It was Judson; and having seen him last toiling away man-fashion at the wreck in the Crosswater Hills, Lidgerwood hailed him.

"Hello, Judson! How did you get here? I thought you were doing a turn with McCloskey."

The small man's grin was ferocious.

"I was, but Mac said he didn't have any further use for me-said I was too much of a runt to be liftin' and pullin' along with growed-up men. I came down with Williams on the '66."

Lidgerwood turned away. He remembered his reluctant consent to McCloskey's proposal touching the espial upon Hallock, and was sorry he had given it. It was too late to recall it now; but neither by word nor look did the superintendent intimate to the discharged engineer that he knew why McCloskey had sent him back to Angels on the engine of the president's special.

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