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   Chapter 14 BLIND SIGNALS

The Taming of Red Butte Western By Francis Lynde Characters: 13786

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Lidgerwood was not making the conventional excuse when he gave the deskful of work as a reason for not accepting the invitation to dine with the president's party in the Nadia. Being the practical as well as the nominal head of the Red Butte line, and the only official with complete authority west of Copah, his daily mail was always heavy, and during his frequent absences the accumulations stored up work for every spare hour he could devote to it.

It was this increasing clerical burden which had led him to ask the general manager for a stenographer, and during one of the later absences the young man had come-a rapid, capable young fellow with the gift of knowing how to make himself indispensable to a superior, coupled with the ability to take care of much of the routine correspondence without specific instructions, and with a disposition to be loyal to his salt.

Climbing the stair to his office on the second floor of the Crow's Nest after the brief exchange of question and answer with Judson, Lidgerwood found his new helper hard at work grinding through the day's train mail.

"Don't scamp your meals, Grady," was his greeting to the stenographer, as he opened his own desk. "This is a pretty busy shop, but it is well to remember that there is always another day coming, and if there isn't, it won't make any difference how much or how little is left undone."

"Colgan wired that you were on Mr. Brewster's special, and I was waiting on the chance that you might want to rush something through when you got in," returned the young Irishman, reaching mechanically for his note-book.

"I shall want to rush a lot of it through after a while, but you'd better go and get your supper now and come back fresh for it," said the superintendent, who was always humane to every one but himself. "Was there anything special in to-day's mail?"

"Only this," turning up a letter marked "Immediate" and bearing the cancellation stamp of the postal car which had passed eastward on Train 202.

Lidgerwood read the marked letter twice before he placed it face down in the "unanswered" basket. It was from Flemister, and it called for a decision which the superintendent was willing to postpone for the moment. After he had read thoughtfully through everything else on the waiting list, he took up the mine-owner's letter again. All things considered, it was a little puzzling. He had not seen Flemister since the day of the rather spiteful conversation, with the building-and-loan theft for a topic, and on that occasion the mine-owner had gone away with threats in his mouth. Yet his letter was distinctly friendly, conveying an offer of neighborly help.

The occasion for the neighborliness arose upon a right-of-way involvement. Acting under instructions from Vice-President Ford, Lidgerwood had already begun to move in the matter of extending the Red Butte Western toward the Nevada gold-fields, and Benson had been running preliminary surveys and making estimates of cost. Of the two more feasible routes, that which left the main line at Little Butte, turning southward up the Wire-Silver gulch, had been favorably reported on by the engineer. The right of way over this route, save for a few miles through an upland valley of cattle ranches, could be acquired from the government, and among the ranch owners only one was disposed to fight the coming of the railroad-for a purely mercenary purpose, Benson declared.

It was about this man, James Grofield, that Flemister wrote. The ranchman, so the letter stated, had passed through Little Butte early in the day, on his way to Red Butte. He would be returning by the accommodation late in the afternoon, and would stop at the Wire-Silver mine, where he had stabled his horses. For some reason he had taken a dislike to Benson, but if Lidgerwood could make it convenient to come over to Little Butte on the evening passenger-train from Angels, the writer of the letter would arrange to keep Grofield over-night, and the right-of-way matter could doubtless be settled satisfactorily.

This was the substance of the mine-owner's letter, and if Lidgerwood hesitated it was partly because he was suspicious of Flemister's sudden friendliness. Then the motive-Flemister's motive-suggested itself, and the suspicion was put to sleep. The Wire-Silver mine was five miles distant from the main line at Little Butte, at the end of a spur; if the extension should be built, it would be a main-line station, with all the advantages accruing therefrom. Flemister was merely putting the personal animosities aside for a good and sufficient business reason.

Lidgerwood looked at his watch. If Grady should not be gone too long, he might be able to work through the pile of correspondence and get away on the evening passenger; and when the stenographer came back the work was attacked with that end in view. But after an hour's rapid dictating, a long-drawn whistle signal announced the incoming of the train he was trying to make and warned him that the race against time had failed.

"It's no use; we'll have to make two bites of it," he said to Grady, and then he left his desk to go downstairs for a breathing moment and the cup of coffee which he meant to substitute for the dinner which the lack of time had made him forego.

Train 205, the train Flemister had suggested that he might take, was just pulling in from the long run across the desert when he reached the foot of the stairs. That it was too late to take this means of reaching Little Butte and the Wire-Silver mine was a small matter; it merely meant that he would be obliged to order out the service-car and go special, if he should finally decide to act upon Flemister's suggestion.

Angels being a meal station, there was a twenty-minute stop for all trains, and the passengers from 205 were crowding the platform and hurrying to the dining-room and lunch-counter when Lidgerwood made his way to the station end of the building. In the men's room, whither he went to order his cup of coffee, there was a mixed throng of travellers, with a sprinkling of trainmen and town idlers, among the latter a number of the lately discharged railroad employees. Lidgerwood marked a group of the trouble-makers withdrawing to a corner of the room as he entered, and while the waiter was serving his coffee, he saw Hallock join the group. It was only a straw, but straws are significant when the wind is blowing from a threatening quarter. Once again Lidgerwood remembered McCloskey's proposal, and his own reluctant assent to it, and now he was not too greatly conscience-stricken when he saw Judson quietly working his way through the crowded room to a point of espial upon the group in the corner.

"Your coffee's getting cold, Mr. Lidgerwood," the man behind the counter warned him, and Lidgerwood whirled around on the pivot stool and turned his back up

on the malcontents and their watcher. The keen inner sense, which neither the physiologists nor the psychologists have yet been able to define or to name, apprised him of a threat developing in the distant corner, but he resolutely ignored it, drank his coffee, and presently went his way around the peopled end of the building and back to the office entrance, meaning to go above stairs and put in another hour with Grady before he should decide definitely about making the night run to Little Butte.

His foot was on the threshold of the stairway door when Judson overtook him.

"Mac told me to report to you when I couldn't get at him," the ex-engineman began abruptly. "There's something hatching, but I can't find out what it is. Are you thinking about goin' out on the road anywhere to-night, Mr. Lidgerwood?"

Lidgerwood's decision was taken on the instant.

"Yes; I think I shall go west in my car in an hour or so. Why?"

"There ain't any 'why,' I guess, if you feel like goin'. But what I don't savvy is why them fellows back yonder in the waitin'-room are so dead anxious to find out if you are goin'."

As he spoke, a man who had been skulking behind a truck-load of express freight, so near that he could have touched either of them with an out-stretched arm, withdrew silently in the direction of the lunch-room. He was a tall man with stooping shoulders, and his noiseless retreat was cautiously made, yet not quite cautiously enough, since Judson's sharp eyes marked the shuffling figure vanishing in the shadow cast by the over-hanging shelter roof of the station.

"By cripes!-look at that, will you?" he exclaimed, pointing to the retreating figure. "That's Hallock, and he was listening!"

Lidgerwood shook his head.

"No, that isn't Hallock," he denied. And then, with a bit of the man-driving rasp in his voice: "See here, Judson, don't you let McCloskey's prejudices run away with you; make a memorandum of that and paste it in your hat. I know what you have been instructed to do, and I have given my consent, but it is with the understanding that you will be at least as fair as you would be if McCloskey's bias happened to run the other way. I don't want you to make a case against Hallock unless you can get proof positive that he is disloyal to the company and to me; and I'll tell you here and now that I shall be much better pleased if you can bring me the assurance that he is a true man."

"But that was Hallock," insisted Judson, "or else it was his livin' double."

"No; follow him and you'll see for yourself. It was more like that Ruby Gulch operator who quit in a quarrel with McCloskey a week or two ago. What is his name?-Sheffield."

Judson hastened down the platform to satisfy himself, and Lidgerwood mounted the stair to his office. Grady was still pounding the keys of the type-writer on the batch of letters given him in the busy hour following his return from supper, and the superintendent turned his back upon the clicking activities and went to stand at the window, from which he could look down upon the platform with the waiting passenger-train drawn up beside it.

Seeing the cheerful lights in the side-tracked Nadia, he fell to thinking of Eleanor, opening the door of conscious thought to her and saying to himself that she was never more than a single step beyond the threshold of that door. Looking across to the Nadia, he knew now why he had hesitated so long before deciding to go on the night trip to Timanyoni Park. Chilled hearts follow the analogy of cold hands. When the fire is near, a man will go and spread his fingers to the blaze, though he may be never so well assured that they will ache for it afterward.

But with this thought came another and a more manly one-the woman he loved was in Angels, and she would doubtless remain in Angels or its immediate vicinity for some time; that was unpreventable; but he could still resolve that there should not be a repetition of the old tragedy of the moth and the candle. It was well that at the very outset a duty call had come to enable him to break the spell of her nearness, and it was also well that he had decided not to disregard it.

The train conductor's "All aboard!" shouted on the platform just below his window, drew his attention from the Nadia and the distracting thought of Eleanor's nearness. Train 205 was ready to resume its westward flight, and the locomotive bell was clanging musically. A half-grown moon, hanging low in the black dome of the night, yellowed the glow of the platform incandescents. The last few passengers were hurrying up the steps of the cars, and the conductor was swinging his lantern in the starting signal for the engineer.

At the critical moment, when the train was fairly in motion, Lidgerwood saw Hallock-it was unmistakably Hallock this time-spring from the shadow of a baggage-truck and whip up to the step of the smoker, and a scant half-second later he saw Judson race across the wide platform and throw himself like a self-propelled projectile against and through the closing doors of the vestibule at the forward end of the sleeper.

Judson's dash and his capture of the out-going train were easily accounted for: he had seen Hallock. But where was Hallock going? Lidgerwood was still asking himself the question half-abstractedly when he crossed to his desk and touched the buzzer-push which summoned an operator from the despatcher's room.

"Wire Mr. Pennington Flemister, care of Goodloe, at Little Butte, that I am coming out with my car, and should be with him by eleven o'clock. Then call up the yard office and tell Matthews to let me have the car and engine by eight-thirty, sharp," he directed.

The operator made a note of the order and went out, and the superintendent settled himself in his desk-chair for another hour's hard work with the stenographer. At twenty-five minutes past eight he heard the wheel-grindings of the up-coming service-car, and the weary short-hand man snapped a rubber band upon the notes of the final letter.

"That's all for to-night, Grady, and it's quite enough," was the superintendent's word of release. "I'm sorry to have to work you so late, but I'd like to have those letters written out and mailed before you lock up. Are you good for it?"

"I'm good for anything you say, Mr. Lidgerwood," was the response of the one who was loyal to his salt, and the superintendent put on his light coat and went out and down the stair.

At the outer door he turned up the long platform, instead of down, and walked quickly to the Nadia, persuading himself that he must, in common decency, tell the president that he was going away; persuading himself that it was this, and not at all the desire to warm his hands at the ungrateful fire of Eleanor's mockery, that was making him turn his back for the moment upon the waiting special train.

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