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The Taming of Red Butte Western By Francis Lynde Characters: 22369

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Forty-two miles south-west of Angels, at a point where all further progress seems definitely barred by the huge barrier of the great mountain range, the Red Butte Western, having picked its devious way to an apparent cul-de-sac among the foot-hills and hogbacks, plunges abruptly into the echoing canyon of the Eastern Timanyoni.

For forty added miles the river chasm, throughout its length a narrow, tortuous crevice, with sheer and towering cliffs for its walls, affords a precarious footing for the railway embankment, leading the double line of steel with almost sentient reluctance, as it seems, through the mighty mountain barrier. At its western extremity the canyon forms the gate-way to a shut-in valley of upheaved hills and inferior mountains isolated by wide stretches of rolling grassland. To the eastward and westward of the great valley rise the sentinel peaks of the two enclosing mountain ranges; and across the shut-in area the river plunges from pool to pool, twisting and turning as the craggy and densely forested lesser heights constrain it.

Red Butte, the centre of the evanescent mining excitement which was originally responsible for the building of the railroad, lies high-pitched among the shouldering spurs of the western boundary range. Seeking the route promising the fewest cuts and fills and the easiest grades, Chandler, the construction chief of the building company, had followed the south bank of the river to a point a short distance beyond the stream-fronting cliffs of the landmark hill known as Little Butte; and at the station of the same name he had built his bridge across the Timanyoni and swung his line in a great curve for the northward climb among the hogbacks to the gold-mining district in which Red Butte was the principal camp.

Elsewhere than in a land of sky-piercing peaks and continent-cresting highlands, Little Butte would have been called a true mountain. On the engineering maps of the Red Butte Western its outline appears as a roughly described triangle with five-mile sides, the three angles of the figure marked respectively by Silver Switch, Little Butte station and bridge, and the Wire-Silver mine.

Between Silver Switch and the bridge station, the main line of the railroad follows the base of the triangle, with the precipitous bluffs of the big hill on the left and the torrenting flood of the Timanyoni on the right. Along the eastern side of the triangle, and leaving the main track at Silver Switch, ran the spur which had formerly served the Wire-Silver when the working opening of the mine had been on the eastern slope of the ridge-like hill. For some years previous to the summer of overturnings this spur had been disused, though its track, ending among a group of the old mine buildings five miles away, was still in commission.

Along the western side of the triangle, with Little Butte station for its point of divergence from the main line, ran the new spur, built to accommodate Flemister after he had dug through the hill, ousted the rightful owner of the true Wire-Silver vein, and had transferred his labor hamlet and his plant-or the major part of both-to the western slope of the butte, at this point no more than a narrow ridge separating the eastern and western gulches.

Train 205, with ex-engineer Judson apparently sound asleep in one of the rearward seats of the day coach, was on time when it swung out of the lower canyon portal and raced around the curves and down the grades in its crossing of Timanyoni Park. At Point-of-Rocks Judson came awake sufficiently to put his face to the window, with a shading hand to cut off the car lights; but having thus located the train's placement in the Park-crossing race, he put his knees up against the back of the adjoining seat, pulled his cap over his eyes, and to all outward appearances went to sleep again. Four or five miles farther along, however, there came a gentle grinding of brake-shoes upon the chilled wheel-treads that aroused him quickly. Another flattening of his nose against the window-pane showed him the familiar bulk of Little Butte looming black in the moonlight, and a moment later he had let himself silently into the rear vestibule of the day coach, and was as silently opening the folding doors of the vestibule itself.

Hanging off by the hand-rails, he saw the engine's headlight pick up the switch-stand of the old spur. The train was unmistakably slowing now, and he made ready to jump if the need should arise, picking his place at the track side as the train lights showed him the ground. As the speed was checked, Judson saw what he was expecting to see. Precisely at the instant of the switch passing, a man dropped from the forward step of the smoker and walked swiftly away up the disused track of the old spur. Judson's turn came a moment later, and when his end of the day coach flicked past the switch-stand he, too, dropped to the ground, and, waiting only until he could follow without being detected, set out after the tall figure, which was by that time scarcely more than an indistinct and retreating blur in the moonlight.

The chase led directly up the old spur, but it did not continue quite to the five-mile-distant end of it. A few hundred yards short of the stockade enclosing the old buildings the shadowy figure took to the forest and began to climb the ridge, going straight up, as nearly as Judson could determine. The ex-engineer followed, still keeping his distance. From the first bench above the valley level he looked back and down into the stockade enclosure. All of the old buildings were dark, but one of the two new and unpainted ones was brilliantly lighted, and there were sounds familiar enough to Judson to mark it as the Wire-Silver power-house. Notwithstanding his interest in the chase, Judson was curious enough to stand a moment listening to the sharply defined exhausts of the high-speeded steam-engine driving the generators.

"Say!" he ejaculated, under his breath, "if that engine ain't a dead match for the old 216 pullin' a grade, I don't want a cent! Double cylinder, set on the quarter, and choo-chooin' like it ought to have a pair o' steel rails under it. If I had time I'd go down yonder and break a winder in that power-shack; blamed if I wouldn't!"

But, unhappily, there was no time to spare; as it was, he had lingered too long, and when he came out upon the crest of the narrow ridge and attained a point of view from which he could look down upon the buildings clustering at the foot of the western slope, he had lost the scent. The tall man had disappeared as completely and suddenly as if the earth had opened and swallowed him.

This, in Judson's prefiguring, was a small matter. The tall man, whom the ex-engineer had unmistakably recognized at the moment of train-forsaking as Rankin Hallock, was doubtless on his way to Flemister's head-quarters at the foot of the western slope. Why he should take the roundabout route up the old spur and across the mountain, when he might have gone on the train to Little Butte station and so have saved the added distance and the hard climb, was a question which Judson answered briefly: for some reason of his own, Hallock did not wish to be seen going openly to the Wire-Silver head-quarters. Hence the drop from the train at Silver Switch and the long tramp up the gulch and over the ridge.

Forecasting it thus, Judson lost no time on the summit of mysterious disappearances. Choosing the shortest path he could find which promised to lead him down to the mining hamlet at the foot of the westward-fronting slope, he set his feet in it and went stumbling down the steep declivity, bringing up, finally, on a little bench just above the mine workings. Here he stopped to get his breath and his bearings. From his halting-place the mine head-quarters building lay just below him, at the right of the tunnel entrance to the mine. It was a long log building of one story, with warehouse doors in the nearer gable and lighted windows to mark the location of the offices at the opposite end.

Making a détour to dodge the electric-lighted tunnel mouth, Judson carefully reconnoitred the office end of the head-quarters building. There was a door, with steps giving upon the down-hill side, and there were two windows, both of which were blank to the eye by reason of the drawn-down shades. Two persons, at least, were in the lighted room; Judson could hear their voices, but the thick log walls muffled the sounds to an indistinct murmur. On the mountain-facing side of the building, which was in shadow, the ex-engineer searched painstakingly for some open chink or cranny between the logs, but there was no avenue of observation either for the eye or the ear. Just as he had made up his mind to risk the moonlight on the other side of the head-quarters, a sound like the moving of chairs on a bare floor made him dodge quickly behind the bole of a great mountain pine which had been left standing at the back of the building. The huge tree was directly opposite one of the windows, and when Judson looked again the figure of a man sitting in a chair was sharply silhouetted on the drawn window-shade.

Judson stared, rubbed his eyes, and stared again. It had never occurred to him before that the face of a man, viewed in blank profile, could differ so strikingly from the same face as seen eye to eye. That the man whose shadow was projected upon the window-shade was Rankin Hallock, he could not doubt. The bearded chin, the puffy lips, the prominent nose were all faithfully outlined in the exaggerated shadowgraph. But the hat was worn at an unfamiliar angle, and there was something in the erect, bulking figure that was still more unfamiliar. Judson backed away and stared again, muttering to himself. If he had not traced Hallock almost to the door of Flemister's quarters, there might have been room for the thin edge of the doubt wedge. The unfamiliar pose and the rakish tilt of the soft hat were not among the chief clerk's remembered characteristics; but making due allowance for the distortion of the magnified facial outline, the profile was Hallock's.

Having definitely settled for himself the question of identity, Judson renewed his search for some eavesdropping point of vantage. Risking the moonlight, he twice made the circuit of the occupied end of the building. There was a line of light showing under the ill-fitting door, and with the top step of the down-hill flight for a perching-place one might lay an ear to the crack and overhear. But door and steps were sharply struck out in the moonlight, and they faced the mining hamlet where the men of the day shift were still stirring.

Judson knew the temper of the Timanyoni miners. To be seen crouching on the boss's doorstep would be to take the chance of making a target of himself for the first loiterer of the day shift who happened to look his way. Dismissing the risky expedient, he made a third circuit from moon-glare to shadow, this time upon hands and knees. To the lowly come the rewards of humility. Framed level upon stout log pillars on the down-hill side, the head-quarters warehouse and

office sheltered a space beneath its floor which was roughly boarded up with slabs from the log-sawing. Slab by slab the ex-engineer sought for his rat-hole, trying each one softly in its turn. When there remained but three more to be tugged at, the loosened one was found. Judson swung it cautiously aside and wriggled through the narrow aperture left by its removal. A crawling minute later he was crouching beneath the loosely jointed floor of the lighted room, and the avenue of the ear had broadened into a fair highway.

Almost at once he was able to verify his guess that there were only two men in the room above. At all events, there were only two speakers. They were talking in low tones, and Judson had no difficulty in identifying the rather high-pitched voice of the owner of the Wire-Silver mine. The man whose profile he had seen on the window-shade had the voice which belonged to the outlined features, but the listener under the floor had a vague impression that he was trying to disguise it. Judson knew nothing about the letter in which Flemister had promised to arrange for a meeting between Lidgerwood and the ranchman Grofield. What he did know was that he had followed Hallock almost to the door of Flemister's office, and that he had seen a shadowed face on the office window-shade which could be no other than the face of the chief clerk. It was in spite of all this that the impression that the second speaker was trying to disguise his voice persisted. But the ex-engineer of fast passenger-trains was able to banish the impression after the first few minutes of eavesdropping.

Judson had scarcely found his breathing space between the floor timbers, and had not yet overheard enough to give him the drift of the low-toned talk, when the bell of the private-line telephone rang in the room above. It was Flemister who answered the bell-ringer.

"Hello! Yes; this is Flemister.... Yes, I say; this is Flemister; you're talking to him.... What's that?-a message about Mr. Lidgerwood?... All right; fire away."

"Who is it?" came the inquiry, in the grating voice which fitted, and yet did not fit, the man whom Judson had followed from his boarding of the train at Angels to Silver Switch, and from the gulch of the old spur to his disappearance on the wooded slope of Little Butte ridge.

The listener heard the click of the telephone ear-piece replacement.

"It's Goodloe, talking from his station office at Little Butte," replied the mine owner. "The despatcher has just called him up to say that Lidgerwood left Angels in his service-car, running special, at eight-forty, which would figure it here at about eleven, or a little later."

"Who is running it?" inquired the other man rather anxiously, Judson decided.

"Williams and Bradford. A fool for luck, every time. We might have had to écraser a couple of our friends."

The French was beyond Judson, but the mine-owner's tone supplied the missing meaning, and the listener under the floor had a sensation like that which might be produced by a cold wind blowing up the nape of his neck.

"There is no such thing as luck," rasped the other voice. "My time was damned short-after I found out that Lidgerwood wasn't coming on the passenger. But I managed to send word to Matthews and Lester, telling them to make sure of Williams and Bradford. We could spare both of them, if we have to."

"Good!" said Flemister. "Then you had some such alternative in mind as that I have just been proposing?"

"No," was the crusty rejoinder. "I was merely providing for the hundredth chance. I don't like your alternative."

"Why don't you?"

"Well, for one thing, it's needlessly bloody. We don't have to go at this thing like a bull at a gate. I've had my finger on the pulse of things ever since Lidgerwood took hold. The dope is working all right in a purely natural way. In the ordinary run of things, it will be only a few days or weeks before Lidgerwood will throw up his hands and quit, and when he goes out, I go in. That's straight goods this time."

"You thought it was before," sneered Flemister, "and you got beautifully left." Then: "You're talking long on 'naturals' and the 'ordinary run of things,' but I notice you schemed with Bart Rufford to put him out of the fight with a pistol bullet!"

Judson felt a sudden easing of strains. He had told McCloskey that he would be willing to swear to the voice of the man whom he had overheard plotting with Rufford in Cat Biggs's back room. Afterward, after he had sufficiently remembered that a whiskey certainty might easily lead up to a sober perjury, he had admitted the possible doubt. But now Flemister's taunt made assurance doubly sure. Moreover, the arch-plotter was not denying the fact of the conspiracy with "The Killer." "Rufford is a blood-thirsty devil-like yourself," the other man was saying calmly. "As I have told you before, I've discovered Lidgerwood's weakness-he can't call a sudden bluff. Rufford's play-the play I told him to make-was to get the drop on him, scare him up good, and chase him out of town-out of the country. He overran his orders-and went to jail for it."

"Well?" said the mine-owner.

"Your scheme, as you outlined it to me in your cipher wire this afternoon, was built on this same weakness of Lidgerwood's, and I agreed to it. As I understood it, you were to toll him up here with some lie about meeting Grofield, and then one of us was to put a pistol in his face and bluff him into throwing up his job. As I say, I agreed to it. He'll have to go when the fight with the men gets hot enough; but he might hold on too long for our comfort."

"Well?" said Flemister again, this time more impatiently, Judson thought.

"He queered your lay-out by carefully omitting to come on the passenger, and now you propose to fall back upon Rufford's method. I don't approve."

Again the mine-owner said "Why don't you?" and the other voice took up the question argumentatively.

"First, because it is unnecessary, as I have explained. Lidgerwood is officially dead, right now. When the grievance committees tell him what has been decided upon, he will put on his hat and go back to wherever it was that he came from."

"And secondly?" suggested Flemister, still with the nagging sneer in his tone.

There was a little pause, and Judson listened until the effort grew positively painful.

"The secondly is a weakness of mine, you'll say, Flemister. I want his job; partly because it belongs to me, but chiefly because if I don't get it a bunch of us will wind up breaking stone for the State. But I haven't anything against the man himself. He trusts me; he has defended me when others have tried to put him wise; he has been damned white to me, Flemister."

"Is that all?" queried the mine-owner, in the tone of the prosecuting attorney who gives the criminal his full length of the rope with which to hang himself.

"All of that part of it-and you are saying to yourself that it is a good deal more than enough. Perhaps it is; but there is still another reason for thinking twice before burning all the bridges behind us. Lidgerwood is Ford's man; if he throws up his job of his own accord, I may be able to swing Ford into line to name me as his successor. On the other hand, if Lidgerwood is snuffed out and there is the faintest suspicion of foul play.... Flemister, I'm telling you right here and now that that man Ford will neither eat nor sleep until he has set the dogs on us!"

There was another pause, and Judson shifted his weight cautiously from one elbow to the other. Then Flemister began, without heat and equally without compunction. The ex-engineer shivered, as if the measured words had been so many drops of ice-water dribbling through the cracks in the floor to fall upon his spine.

"You say it is unnecessary; that Lidgerwood will be pushed out by the labor fight. My answer to that is that you don't know him quite as well as you think you do. If he's allowed to live, he'll stay-unless somebody takes him unawares and scares him off, as I meant to do to-night when I wired you. If he continues to live, and stay, you know what will happen, sooner or later. He'll find you out for the double-faced cur that you are-and after that, the fireworks."

At this the other voice took its turn at the savage sneering.

"You can't put it all over me that way, Flemister; you can't, and, by God, you sha'n't! You're in the hole just as deep as I am, foot for foot!"

"Oh, no, my friend," said the cooler voice. "I haven't been stealing in car-load lots from the company that hires me; I have merely been buying a little disused scrap from you. You may say that I have planned a few of the adverse happenings which have been running the loss-and-damage account of the road up into the pictures during the past few weeks-possibly I have; but you are the man who has been carrying out the plans, and you are the man the courts will recognize. But we're wasting time sitting here jawing at each other like a pair of old women. It's up to us to obliterate Lidgerwood; after which it will be up to you to get his job and cover up your tracks as you can. If he lives, he'll dig; and if he digs, he'll turn up things that neither of us can stand for. See how he hangs onto that building-and-loan ghost. He'll tree somebody on that before he's through, you mark my words! And it runs in my mind that the somebody will be you."

"But this trap scheme of yours," protested the other man; "it's a frost, I tell you! You say the night passenger from Red Butte is late. I know it's late, now; but Cranford's running it, and it is all down-hill from Red Butte to the bridge. Cranford will make up his thirty minutes, and that will put his train right here in the thick of things. Call it off for to-night, Flemister. Meet Lidgerwood when he comes and tell him an easy lie about your not being able to hold Grofield for the right-of-way talk."

Judson heard the creak and snap of a swing-chair suddenly righted, and the floor dust jarred through the cracks upon him when the mine-owner sprang to his feet.

"Call it off and let you drop out of it? Not by a thousand miles, my cautious friend! Want to stay here and keep your feet warm while I go and do it? Not on your tintype, you yapping hound! I'm about ready to freeze you, anyway, for the second time-mark that, will you?-for the second time. No, keep your hands where I can see 'em, or I'll knife you right where you sit! You can bully and browbeat a lot of railroad buckies when you're playing the boss act, but I know you! You come with me or I'll give the whole snap away to Vice-President Ford. I'll tell him how you built a street of houses in Red Butte out of company material and with company labor. I'll prove to him that you've scrapped first one thing and then another-condemned them so you might sell them for your own pocket. I'll--"

"Shut up!" shouted the other man hoarsely. And then, after a moment that Judson felt was crammed to the bursting point with murderous possibilities: "Get your tools and come on. We'll see who's got the yellows before we're through with this!"

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