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   Chapter 23 THE CRUCIBLE

The Taming of Red Butte Western By Francis Lynde Characters: 15223

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Only Miss Brewster herself could have answered the question of her whereabouts at the exact moment of Van Lew's asking. She was left behind, standing aghast in the midst of tumults, on the platform of the Crow's Nest. Terrified, like the others, at the sudden outburst of violence, she had ventured from the car to look for Lidgerwood's messenger, and in the moment of frightened bewilderment the Nadia had been whisked away.

Naturally, her first impulse was to fly, and the only refuge that offered was the superintendent's office on the second floor. The stairway door was only a little distance down the platform, and she was presently groping her way up the stair, praying that she might not find the offices as dark and deserted as the lower story of the building seemed to be.

The light of the shop-yard fire, and that of the burning box-car nearer at hand, shone redly through the upper corridor windows, enabling her to go directly to the open door of the superintendent's office. But when she reached the door and looked within, the trembling terror returned and held her spell-bound, speechless, unable to move or even to cry out.

What she saw fitted itself to nothing real; it was more like a scene clipped from a play. Two masked men were covering with revolvers a third, who was tied helpless in a chair. The captive's face was ghastly and blood-stained, and at first she thought he was dead. Then she saw his lips move in curious twitchings that showed his teeth. He seemed to be trying to speak, but the ruffian at his right would not give him leave.

"This is where you pass out, Mr. Lidgerwood," the man was saying threateningly. "You give us your word that you will resign and leave the Red Butte Western for keeps, or you'll sit in that chair till somebody comes to take you out and bury you."

The twitching lips were controlled with what appeared to be an almost superhuman effort, but the words came jerkily.

"What would my word, extorted-under such conditions-be worth to you?"

Eleanor could hear, in spite of the terror that would not let her cry out or run for help. He was yielding to them, bargaining for his life!

"We'll take it," said the spokesman coolly. "If you break faith with us there are more than two of us who will see to it that you don't live long enough to brag about it. You've had your day, and you've got to go."

"And if I refuse?" Eleanor made sure that the voice was steadier now.

"It's this, here and now," grated the taller man who had hitherto kept silence, and he cocked his revolver and jammed the muzzle of it against the bleeding temple of the man in the chair.

The captive straightened himself as well as his bonds would let him.

"You-you've let the psychological moment go by, gentlemen: I-I've got my second wind. You may burn and destroy and shoot as you please, but while I'm alive I'll stay with you. Blaze away, if that's what you want to do."

The horror-stricken watcher at the door covered her face with her hands to shut out the sight of the murder. It was not until Lidgerwood's voice, calm and even-toned and taunting, broke the silence that she ventured to look again.

"Well, gentlemen, I'm waiting. Why don't you shoot?"

"Well, gentlemen, I'm waiting. Why don't you shoot? You are greater cowards than I have ever been, with all my shiverings and teeth-chatterings. Isn't the stake big enough to warrant your last desperate play? I'll make it bigger. You are the two men who broke the rail-joint at Silver Switch. Ah, that hits you, doesn't it?"

"Shut up!" growled the tall man, with a frightful imprecation. But the smaller of the two was silent.

Lidgerwood's grin was ghastly, but it was nevertheless a teeth-baring of defiance.

"You curs!" he scoffed. "You haven't even the courage of your own necessities! Why don't you pluck up the nerve to shoot, and be done with it? I'll make it still more binding upon you: if you don't kill me now, while you have the chance, as God is my witness I'll hang you both for those murders last night at Silver Switch. I know you, in spite of your flimsy disguise: I can call you both by name!"

Out in the yard the yellings and shoutings had taken on a new note, and the windows of the upper room were jarring with the thunder of incoming trains. Eleanor Brewster heard the new sounds vaguely: the jangle and clank of the trains, the quick, steady tramp of disciplined men, snapped-out words of command, the sudden cessation of the riot clamor, and now a shuffling of feet on the stairway behind her.

Still she could not move; still she was speechless and spell-bound, but no longer from terror. Her cousin-her lover-how she had misjudged him! He a coward? This man who was holding his two executioners at bay, quelling them, cowing them, by the sheer force of the stronger will, and of a courage that was infinitely greater than theirs?

The shuffling footsteps came nearer, and once again Lidgerwood straightened himself in his chair, this time with a mighty struggle that broke the knotted cords and freed him.

"I said I could name you, and I will!" he cried, springing to his feet. "You," pointing to the smaller man, "you are Pennington Flemister; and you," wheeling upon the tall man and lowering his voice, "you are Rankin Hallock!"

The light of the fire in the shop yard had died down until its red glow no longer drove the shadows from the corners of the room. Eleanor shrank aside when a dozen men pushed their way into the private office. Then, suddenly the electric lights went on, and a gruff voice said, "Drop them guns, you two. The show's over."

It was McCloskey who gave the order, and it was obeyed sullenly. With the clatter of the weapons on the floor, the door of the outer office opened with a jerk, and Judson thrust a hand-cuffed prisoner of his own capturing into the lighted room.

"There he is, Mr. Lidgerwood," snarled the engineer-constable. "I nabbed him over yonder at the fire, workin' to put it out, just as if he hadn't told his gang to go and set it!"

"Hallock!" exclaimed the superintendent, starting as if he had seen a ghost. "How is this? Are there two of you?"

Hallock looked down moodily. "There were two of us who wanted your job, and the other one needed it badly enough to wreck trains and to kill people, and to lead a lot of pig-headed trainmen and mechanics into a riot to cover his tracks."

Lidgerwood turned quickly. "Unmask those men, McCloskey."

It was the signal for a tumult. The tall man fought desperately to preserve his disguise, but Flemister's mask was torn off in the first rush. Then came a diversion, sudden and fiercely tragic. With a cry of rage that was like the yell of a madman, Hallock flung himself upon the mine-owner, beating him down with his manacled hands, choking him, grinding him into the dust of the floor. And when the avenger of wrongs was pulled off and dragged to his feet, Lidgerwood, looking past the death grapple, saw the figure of a woman swaying at the corridor door; saw the awful horror in her eyes. In the turning of a leaf he had fought his way to her.

"Good heavens, Eleanor!" he gasped. "What are you doing here?" and he faced her about quickly and led her into the corridor lest she should see the distorted features of the victim of Hallock's vengeance.

"I came-they took the car away, and I-I was left behind," she faltered. And then: "Oh, Howard! take me away; hide me somewhere! It's too horrible!"

There was a bull-bellow of rage from the room they had just left, and Lidgerwood hurried his companion into the first

refuge that offered, which chanced to be the trainmaster's room. Out of the private office and into the corridor came the taller of the two garroters, holding his mask in place as he ran, with McCloskey, Judson, and all but one or two of the others in hot pursuit.

Notwithstanding, the fugitive gained the stair and fell, rather than ran, to the bottom. There was the crash of a bursting door, a soldierly command of "Halt!" the crack of a cavalry rifle, and McCloskey came back, wiping his homely face with a bandanna.

"They got him," he said; and then, seeing Eleanor for the first time, his jaw dropped and he tried to apologize. "Excuse me, Miss Brewster; I didn't have the least idea you were up here."

"Nothing matters now," said Eleanor, pale to the lips. "Come in here and tell us about it. And-and-is mamma safe?"

"She's down-stairs in the Nadia, with the others-where I supposed you were," McCloskey began; but Lidgerwood heard the feet of those who were carrying Flemister's body from the chamber of horrors, and quickly shutting the door on sight and sounds, started the trainmaster on the story which must be made to last until the way was clear of things a woman should not see.

"Who was the tall man?" he asked. "I thought he was Hallock-I called him Hallock."

The trainmaster shook his head. "They're about the same build; but we were all off wrong, Mr. Lidgerwood-'way off. It's been Gridley: Gridley and his side-partner, Flemister, all along. Gridley was the man who jumped the passenger at Crosswater Hills, and took up the rail to ditch Clay's freight-with Hallock chasing him and trying to prevent it. Gridley was the man who helped Flemister last night at Silver Switch-with Hallock trying again to stop him, and Judson trying to keep tab on Hallock, and getting him mixed up with Gridley at every turn, even to mistaking Gridley's voice and his shadow on the window-curtain for Hallock's. Gridley was the man who stole the switch-engine and ran it over the old Wire-Silver spur to the mine to sell it to Flemister for his mine power-plant-they've got it boxed up and running there, right now. Gridley is the man who has made all this strike trouble, bossing the job to get you out and to get himself in, so he could cover up his thieveries. Gridley was the man who put up the job with Bart Rufford to kill you, and Judson mistook his voice for Hallock's that time, too. Gridley was--"

"Hold on, Mac," interrupted the superintendent; "how did you learn all this?"

"Part of it through some of his men, who have been coming over to us in the last half-hour and giving him away; part of it through Dick Rufford, who was keeping tab on him for the money he could squeeze out of him afterward."

"How did Rufford come to tell you?"

"Why, Bradford-that is-er-the two Ruffords started a little shooting match with Andy, and-m-m-well, Bart passed out for keeps, this time, but Dick lived long enough to tell Bradford a few things-for old cow-boy times' sake, I suppose. I'll never put it all over any man, again, as long as I live, Mr. Lidgerwood, after rubbing it into Hallock the way I did, when he was doing his level best to help us out. But it's partly his own fault. He wanted to play a lone hand, and he was scheming to get them both into the same frying-pan-Gridley and Flemister."

Lidgerwood nodded. "He had a pretty bitter grudge against Flemister."

"The worst a man could have," said McCloskey soberly. Then he added: "I've got a few thousand dollars saved up that says that Rankin Hallock isn't going to hang for what he did in the other room a few minutes ago. I knew it would come to that if the time ever ripened right suddenly, and I tried to find Judson to choke him off. But John got in ahead of me."

Lidgerwood switched the subject abruptly in deference to Eleanor's deep breathing.

"I must take Miss Brewster to her friends. You say the Nadia is back? Who moved it without orders?"

"Yes, she's back, all right, and Dawson is the man who comes in for the blessing. He wanted an engine-needed one right bad-and he couldn't wait to uncouple the car. It was Hallock who sent that message to Mr. Leckhard that we've been hearing so much about, and it was a beg for the loan of a few of Uncle Sam's boys from Fort McCook. Gridley got on to it through Dix, and he also cut us out of Mr. Leckhard's answer telling us that the cavalry boys were on 73. By Gridley's orders, the two Ruffords and some others turned an engine loose to run down the road for a head-ender with the freight that was bringing the soldiers. Dawson chased the runaway engine with the coupled-up Nadia outfit, caught it just in the nick of time to prevent a collision with 73, and brought it back. He's down in the car now, with one of the young women crying on his neck, and--"

Miss Brewster got up out of her chair, found she could stand without tottering, and said: "Howard, I must go back to mamma. She will be perfectly frantic if some one hasn't told her that I am safe. We can go now, can't we, Mr. McCloskey? The trouble is all over, isn't it?"

The trainmaster nodded gravely.

"It's over, all but the paying of the bills. That rifle-shot we heard a little spell ago settled it. No, he isn't dead"-this in answer to Lidgerwood's unspoken question-"but it will be a heap better for all concerned if he don't get over it. You can go down. Lieutenant Baldwin has posted his men around the shops and the Crow's Nest."

Together they left the shelter of the trainmaster's room, and passed down the dark stair and out upon the platform, where the cavalrymen were mounting guard. There was no word spoken by either until they reached the Nadia's forward vestibule, and then it was Lidgerwood who broke the silence to say: "I have discovered something to-night, Eleanor: I'm not quite all the different kinds of a coward I thought I was."

"Don't tell me!" she said, in keen self-reproach, and her voice thrilled him like the subtle melody of a passion song. "Howard, dear, I-I'm sitting in sackcloth and ashes. I saw it all-with my own eyes, and I could neither run nor scream. Oh, it was splendid! I never dreamed that any man could rise by the sheer power of his will to such a pinnacle of courage. Does that make amends-just a little? And won't you come to breakfast with us in the morning, and let me tell you afterward how miserable I've been-how I fairly nagged father into bringing this party out here so that I might have an excuse to-to--"

He forgot the fierce strife so lately ended; forgot the double victory he had won.

"But-but Van Lew," he stammered-"he told me that you-that he-" and then he took her in his arms and kissed her, while a young man with a bandaged head-a man who answered to the name of Jack Benson, and who was hastening up to get permission to go home to Faith Dawson-turned his back considerately and walked away.

"What were you going to say about Herbert?" she murmured, when he let her have breath enough to speak with.

"I was merely going to remark that he can't have you now, not if he were ten thousand times your accepted lover."

She escaped from his arms and ran lightly up the steps of the private car. And from the safe vantage-ground of the half-opened door she turned and mocked him.

"Silly boy," she said softly. "Can't you read print when it's large enough to shout at all the world? Herbert and Carolyn have been 'announced' for more than three months, and they are to be married when we get back to New York. That's all; good-night, and don't you dare to forget your breakfast engagement!"

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