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Bucky O'Connor: A Tale of the Unfenced Border By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 18400

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"Hands up!"

There was a ring of crisp menace in the sinister voice that was a spur to obedience. The unanimous show of hands voted "Aye" with a hasty precision that no amount of drill could have compassed.

It was a situation that might have made for laughter had there been spectators to appreciate. But of whatever amusement was to be had one of the victims seemed to hold a monopoly. Collins, his arm around the English children by way of comfort, offered a sardonic smile at the consternation his announcement and its fulfillment had created, but none of his fellow passengers were in the humor to respond.

The shock of an earthquake could not have blanched ruddy faces more surely. The Chicago drummer, fat and florid, had disappeared completely behind a buttress of the company's upholstery.

"God bless my soul!" gasped the Pekin-Bostonian, dropping his eyeglass and his accent at the same moment. The dismay in his face found a reflection all over the car. Miss Wainwright's hand clutched at her breast for an instant, and her color ebbed till her lips were ashen, but her neighbor across the aisle noticed that her eyes were steady and her figure tense.

"Scared stiff, but game," was his mental comment.

"Gents to the right and ladies to the left; line up against the walls; everybody waltz." called the man behind the guns, with grim humor.

The passengers fell into line as directed, Collins with the rest.

"You're calling this dance, son; it's your say-so, I guess," he conceded.

"Keep still, or I'll shoot you full of holes," growled the autocrat of the artillery.

"Why, sure! Ain't you the real thing in Jesse Jameses?" soothed the sheriff.

At the sound of Collins' voice, the masked man had started perceptibly, and his right hand had jumped forward an inch or two to cover the speaker more definitely. Thereafter, no matter what else engaged his attention, the gleaming eyes behind the red bandanna never wandered for a moment from the big plainsman. He was taking no risks, for he remembered the saying current in Arizona, that after Collins' hardware got into action there was nothing left to do but plant the deceased and collect the insurance. He had personal reasons to know the fundamental accuracy of the colloquialism.

The train-conductor fussed up to the masked outlaw with a ludicrous attempt at authority. "You can't rob the passengers on this train. I'm not responsible for the express-car, but the coaches-"

A bullet almost grazed his ear and shattered a window on its way to the desert.

"Drift, you red-haired son of a Mexican?" ordered the man behind the red bandanna. "Git back to that seat real prompt. This here's taxation without representation."

The conductor drifted as per suggestion.

The minutes ticked themselves away in a tense strain marked by pounding hearts. The outlaw stood at the end of the aisle, watching the sheriff alertly.

"Why doesn't the music begin?" volunteered Collins, by way of conversation, and quoted: "On with the dance. Let joy be unconfined."

A dull explosion answered his question. The bandits were blowing open the safe in the express-car with dynamite, pending which the looting of the passengers was at a standstill.

A second masked figure joined his companion at the end of the passage and held a hurried conversation with him. Fragments of their low-voiced talk came to Collins.

"Only thirty thousand in the express-car. Not a red cent on the old man himself."

"Where's the rest?" The irritation in the newcomer's voice was pronounced.

Collins slewed his head and raked him with keen eyes that missed not a detail. He was certain that he had never seen the man before, yet he knew at once that the trim, wiry figure, so clean of build and so gallant of bearing, could belong only to Wolf Leroy, the most ruthless outlaw of the Southwest. It was written in his jaunty insolence, in the flashing eyes. He was a handsome fellow, white-toothed, black-haired, lithely tigerish, with masterful mouth and eyes of steel, so far as one might judge behind the white mask he wore. Alert, cruel, fearless from the head to the heel of him, he looked the very devil to lead an enterprise so lawless and so desperate as this. His vigilant eyes swept contemptuously up and down the car, rested for a moment on the young woman in Section 3, and came back to his partner.

"Bah! A flock of sheep-tamest bunch of spring lambs we ever struck. I'll send Scott in to go through them. If anybody gets gay, drop him." And the outlaw turned on his heel.

Another of the highwaymen took his place, a stout, squat figure in the flannel shirt, spurs, and chaps of a cow-puncher. It took no second glance to tell Collins this bandy-legged fellow had been a rider of the range.

"Come, gentlemen, get a move on you," Collins implored. "This train's due at Tucson by eight o'clock. We're more than an hour late now. I'm holding down the job of sheriff in that same town, and I'm awful anxious to get a posse out after a bunch of train-robbers. So burn the wind, and go through the car on the jump. Help yourself to anything you find. Who steals my purse takes trash. 'Tis something, nothing. 'Twas mine; 'tis his. That's right, you'll find my roll in that left-hand pocket. I hate to have you take that gun, though. I meant to run you down with that same old Colt's reliable. Oh, well, just as you say. No, those kids get a free pass. They're going out to meet papa at Los Angeles, boys. See?"

Collins' running fire of comment had at least the effect of restoring the color to some cheeks that had been washed white and of snatching from the outlaws some portion of their sense of dominating the situation. But there was a veiled vigilance in his eyes that belied his easy impudence.

"That lady across the aisle gets a pass, too, boys," continued the sheriff. "She's scared stiff now, and you won't bother her, if you're white men. Her watch and purse are on the seat. Take them, if you want them, and let it go at that."

Miss Wainwright listened to this dialogue silently. She stood before them cool and imperious and unwavering, but her face was bloodless and the pulse in her beautiful soft throat fluttered like a caged bird.

"Who's doing this job?" demanded one of the hold-ups, wheeling savagely on the impassive officer "Did I say we were going to bother the lady? Who's doing this job, Mr. Sheriff?"

"You are. I'd hate to be messing the job like you-holding up the wrong train by mistake." This was a shot in the dark, and it did not quite hit the bull's-eye. "I wouldn't trust you boys to rob a hen-roost, the amateur way you go at it. When you get through, you'll all go to drinking like blue blotters. I know your kind-hell-bent to spend what you cash in, and every mother's son of you in the pen or with his toes turned up inside of a month."

"Who'll put us there?" gruffly demanded the bowlegged one.

Collins smiled at him with confidence superb "Mebbe I will-and if I don't Bucky O'Connor will-those of you that are left alive when you go through shooting each other in the back. Oh, I see your finish to a fare-you-well."

"Cheese it, or I'll bump you off." The first out law drove his gun into the sheriff's ribs.

"That's all right. You don't need to punctuate that remark. I line up with the sky-pilot and chew the cud of silence. I merely wanted to frame up to you how this thing's going to turn out. Don't come back at me and say I didn't warn you, sonnie."

"You make my head ache," snarled the bandy-legged outlaw sourly, as he passed down with his sack, accumulating tribute as he passed down the aisle with his sack, accumulating tribute as he went.

The red-kerchiefed robber whooped when they came to the car conductor. "Dig up, Mr. Pullman. Go way down into your jeans. It's a right smart pleasure to divert the plunder of your bloated corporation back to the people. What! Only fifty-seven dollars. Oh, dig deeper, Mr. Pullman."

The drummer contributed to the sack eighty-four dollars, a diamond ring, and a gold watch. His hands were trembling so that they played a tattoo on the sloping ceiling above him.

"What's the matter, Fatty? Got a chill?" inquired one of the robbers, as he deftly swept the plunder into the sack.

"For-God's sake-don't shoot. I have-a wife-and five children," he stammered, with chattering teeth.

"No race suicide for Fatty. But whyfor do they let a sick man like you travel all by his lone?"

"I don't know-I-Please turn that weapon another way."

"Plumb chuck full of malaria," soliloquized the owner of the weapon, playfully running its business end over the Chicago man's anatomy. "Shakes worse'n a pair of dice. Here, Fatty. Load up with quinine and whisky. It's sure good for chills." The man behind the bandanna gravely handed his victim back a dollar. "Write me if it cures you. Now for the sky-pilot. No white chips on this plate, parson. It's a contribution to the needy heathen. You want to be generous. How much do you say?"

The man of the cloth reluctantly said thirty dollars, a Lincoln penny, and a silver-plated watch inherited from his fathers. The watch was declined with

thanks, the money accepted without.

The Pullman porter came into the car under compulsion of a revolver in the hand of a fourth outlaw, one in a black mask. His trembling finger pointed out the satchel and suit-case of Major Mackenzie, and under orders he carried out the baggage belonging to the irrigation engineer. Collin observed that the bandit in the black mask was so nervous that the revolver in his hand quivered like an aspen in the wind. He was slenderer and much shorter than the Mexican, so that the sheriff decided he was a mere boy.

It was just after he had left that three shots in rapid succession rang out in the still night air.

The red-bandannaed one and his companion, who had apparently been waiting for the signal, retreated backward to the end of the car, still keeping the passengers covered. They flung rapidly two or three bullets through the roof, and under cover of the smoke slipped out into the night. A moment later came the thud of galloping horses, more shots, and, when the patter of hoofs had died away-silence.

The sheriff was the first to break it. He thrust his brown hands deep into his pockets and laughed-laughed with the joyous, rollicking abandon of a tickled schoolboy.

"Hysterics?" ventured the mining engineer sympathetically.

Collins wiped his eyes. "Call 'em anything you like. What pleases me is that the reverend gentleman should have had this diverting experience so prompt after he was wishing for it." He turned, with concern, to the clergyman. "Satisfied, sir? Did our little entertainment please, or wasn't it up to the mark?"

But the transported native of Pekin was game. "I'm quite satisfied, if you are. I think the affair cost you a hundred dollars or so more than it did me."

"That's right," agreed the sheriff heartily. "But I don't grudge it-not a cent of it. The show was worth the price of admission."

The car conductor had a broadside ready for him. "Seems to me you shot off your mouth more than you did that big gun of yours, Mr. Sheriff."

Collins laughed, and clapped him on the back. "That's right. I'm a regular phonograph, when you wind me up." He did not think it necessary to explain that he had talked to make the outlaws talk, and that he had noted the quality of their voices so carefully that he would know them again among a thousand. Also he had observed-other things-the garb of each of the men he had seen, their weapons, their manner, and their individual peculiarities.

The clanking car took up the rhythm of the rails as the delayed train plunged forward once more into the night. Again the clack of tongues, set free from fear, buzzed eagerly. The glow of the afterclap of danger was on them, and in the warm excitement each forgot the paralyzing fear that had but now padlocked his lips. Courage came flowing back into flabby cheeks and red blood into hearts of water.

At the next station the Limited stopped, and the conductor swung from a car before the wheels had ceased rolling and went running into the telegraph office.

"Fire a message through for me, Pat. The Limited has been held up," he announced.

"Held up?" gasped the operator.

"That's right. Get this message right through to Sabin. I'm not going to wait for an answer. Tell him I'll stop at Apache for further instructions."

With which the conductor was out again waving his lantern as a signal for the train to start. Sheriff Collins and Major Mackenzie had entered the office at his heels. They too had messages to send, but it was not until the train was already plunging into the night that the station agent read the yellow slips they had left and observed that both of them went to the same person.

"Lieutenant Bucky O'Connor, Douglas, Arizona," was the address he read at the top of each. His comment serves to show the opinion generally in the sunburned territory respecting one of its citizens.

"You're wise guys, gents, both of yez. This is shure a case for the leftenant. It's send for Bucky quick when the band begins to play," he grinned.

Sitting down, he gave the call for Tucson, preparatory to transmitting the conductor's message to the division superintendent. His fingers were just striking the first tap when a silken voice startled him.

"One moment, friend. No use being in a hurry."

The agent looked up and nearly fell from his stool. He was gazing into the end of a revolver held carelessly in the hand of a masked man leaning indolently on the counter.

"Whe-where did you come from?" the operator gasped.

"Kaintucky, but I been here a right smart spell. Why? You takin' the census?" came the drawling answer.

"I didn't hear youse come in."

"I didn't hear you come in, either," the man behind the mask mocked. But even as he spoke his manner changed, and crisp menace rang in his voice. "Have you sent those messages yet?"

"Wha-what messages?"

"Those lying on your desk. I say, have you sent them?"

"Not yet."

"Hand them over here."

The operator passed them across the counter without demur.

"Now reach for the roof."

Up shot the station agent's hands. The bandit glanced over the written sheets and commented aloud:

"Huh! One from the conductor and one from Mackenzie. I expected those. But this one from Collins is ce'tainly a surprise party. I didn't know he was on the train. Lucky for him I didn't, or mebbe I'd a-put his light for good and all. Friend, I reckon we'll suppress these messages. Military necessity, you understand." And with that he lightly tore up the yellow sheets and tossed them away.

"The conductor will wire when he reaches Apache," the operator suggested, not very boldly.

The outlaw rolled a cigarette deftly and borrowed a match. "He most surely will. But Apache is seventy miles from here. That gives us an extra hour and a half, and with us right now time is a heap more valuable than money. You may tell Bucky O'Connor when you see him that that extra hour and a half cinches our escape, and we weren't on the anxious seat any without it."

It may have been true, as the train robber had just said, that time was more valuable to him then than money, but if so he must have held the latter of singularly little value. For he sat him down on the counter with his back against the wall and his legs stretched full length in front of him and glanced over the Tucson Star in leisurely fashion, while Pat's arms still projected roofward.

The operator, beginning to get over his natural fright, could not withhold a reluctant admiration of this man's aplomb. There was a certain pantherish lightness about the outlaw's movements, a trim grace of figure which yet suggested rippling muscles perfectly under control, and a quiet wariness of eye more potent than words at repressing insurgent impulses. Certainly if ever there was a cool customer and one perfectly sure of himself, this was he.

"Not a thing in the Star to-day," Pat's visitor commented, as he flung it away with a yawn. "I'll let a thousand dollars of the express company's money that there will be something more interesting in it to-morrow."

"That's right," agreed the agent.

"But I won't be here to read it. My engagements take me south. I'll make a present to the great Lieutenant O'Connor of the information. We're headed south, tell him. And tell Mr. Sheriff Collins, too-happy to entertain him if he happens our way. If it would rest your hands any there's no law against putting them in your trousers pockets, my friend."

From outside there came a short sharp whistle. The man on the counter answered it, and slipped at once to the floor. The door opened, to let in another masked form, but one how different from the first! Here was no confidence almost insolent in its nonchalance. The figure was slight and boyish, the manner deprecating, the brown eyes shy and shrinking He was so obviously a novice at outlawry that fear sat heavy upon his shoulders. When he spoke, almost in a whisper, his teeth chattered.

"All ready, sir."

"The wires are cut?" demanded his leader crisply.

"Yes, sir."

"On both sides?"

"On both sides."

His chief relieved the operator of the revolver in his desk, broke it, emptied out the shells, and flung them through the window, then tossed the weapon back to its owner.

"You'll not shoot yourself by accident now," he explained, and with that he had followed his companion into the night.

There came to the station agent the sound of galloping horses, growing fainter, until a heavy silence seemed to fill the night. He stole to the door and locked it, pulled down the window blinds, and then reloaded his revolver with feverish haste. This done, he sat down before his keys with the weapon close at hand and frantically called for Tucson over and over again. No answer came to him, nor from the other direction when he tried that. The young bandit had told the truth. His companions had cut the wires and so isolated from the world for the time the scene of the hold-up. The agent understood now why the leader of the outlaws had honored him with so much of his valuable time. He had stayed to hold back the telegrams until he knew the wires were cut.

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