HALFWAY up the barren hillside, like an excrescence on the face of a giant, perched the sheet-iron shack, with a half-obliterated sign, "Welch's Spur," forever creaking from an arm above the narrow door. When Lance Peckham realized that there was no other human habitation for miles around, he was tempted to jump the next freight east.
He supposed Superintendent Murchison had done his best for him; at least so he had declared. But telegraph berths on this division of the N. and P. were not going begging and Peckham needed the work; he couldn't imagine anything ever happening at this God-forsaken place, however.
Passenger trains never stopped here; it was scarcely a "whistling station." Some of the through day freights took advantage of the siding to dodge faster trains, on the schedule of which they had trespassed, and then the operator might visit with his kind. Aside from these trainmen, a wandering sheep-herder, or a band of boisterous cowboys riding in from the range, were about all of humanity he foregathered with for the first two months of his stay at Welch's Spur. A track-inspector passed twice a day, but hailed him with the Grand Sign of the Weather and sped on; his was only a shouting acquaintance with the operator as he rode by on his hand-cycle.
Then one day a party of cow-punchers returning from a frolic at Little Cross, thirty miles away, showed that they had not ridden off the effects of the red liquor, by trying to pitch the station on end. Finding that they could not easily do this, and as the frightened tenderfoot inside the shack threatened them with a gun which he dared not use, they backed off to the distance of thirty yards and used the station as a target.
Had the telegrapher noticed in his fright, he would have seen that the half-drunken fellows fired high. He was really in no danger as long as he did not stand up, even if a bullet pierced the sheathing at some weak point. But of a sudden there was a fusillade from the hillside above, and two pinto ponies and one befuddled cow-puncher dropped to the red earth. This was earnest.
Peckham threw open the door of the shack and ran out as the cowboys turned tail. Approaching the station on the down trail was a man riding a big gray horse. He tipped a smoking gun into its scabbard as he saw Peckham. "That'll be about all, sonny," he said cheerfully. "Got 'em on the run, didn't I? Don't happen to have a pipeful of 'backy handy, do ye? Somehow, these dern cigarettes don't fit my mouth."
This was Lance Peckham's first meeting with Groggins, out-herder of the Bar Z ranch. The Bar Z boys and the crowd Groggins had scattered were not on friendly terms, he explained trouble over water privileges. Groggins often came that way and grew quite friendly with the telegrapher at Welch's Spur. In those days Peckham would have struck up an acquaintance with a Digger Indian, so lonely was he. From the cowboy Groggins had "creased" he learned later that the Bar Z man was new to that range and had been brought there by the owner because he was a "fighter." Groggins was a notable shot and altogether a bad man to tackle, but the telegrapher saw only the lamb-like side of his character. The only difference between him and the other herders seemed to be that he preferred a pipe to cigarettes.
The man had an ingratiating way with him which drew, in time, many confidences from the young Easterner, although Lance often wondered why the herder was so uncommunicative himself. Groggins seemed to be interested in railroad matters, and the operator at Welch's Spur had all the enthusiasm of a newcomer for his business and was always ready to talk about the N. and P. system, and this division in particular. He had scratched up an acquaintance with several of the other operators along the line and knew pretty well what was going on.
Murchison was Peckham's beau-ideal of a railroad man; he was loud in his praises, despite the fact that the superintendent had planted him out on this side-hill and appeared to have forgotten him. Nevertheless, when a special with Murchison's Private car at its tail steamed into the siding at Welch's Spur early one evening to await the passing of the fast mail, Peckham determined to storm the citadel of the superintendent's car and ask for a transfer. It seemed a good chance to remind the super that he was alive! There was nothing likely to call him to his instrument at that hour and the train-crew were gathered in or about the engine-cab talking over some matter of general interest. Even the black porter who attended on Mr. Murchison was out of the way.
Peckham mounted boldly into the car, found the door to the main saloon open, and knocked lightly. The lamps had not been lit throughout the car, but there was one glowing globe hung above the superintendent's desk. Murchison looked over his shoulder impatiently.
"Well, what's wanted?" he asked.
"I - I beg your pardon, sir," stammered the young fellow. "Would you have a minute to spare before your train pulls out?"
"Who are you?" grunted Murchison, peering into the shadow.
"I'm the operator here at Welch's Spur."
"Ugh! Sit down there and wait a minute. I'll speak to you when I'm done with these."
The papers rustled again in the super's hands and he turned his back upon the diffident telegrapher. Peckham found a chair out of the way in the deeper shadow and sat down in silence. Several minutes passed. No sound came from the expected mail-train, and only the faint "breathing" of the engine's exhaust and the rustling of the papers broke the spell of the evening. Finally the superintendent threw down the documents and half-turned from his desk. He drew forth his watch impatiently - a big, nickel affair such as workmen carry, and still deep in thought began to twirl the crown of the stem-winder toward himself. It sounded like the clicking of a ratchet-bit, and the operator, sitting there in the darkness, wondered why the superintendent carried such a timepiece.
Suddenly there was a quick step on the platform of the car and a man entered with the swiftness of a shadow. He passed the telegrapher without suspecting his presence and came instantly to the superintendent's side. The latter uttered a faint ejaculation. The newcomer's back was toward Peckham, and Murchison's face was hidden from the telegrapher by the other's bulk. He could only hear them whispering sharply together.
In a moment, however, above the whispering, Lance Peckham heard the watch-stem crown being twirled between Murchison's thumb and finger again. "Odd he should carry a turnip like that. And why does he click it so? By thunder! That's as plain Morse as ever was!"
He started upright in the deep chair, but silently. The stranger still bent over the superintendent, whispering fiercely, his words hissing and low. The attitude of the man increased Peckham's amazement. The clicking of the watch-crown continued. The telegrapher rose silently but swiftly, stooping with ear strained to catch the clickety-click click.
It was made plain to him in a flash. Over and over the clicks spelled the same order in Morse, and that order he knew was addressed to him:
"Lock the door."
Peckham was light on his feet and withal quick. He slammed the door, snapped the key in the lock, and placed his back against the portal, all, it seemed, in one forward rush. A gun cracked sharply, filling the car with pungent smoke, and the bullet plowed the doorframe beside Peckham's ear. There followed a crash of broken glass. The stranger had fired once at Peckham and then, seizing a light chair, had flung it through the plate-glass window beside the superintendent's desk. The next instant he followed the chair out upon the cinder-path between the spur track and the main line.
Murchison rose up with a hoarse shout, whirled to his desk, grabbed a gun from a drawer, and leaped to the window. There his weapon popped several times, but to no purpose. The figure running across the track was out of sight in a half-minute, and then the clatter of a horse's hoofs rose above the shouts of the train crew running to the rescue.
"That's Hardress - Bill Hardress," the superintendent explained. "I saw him at his trial at Musquepaw two years ago. I'd heard he was out again. Plucky, by Jove! Think of his trying to pull off a hold-up right in this car, with you fellows so near. The rascal knew I had money with me. He'd have got it, too, if you hadn't been here, young fellow," he added, nodding to the excited operator. "Too bad we didn't capture him between us.
Say! you can read Morse all right by ear. I'll remember you, young man," added the superintendent.
Just then the expected mail-train came along and the special pulled out. Peckham had been too excited to make his request for a transfer from his lonely assignment, and the weeks went by without his hearing from divisional headquarters regarding any change. But the young fellow was loyal to Murchison, Groggins passed a sneering remark one day regarding him.
"No pluck?" repeated the operator, up in arms for his idol. "I reckon you don't know him. Tell you, he showed it the night that road-agent tried to hold him up in his car here," and he went on to relate the story.
Groggins listened with plain interest, but with a lowering brow. He seemed surprised at the part Peckham had taken in the affair. "So you were the chap who butted in, heh? " he asked.
"How'd you hear about it? " demanded Peckham.
"Pshaw! the story's all over the range. If Murchison had been worth his salt with a gun, he'd had that hold-up gent before he could go through the window."
"Do you know that fellow - that Hardress?"
"I know what kidney he is, all right," growled Groggins. "It ain't likely Mr. Murchison has seen the last of him." And that was his final word on the subject.
It was a week or two later that a sheriff's posse stopped a moment at the shack of the telegrapher to pass the time of day. There had been a hold-up on the stage-road to Little Cross, and they were out beating the ranges for the bold highwayman who accomplished it. Peckham put two and two together and figured that the man was the same one who had tried to rob Superintendent Murchison - Bill Hardress. He told Groggins about it the next time he rode down to the shack.
"And those fellows say he rode on a gray horse, some bigger than these cow-ponies," the operator said to his friend. Then he added, with a laugh: "See that you have an alibi all ready, Groggins; they'll spot that critter of yours for the same one."
The herder laughed; but after that he rode a pony and Peckham did not see the gray again. Groggins evidently thought it too conspicuous.
It was about this time that the N. and P. decided to build its branch from Hackett's to Devil's Bluff, and construction trains and box-cars of Italian shovelers, herded like cattle, passed Welch's Spur from the east every day. Hackett's was a hundred miles beyond Peckham's lonely station, but the new work helped to liven the time for the operator, for it gave him new interests.
Groggins was sitting in the shack one day when Peckham picked off the wire that the pay-car for the two thousand diggers and other workmen would go over the division the next week with Murchison's car attached, the superintendent intending hereafter to make a monthly and exhaustive inspection of the work. The special would have right of way climbing the grade past the spur, and Peckham figured down almost to the minute when it would pass his shack, he had learned the schedule of the road so well. But there was a breakdown on the line below Welch's on the day set for the super's run, and the special was held up until late in the afternoon.
It was mid-evening before the line was cleared and the trains were sent on in their order. The heavy double-ender passenger trains rumbled by the shack at the Spur, and then Peckham learned that Murchison had decided to push through with the pay-car that evening. The special was marked from the nearest telegraph station, twenty miles down the line.
Peckham had just got this fact off the wire and was about to call up his next neighbor west to pass along the information when he was startled by the "swish" of a hair-rope, and before he could rise or touch the key the loop of a lariat dropped over his head and shoulders, pinioning his arms tightly to his body. The cast had been made from behind him and through the one window of the shack. Instantly a strong pull dragged him from the stool and laid him in a helpless heap against the partition under the window, the rope having been made taut outside. Struggle and shout as he might, he was as helpless as a trussed fowl. The only clear thought he had was that it was a time of all others when he should be free and master of the telegraph key.
There was no diagram needed with this incident; it was easy to understand. This was a hold-up - one of the real strenuous kind of which he had heard and which he had once seen attempted on the superintendent himself. Murchison had given him an example of quick-witted self-possession; what could he, Lance Peckham, do to thwart this attempt upon the pay-car which, barring accident, would steam past Welch's Spur in something like forty-five minutes?
The thought of doing aught to balk the proposed crime seemed utterly futile. After his captor fastened the lariat outside the window, having pulled the loop so taut that Peckham thought he was being cut in two, he strode into the shack.
Instead of "chaps" which the cowboys and riders wore, this fellow sported a pair of military riding boots, riding breeches, a frieze jacket, and - a patch of black cloth fastened over his face through holes in which his eyes glittered.
The single lamp over the telegraph table showed the operator these features of the robber's appearance. Then the latter picked up the ax and with a single blow demolished the telegraph instrument. A bunch of lanterns in the corner next received his attention, and finally an upward swing of the ax knocked the lamp out of its bracket and smashed it. Then without a word the man departed and left Peckham to darkness and to his thoughts.
The situation for the operator was desperate and, apparently, quite hopeless. Should he be able to get free, there wasn't a lantern left with which to signal the train and he could not communicate with operators either east or west by wire.
Meanwhile, what was the robber doing? Was he single-handed? Did he intend to attempt the hold-up of the pay-car alone? Take a man like Groggins; he would have fought off and whipped a party of a dozen, while Lance Peckham, tenderfoot, had given in to one!
Suddenly, through the silence of the night (the low wind scarcely hummed through the tangle of telegraph wires above the station), Peckham heard the ring of metal against metal. He flung himself around with an agonizing wrench and gained a view of the switch through the doorway.
The signal-light showed him a figure at work with swinging ax on the mechanism of the switch. The light was set white, and the robber did not change it; but Peckham knew, while his heart throbbed with fear, that the man was setting a trap for the on-coming special.
The road past the station and for an eighth of a mile east and west was nearly level; the train, although surmounting the ridge, would gather speed here and swing in on the spur with considerable momentum. The engineer would be quite sure to see the danger before his pilot smashed into the buffer at the far end of the side track, but the train would be obliged to stop, and the robber evidently depended upon friends to help him loot the pay-car. He was merely preparing the way for the hold-up; his companions were keeping out of sight.
Lance Peckham writhed in his bonds until the pain almost deprived him of his senses. He wept and swore in a paroxysm of terror and despair. Could he do nothing to stop this crime? Finally he managed to raise himself to his knees, still hugged close against the partition by the tautness of the rope. Something gave a little and the terrible pressure upon his arms and body was slightly relieved. But when a hair rope is pulled tight, it is not an easy matter to loosen it.
It was lacking a few minutes only of the time for the train's expected passing, and he could plainly bear the engine's exhaust, when he had one arm free. He was out of the noose in a moment after that; yet he felt all but paralyzed because of the stagnated blood in his veins. He staggered to the door and looked out into the pitch-black night to behold a narrow band of light across his path. It was the gleam from the switch-lamp. If he stepped out of the shack he could be seen if the masked robber - or any of his friends were on the watch.
The thought of stopping a lead messenger with his own carcass made Peckham cringe. He was one of those unfortunate men who suffer from physical cowardice; the thought of pain and of bloodletting now sent him staggering and gasping to his knees. The narrow window would not permit of the exit of his body, and he positively could not cross that band of light which guarded the door. If he tried it, he knew that an unerring bullet would find some vital spot in his body!
And then, if he ventured out of the safety of the shack, if he ran that great personal risk, what good could he accomplish? A man might be encouraged to perform an heroic act if he could be sure of succeeding in thwarting evil.
But this was so hopeless! The night was dark, and he hadn't a lantern or a lamp. If he leaped to the track and ran east to stop the special, how could he make the engineer see him?
For a minute or two it seemed to Peckham that any man who would do otherwise than crouch on the floor of the shack and save his own precious hide would he an unmitigated ass! Suddenly, borne to his ears on the night-wind, came the mournful "hoo-hoo-hoo!" of the engine-whistle, like a cry in the night! It was almost human, that sound, like a fellow being calling for his aid.
"Good Lord!" groaned the operator. "I've got to do something."
He fumbled around the shack on all fours, but every lantern had been smashed. He only succeeded in cutting his hand. At last he found the oil-can and the next moment was scared almost breathless by having his cot-bed, which had stood upright against the wall, fall upon him. Exultation followed fear. Corded to the cot was a mattress of straw or excelsior; he dragged out his knife and quickly ripped this sack from the framework of the cot. Then he slashed open the sack itself and knocking out the stopper of the oil-can, turned its contents into the inflammable material with which the sack was stuffed. Then he dragged it to the doorway.
Again that bar of light balked him. How could he pass it without receiving a handful of lead pellets where they wouldn't do him a bit of good? A man is frequently first stunned by the approach of peril, and then stimulated. Peckham's mind had reached the second stage. Instantly he stood the narrow mattress up beside the doorway where its edge might be seen. It was the height of a man. As though it were himself hesitating a moment before venturing forth, the operator held the mattress poised for a second or two; then he thrust it forward.
"Pop! pop!" Two shots in quick succession; both made the mattress jump. Peckham let it fall forward across the narrow platform, and in the half light the mattress had the appearance of a falling man. Without waiting for the enemy to recover from any surprise he might feel, and for the sake of drowning his own fright in action, Peckham, still crouching close to the platform, darted through the door and across the bar of lamplight. Another shot was fired but it was a second too late and rang upon the sheet iron. Grabbing the oil-soaked mattress with one hand, the operator leaped away along the track toward the approaching train.
The headlight was not yet in view, luckily for him. The darkness was all that saved him, for shot after shot followed him as he ran. At last, when he felt the breath of a bullet parting his hair, he knew that he was on the verge of panic again. He dropped the mattress and crouched above it an instant with his back to the enemy. The sound of voices and running men came from behind, but he drew the match across the metal box he carried and dropped it into the nest of oil-saturated fuel.
Then he leaped away like lightning, but the flame shot up so quickly that one of his pursuers marked him out, and Peckham felt a burning sensation through the fleshy part of his left arm as he ran on in the darkness. But in the middle of the track the mattress burned more and more brightly, as the headlight of the special's locomotive suddenly shot into view. Somebody sprang upon the mattress and tried to stamp the fire out, but it was too late, and the robber leaped back again with a yell.
The column of flame brought the light train to a stop. Evidently the robbers were not prepared to make their raid, for they scattered in the darkness, and Peckham limped up to the group of surprised men on the platform of Murchison's car, the blood dripping from the fingers of his wounded arm. Then he told his story. The group armed themselves, warned the men in the pay-car, and sallied forward to look the spur track over. It was as Peckham believed; the switch had been set to side-track the train, although the signal was still white, and placed along the spur track were three capped dynamite bombs!
Somebody bound up Peckham's arm and he was taken along in the super's car. "As your instrument's smashed, there's nothing much you can do here till the repairs are made," Murchison said. "Besides, I'd darned near forgotten you. You seem determined to be mixed up in these hold-up jobs. I don't suppose this fellow you saw was Bill Hardress, was he?"
"Why, I didn't see him close enough before to tell what he looked like."
"That's so. And he didn't see you, of course. Otherwise, if it happened to be Bill who tried to pull off the little seance to-night, he wouldn't have bothered to tie you up. He'd have plugged you for old times' sake."
Peckham thought this very probable until, picking up the paper a week or two later while sitting before his idle key in a much pleasanter station than Welch's Spur, he saw that Bill Hardress had been arrested by the sheriff, and the progressive news-sheet had secured a picture of the bandit. " Groggins, of the Bar Z ranch, so help me Bob! " muttered Peckham.
When they came to him to go into court and identify the robber, as the man who led the hold-up gang at Welch's Spur, Peckham refused to commit himself.
"I couldn't see his face," he said, in excuse. "And, anyway, even if he did play me for a sucker, and get a lot of information out of me, he certainly was company when I'd have died of loneliness. And he held his hand when he might have been expected to knock me over; why shouldn't I hold mine?"