Chapter XXXI
 

Having dispatched the Black Minorca to hold up the work until the arrival of reinforcements, Colonel Pennington fairly burned the streets en route to his home. He realized that there would be no more sleep for him that night, and he was desirous of getting into a heavy ulster before venturing forth again into the night air.

The violent slam with which he closed the front door after him brought Shirley, in dressing-gown and slippers, to the staircase.

"Uncle Seth!" she called.

"Here!" he replied from the hall below.

"What's the matter?"

"There's the devil to pay," he answered. "That fellow Cardigan is back of the N.C.O., after all, and he and Ogilvy have a gang of fifty men down at the intersection of Water and B streets, cutting in a jump-crossing of our line."

He dashed into the living room, and she heard him calling frantically into the telephone.

"At last!" she murmured, and crept down the stairs, pausing behind the heavy portieres at the entrance to the living room.

"That you, Poundstone?" she heard him saying rapidly into the transmitter. "Pennington speaking. Young Bryce Cardigan is behind that N.C.O. outfit, and it's a logging-road and not intended to build through to Grant's Pass at all. Cardigan and Ogilvy are at Water and B streets this very instant with a gang of fifty men cutting in a jump-crossing of my line, curse them! They'll have it in by six o'clock to-morrow morning if something isn't done--and once they get it in, the fat's in the fire.

"Telephone the chief of police and order him to take his entire force down there, if necessary, and stop that work. To blazes with that temporary franchise! You stop that work for two hours, and I'll do the rest. Tell the chief of police not to recognize that temporary franchise. He can be suspicious of it, can't he, and refuse to let the work go on until he finds you? And you can be hard to find for two hours, can you not? Delay, delay, man! That's all I want... Yes, yes, I understand. You get down about daylight and roast the chief of police for interfering, but in the meantime!... Thank you, Poundstone, thank you. Good-bye."

He stood at the telephone, the receiver still held to his ear and his right forefinger holding down the hook while the line cleared. When he spoke again, Shirley knew he was calling his mill-office. He got a response immediately, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour.

"Sexton? Pennington speaking. I've sent over the Black Minorca with a rifle and sixty rounds of ammunition... What? You can hear him shooting already? Bully boy with a crockery eye! He'll clean that gang out and keep them from working until the police arrive. You've telephoned Rondeau, have you?... Good! He'll have his men waiting at the log-landing, and there'll be no delay. As soon as you've seen the switch-engine started for the woods, meet me down at Water and B streets. Sexton, we've got to block them. It means a loss of millions to me if we fail!"

Shirley was standing in the doorway as he faced about from the telephone. "Uncle Seth," she said quietly, "use any honourable method of defeating Bryce Cardigan, but call off the Black Minorca. I shall hold you personally responsible for Bryce Cardigan's life, and if you fail me, I shall never forgive you."

"Silly, silly girl!" he soothed her. "Don't you know I would not stoop to bush-whacking? There's some shooting going on, but its wild shooting, just to frighten Cardigan and his men off the job."

"You can't frighten him," she cried passionately, "You know you can't. He'll kill the Black Minorca, or the Black Minorca will kill him. Go instantly and stop it."

"All right, all right!" he said rather humbly, and sprang down the front steps into the waiting car. "I'll play the game fairly, Shirley, never fear."

She stood in the doorway and watched the red tail-light, like a malevolent eye, disappear down the street. And presently as she stood there, down the boulevard a huge gray car came slipping noiselessly-- so noiselessly, in fact, that Shirley recognized it by that very quality of silence. It was Bryce Cardigan's Napier.

"George!" she called. "Come here."

The car slid over to the gate and stopped at the sight of the slim white figure running down the garden walk.

"Is Mr. Cardigan hurt?" she demanded in an agony of suspense.

George Sea Otter grunted contemptuously. "Nobody hurt 'cept the Black Minorca. I am taking him to your company hospital, miss. He tried to shoot my boss, so I shoot him myself once through the leg. Now my boss says: 'Take him to the Laguna Grande hospital, George.' Me, I would drop this greaser in the bay if I was the boss."

She laughed hysterically. "On your way back from the hospital stop and pick me up, George," she ordered. "This senseless feud has gone far enough. I must stop it--at once."

He touched his broad hat, and she returned to the house to dress.

Meanwhile Colonel Pennington had reached the crossing once more, simultaneously with the arrival of Sam Perkins, the chief of police, accompanied by two automobiles crammed with patrolmen. Perkins strutted up to Bryce Cardigan and Buck Ogilvy.

"What's the meaning of all this row, Mr. Cardigan?" he demanded.

"Something has slipped, Sam," Bryce retorted pleasantly. "You've been calling me Bryce for the past twenty years, and now you're mistering me! The meaning of this row, you ask?" Bryce continued. "Well, I'm engaged in making a jump-crossing of Colonel Pennington's tracks, under a temporary franchise granted me by the city of Sequoia. Here's the franchise." And he thrust the document under the police chief's nose.

"This is the first I've heard about any franchise," Sam Perkins replied suspiciously. "Seems to me you been mighty secret about this job. How do I know this ain't a forgery?"

"Call up the mayor and ask him," Bryce suggested.

"I'll do that," quoth Mr. Perkins ponderously. "And in the meantime, don't do any more digging or rail-cutting." He hurried away to his automobile, leaving a lieutenant in charge of the squad.

"Also in the meantime, young man," Colonel Pennington announced, "you will pardon me if I take possession of my locomotive and flat-cars. I observe you have finished unloading those rails."

"Help yourself, Colonel," Bryce replied with an assumption of heartiness he was far from feeling.

"Thank you so much, Cardigan." With the greatest good nature in life, Pennington climbed into the cab, reached for the bell-cord, and rang the bell vigorously. Then he permitted himself a triumphant toot of the whistle, after which he threw off the air and gently opened the throttle. He was not a locomotive-engineer but he had ridden in the cab of his own locomotive and felt quite confident of his ability in a pinch.

With a creak and a bump the train started, and the Colonel ran it slowly up until the locomotive stood on the tracks exactly where Buck Ogilvy had been cutting in his crossing; whereupon the Colonel locked the brakes, opened his exhaust, and blew the boiler down. And when the last ounce of steam had escaped, he descended and smilingly accosted Bryce Cardigan.

"That engine being my property," he announced, "I'll take the short end of any bet you care to make, young man, that it will sit on those tracks until your temporary franchise expires. I'd give a good deal to see anybody not in my employ attempt to get up steam in that boiler until I give the word. Cut in your jump-crossing now, if you can, you whelp, and be damned to you. I've got you blocked!"

"I rather imagine this nice gentleman has it on us, old dear," chirped Buck Ogilvy plaintively. "Well! We did our damndest, which angels can't do no more. Let us gather up our tools and go home, my son, for something tells me that if I hang around here I'll bust one of two things--this sleek scoundrel's gray head or one of my bellicose veins! Hello! Whom have we here?"

Bryce turned and found himself facing Shirley Sumner. Her tender lip was quivering, and the tears shone in her eyes like stars. He stared at her in silence.

"My friend," she murmured tremulously, "didn't I tell you I would not permit you to build the N.C.O.?"

He bowed his head in rage and shame at his defeat. Buck Ogilvy took him by the arm. "''Tis midnight's holy hour,'" he quoted, "'and silence now is brooding like a gentle spirit o'er a still and pulseless world.' Bryce, old chap, this is one of those occasions where silence is golden. Speak not. I'll do it for you. Miss Sumner," he continued, bowing graciously, "and Colonel Pennington," favouring that triumphant rascal with an equally gracious bow, "we leave you in possession of the field--temporarily. However, if anybody should drive up in a hack and lean out and ask you, just tell him Buck Ogilvy has another trump tucked away in his kimono."

Bryce turned to go, but with a sudden impulse Shirley laid her hand on his arm--his left arm. "Bryce!" she murmured.

He lifted her hand gently from his forearm, led her to the front of the locomotive, and held her hand up to the headlight. Her fingers were crimson with blood.

"Your uncle's killer did that, Shirley," he said ironically. "It's only a slight flesh-wound, but that is no fault of your allies. Good- night."

And he left her standing, pale of face and trembling, in the white glare of the headlight.