It was deep in the night when he closed his desk and went to the little room partitioned off in the rear of the private office as a sleeping-apartment. When he was preparing to go to bed, he noticed that the tiny relay on the stand at his bed’s head was silent. Afterward, when he tried to adjust the instrument, he found it ruined beyond repair. Some one had connected its wiring with the electric lighting circuit, and the tiny coils were fused and burned into solid little cylinders of copper.
Barton Rufford, ex-distiller of illicit whiskey in the Tennessee mountains, ex-welsher turned informer and betraying his neighbor law-breakers to the United States revenue officers, ex-everything which made his continued stay in the Cumberlands impossible, was a man of distinction in the Red Desert.
In the wider field of the West he had been successively a claim-jumper, a rustler of unbranded cattle, a telegraph operator in collusion with a gang of train-robbers, and finally a faro “lookout”: the armed guard who sits at the head of the gaming-table in the untamed regions to kill and kill quickly if a dispute arises.
Angels acknowledged his citizenship without joy. A cold-blooded murderer, with an appalling record; and a man with a temper like smoking tow, an itching trigger-finger, the eye of a duck-hawk, and cat-like swiftness of movement, he tyrannized the town when the humor was on him; and as yet no counter-bully had come to chase him into oblivion.
For Lidgerwood to have earned the enmity of this man was considered equivalent to one of three things: the superintendent would throw up his job and leave the Red Desert, preferably by the first train; or Rufford would kill him; or he must kill Rufford. Red Butte Western opinion was somewhat divided as to which horn of the trilemma the victim of Rufford’s displeasure would choose, all admitting that, for the moment, the choice lay with the superintendent. Would Lidgerwood fight, or run, or sit still and be slain? In the Angels roundhouse, on the second morning following the attempt upon Lidgerwood’s life at the gate of the Dawson cottage, the discussion was spirited, not to say acrimonious.
“I’m telling you hyenas that Collars-and-Cuffs ain’t going to run away,” insisted Williams, who was just in from the all-night trip to Red Butte and return. “He ain’t built that way.”
Lester, the roundhouse foreman, himself a man-queller of no mean repute, thought differently. Lidgerwood would, most likely, take to the high grass and the tall timber. The alternative was to “pack a gun” for Rufford—an alternative quite inconceivable to Lester when it was predicated of the superintendent.
“I don’t know about that,” said Judson, the discharged—and consequently momentarily sobered—engineer of the 271. “He’s fooled everybody more than once since he lit down in the Red Desert. First crack everybody said he didn’t know his business, ’cause he wore b’iled shirts: he does know it. Next, you could put your ear to the ground and hear that he didn’t have the sand to round up the maverick R.B.W. He’s doing it. I don’t know but he might even run a bluff on Bart Rufford, if he felt like it.”