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The Road Builders

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THE ROAD-BUILDERS


The M M Co]


"'there,' he cried, ... 'there, boys! that means red hills or bust.'" _Frontispiece_]


The Road-Builders


BY


SAMUEL MERWIN


AUTHOR OF "THE MERRY ANNE," JOINT AUTHOR OF "CALUMET 'K,'" "THE SHORT LINE WAR," ETC.


WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY F. B. MASTERS


TORONTO THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA, LTD. 1910


COPYRIGHT, 1905, BY THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.


Set up and electrotyped. Published October, 1905. Reprinted April, 1906.


Norwood Press J. S. Cushing & Co.--Berwick & Smith Co. Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.


_TO MY LITTLE SON_


NOTE


A part of this story was printed serially in _The SaturdayEvening Post_ under the title, "A Link in the Girdle."


CONTENTS


CHAPTER PAGE


I. YOUNG VAN ENGAGES A COOK 1 II. WHERE THE MONEY CAME FROM 22 III. AT MR. CARHART'S CAMP 37 IV. JACK FLAGG SEES STARS 66 V. WHAT THEY FOUND AT THE WATER-HOLE 97 VI. THE ROAD TO TOTAL WRECK 138 VII. THE SPIRIT OF THE JOB 185 VIII. SHOTS--AND A SCOUTING PARTY 219 IX. A SHOW-DOWN 246 X. WHAT TOOK PLACE AT RED HILLS 293


ILLUSTRATIONS


"'There,' he cried, ... 'there, boys! That means Red Hills or bust'" _Frontispiece_


FACING PAGE


"'It's all I have a right to give anybody'" 74


"'Eighty cents,' he muttered, 'and for how much work?'" 80


"'Well,' began the boss, looking him over, 'what kind of a cook are you?'" 98


"Wonderfully they held the pace" 114


"They went on in this way for nearly an hour" 120


"'Look here, Tiffany,' Carhart began, 'something's going to happen to this man Peet'" 142


"'You go back to your quarters'" 208


"... this trestle structure which was slowly crawling, like some monster centipede, across the sands of the La Paz" 240


"The cigarette dropped from Antonio's unnerved fingers" 244


"Charlie had not raised his revolver,--the muzzle still rested easily on the sill,--but it was pointing straight at Jack Flagg's heart" 310


THE ROAD-BUILDERS


CHAPTER I


YOUNG VAN ENGAGES A COOK


The S. & W. was hoping some day to build a large station with a steeland glass trainshed at Sherman. Indeed, a side elevation of thestructure, drawn to scale and framed in black walnut, had hung for anumber of years in the private office, away down east, of PresidentDaniel De Reamer. But that was to come in the day when Sherman shouldbe a metropolis; at present the steel of which it was to beconstructed still lay deep in the earth, unblasted, unsmelted, andunconverted; and the long, very dirty train which, at the time thisnarrative opens, was waiting to begin its westward journey, layexposed to the rays of what promised to be, by noon, the hottest sunthe spring had so far known. The cars were of an old, ill-ventilatedsort, and the laborers, who were packed within them like cattle in abox-car, had shed coats and even shirts, and now sat back, and gaspedand grumbled and fanned themselves with their caps, and steadily lostinterest in life.


Apparently there was some uncertainty back in the office of thesuperintendent. A red-faced man, with a handkerchief around his neck,ran out with an order; whereupon an engine backed in, coupled up tothe first car, and whistled impatiently. But they did not go. Half anhour passed, and the red-faced man ran out again, and the engineuncoupled, snorted, rang its bell, and disappeared whence it had come.


At length two men--Peet, the superintendent, and Tiffany, chiefengineer of the railroad--walked down the platform together, andaddressed a stocky man with a close-cut gray mustache and a fixedfrown, who stood beside the rear car.


"Peet says he can't wait any longer, Mr. Vandervelt," said Tiffany.


"Can't help that," replied Vandervelt.


"But you've got to help it!" cried Peet. "What are you waiting for,anyway?"


"If you think we're starting without Paul Carhart, you're mistaken."


"Carhart! Who is Carhart?"


"That's all right," Tiffany put in. "He's in charge of theconstruction."


"I don't care what he is! This train--"


He was interrupted by a sudden uproar in the car just ahead. A numberof Italians had chosen to enliven the occasion by attacking theMexicans, some of whom had unavoidably been assigned to this car.


Vandervelt left the railroad men without a word, bounded up the carsteps, and plunged through the door. The confusion continued for amoment, then died down. Another moment, and Vandervelt reappeared onthe platform.


Meanwhile Tiffany was talking to the superintendent.


"You've simply got to wait, Peet," said he. "The old man says thatCarhart must have a free hand. If he's late, there's a reason forit."


"The old man didn't say that to me," growled Peet; but he waited.


* * * * *


It would perhaps be difficult to find, in the history of Americanenterprise, an undertaking which demanded greater promptness inexecution than the present one; yet, absurdly enough, the cause of thedelay was a person so insignificant that, even for the purposes ofthis narrative, his name hardly matters. The name happened to be,however, Purple Finn, and he had been engaged for chief cook to thefirst division.


There was but one real hotel in the "city," which is to be known hereas Sherman, the half-dozen other places that bore the title of hotelbeing rather in the nature of a side line to the saloon and gamblingindustry. At this one, which was indicated by a projecting sign andthe words "Eagle, House," Carhart and his engineers were stopping."The Comma House," as the instrument men and stake men had promptlydubbed it, was not very large and not very clean, and the "razor back"hogs and their progeny had a way of sleeping in rows on and about thelow piazza. But it was, nevertheless, the best hotel in thatparticular part of the Southwest.


Finn, on the other hand, made his headquarters at one of the halfdozen, that one which was known to the submerged seven-eighths as"Murphy's." That Finn should be an enthusiastic patron of the poorman's club was not surprising, considering that he was an Irishplainsman of a culinary turn, and considering, too, that he was nowwinding up one of those periods between jobs, which begin in spacioushilarity and conclude with a taste of ashes in the mouth.


It was late afternoon. The chief was sitting in his room, before atable which was piled high with maps, blue-prints, invoices, andletters. All day long he had been sitting at this table, going overthe details of the work in hand. Old Vandervelt had reported that therails and bolts and ties and other necessaries were on the cars;Flint and Scribner had reported for their divisions; the statements ofthe various railroad officials had been examined, to make sure that nodetails were overlooked, for these would, sooner or later, bob up inthe form of misunderstandings; the thousand and one things which mustbe considered before the expedition should take the plunge into thedesert had apparently been disposed of. And finally, when the largeclock down in the office was announcing, with a preliminary rattle andclick, that it intended very shortly to strike the half-hour betweenfive and six, the chief pushed back his chair and looked up at hisengineers, who were seated about him--Old Van before him on a trunk;Scribner and Young Van beside him on the bed; John Flint, a thin,sallow man, astride the other chair, and Haddon on the floor with hisback against the wall.


"All accounted for, Paul, I guess," said Flint.


Carhart replied with a question, "How about those iron rods, John?"


"All checked off and packed on the train."


"Did you accept Doble and Dean's estimate for your oats?"


"Not much. Cut it down a third. It was altogether too much to carry.You see, I shall be only thirty-odd miles from Red Hills, once I getout there, and I don't look for any trouble keeping in touch."


"It's just as well," said Carhart. "The less you carry, the more roomfor us."


"Did those pots and kettles come, Gus?" Carhart asked, turning to theyounger Vandervelt, who was to act as his secretary and generalassistant.


"Yes; just before noon. They had been carried on to Paradise bymistake. I got them right aboard."


"And you were going to keep an eye on that cook. Where is he?"


Young Van hesitated, and an expression of chagrin came into his face.


"I'll look him up. He promised me last night that he wouldn't touchanother drop."


"Well--get your hands on him, and don't let go again."


Young Van left the room, and as he drew the door to after him he couldhear the chief saying: "Haddon, I wish you would find Tiffany andremind him that I'm counting on his getting around early to-night. I'mnot altogether satisfied with their scheme for supplying us." Andhearing this, he was more than ever conscious of his own small part inthis undertaking, and more than ever chagrined that he should proveunequal to the very small matter of keeping an eye on the cook. Atleast, it seemed a small matter, in view of the hundreds of problemsconcerning men and things which Paul Carhart was solving on this day.


The barkeeper at Murphy's, who served also in the capacity of nightclerk, proved secretive on the subject of Purple Finn--hadn't seen himall day--didn't know when he would be in. The young engineer thoughthe had better sit down to digest the situation. This suggested supper,and he ordered the best of Murphy's fare, and ate slowly andpondered. Seven o'clock came, but brought no hint of the cook'swhereabouts. Young Van gathered from the barroom talk that a bigoutfit had come into town from Paradise within the past hour or so,and incidentally that one of the outfit, Jack Flagg, was on thewarpath--whoever Jack Flagg might be. As he sat in a rear corner,watching, with an assumption of carelessness, the loafers andplainsmen and gamblers who were passing in and out, or were, likehimself, sitting at the round tables, it occurred to him to go up toFinn's room. He knew, from former calls, where it was. But he learnednothing more than that the cook's door was ajar, and that ahalf-packed valise lay open on the bed.


At half-past ten, after a tour of the most likely haunts, Young Vanreturned to Murphy's and resumed his seat in the rear corner. He hadno notion of returning to the Eagle House without the cook. It was nowclose on the hour when Sherman was used to rouse itself for therevelry of the night, and that Finn would take some part in thisrevelry, and that he would, sooner or later, reappear at his favoritehostelry, seemed probable.


The lamps in this room were suspended from the ceiling at such aheight that their light entered the eye at the hypnotic angle; and soit was not long before Young Van, weary from the strain of the week,began to nod. The bar with its line of booted figures, and thequartets of card-players, and the one waiter moving about in hisspotted white apron, were beginning to blur and run together. Theclink of glasses and the laughter came to his ears as if from a greatdistance. Once he nearly recovered his faculties. A group of newarrivals were looking toward his corner. "Waiting for Purple Finn,eh?" said one. "Well, I guess he's got a nice long wait in front ofhim, poor fool!" Then they all laughed. And Young Van himself, withhalf-open eyes, had to smile over the poor fool in the corner who waswaiting for Purple Finn.


"I hear Jack Flagg's in town," said the barkeeper. "I wonder if heis!" replied the first speaker. "I wonder if Jack Flagg is in town!"Again they laughed. And again Young Van smiled. How odd that JackFlagg should be in town!


He was awakened by a sound of hammering. There was little change inthe room: the card games were going steadily on; the bar still had itsline of thirsty plainsmen; two men were wrangling in a corner. Then hemade out a group of newcomers who were tacking a placard to the wall,and chuckling as they did so.


And now, for the first time, Young Van became conscious that he was nolonger alone at his table. Opposite him, smiling genially, andreturning his gaze with benevolent watery eyes, sat a big Texan. Thisindividual wore his cowboy hat on the back of his head, and made noeffort to conceal the two revolvers and the knife at his belt.


"D'ye know," said the Texan, "I like you. What's your name?"


"Vandervelt. What is yours?"


"Charlie--that's my name." Then his smile faded, and he shook hishead. "But you won't find Purple Finn here."


"Why not?"


"Ain't that funny! You don't know 'bout Purple Finn. It's b'cause JackFlagg's in town. They ain't friendly--I know Jack Flagg. I've beenworkin' with 'im--down Paradise way."


Young Van was nearly awake. "You don't happen to be a cook, do you?"said he.


"Yes," Charlie replied dreamily. "I'm a cook. But I'm nothin' to JackFlagg. He's won'erful--won'erful!"


The engineer got up to stretch his legs, and incidentally tookoccasion to read the placard. It ran as follows:--


PURPLE FINN: I heard you was looking for me. Well, I'll be around to Murphy's to-morrow because I want to tell you you're talking too much.


JACK FLAGG.


He returned to his table, and amused himself listening to Charlie'stalk. Then he looked at his watch and found that it was nearly twohours after midnight. Within six or seven hours the train would bestarting. He wondered what his friends would say if they could seehim. He was afraid that if he should drop off again, he might sleeptoo late, and so he determined to keep awake. He communicated thisplan to Charlie, who nodded approval. But he was not equal to it.Within a very short time his chin was reposing on his breast, andCharlie was looking at him and chuckling. "Awful good joke," murmuredCharlie.


Young Van fell to dreaming. He thought that the doors suddenly swungin, and that Purple Finn himself entered the room. The noise seemed,at the instant, to die down; the barkeeper paused and gazed; thecard-players turned and sat motionless in their chairs. Finn, thoughtYoung Van, nodded in a general way, and laughed, and his laugh had nohumor in it. He walked toward the bar, but halfway his roving eyerested on the placard, and he stood motionless. The blue tobacco hazecurled around him and dimmed the outlines of his figure. In the dreamhe seemed to grow a little smaller while he stood there. Then hewalked across and read the placard, taking a long time about it, as ifhe found it difficult to grasp the meaning. When he finally turned andfaced the crowd, his expression was weak and uncertain. He seemedabout to say something but whatever it was he wished to say, the wordsdid not come. Instead, he walked to the bar, ordered a drink, put itdown with a shaking hand, and left the room as he had entered it,silently. The door swung shut, and somebody laughed; then all returnedto their cards.


When Young Van awoke, the room was flooded with sunlight from the sidewindows. He straightened up in his chair and looked around. Charliewas still at the table. Here and there along the side bench men weresleeping. The card-players, with seamed faces and cold eyes, werestill at their business. A new set of players had come in, one of thema giant of a man, dressed like a cowboy, with a hard eye, a heavymustache, and a tuft of hair below his under lip.


The engineer was almost afraid to look at his watch. It was half-pasteight. He turned to the still smiling Charlie. "See here," he said,"did Finn come in here last night?"


Charlie nodded. "You didn't wake up."


Young Van almost groaned aloud. "Where is he? Where did he go?"


"Listen to 'im!" Charlie was indicating a lank stranger who wasleaning on the bar, and talking to a dozen men who had gathered abouthim.


"... And when I got off the train," the lank man was saying, "therewas Purple Finn a-standin' on the platform. I thought he looked sorto' caved in. 'Hello, Purple,' says I, 'what you doin' up so early inthe mornin'?' But he never answers a word; just climbs on the trainand sits down in the smoker and looks out the window as if he thoughtsomebody was after 'im."


A laugh went up at this, and all the group turned and looked at thebig man with the mustache. But this individual went on fingering hiscards without the twitch of an eyelid.


"So Finn has left town," said Young Van, addressing his vis-a-vis.


"Yes," Charlie replied humorously. "He had to see a man down toParadise."


"Who is that big man over there?"


"Him?" Charlie's voice dropped. "Why, that's him--Jack Flagg."


"Did you tell me last night that he was a cook?"


Charlie nodded. "He's won'erful--won'erful! I know 'im. I've beenworkin'--"


Young Van pushed back his chair and got up. For a moment he stoodlooking at the forbidding face and mighty frame of the man who was nowthe central figure in the room; then he crossed over and touched himon the shoulder. "How are you?" said he, painfully conscious, as everywaking eye in the room was turned on him, that he did not know how totalk to these men.


Flagg looked up.


"They tell me you can cook," said the engineer.


"What's that to you?" said Flagg.


"Do you want a job?"


"This is Mr. Van'ervelt," put in Charlie, who had followed; "Mr.Van'ervelt, of the railroad."


"What'll you pay?" asked Flagg.


Young Van named the amount.


"When do you want to start?"


"Now."


"Charlie,"--Flagg was sweeping in a heap of chips,--"go down to Jim'sand get my things and fetch 'em here." And with this he turned back tothe game.


Young Van looked uncertainly at Charlie, whose condition was hardlysuch that he could be trusted to make the trip without a series ofstops in the numerous havens of refuge along the way. The thing to dowas perhaps to go with him; at any rate, that is what Young Van did.


"Won'erful man!" murmured Charlie, when they reached the sidewalk.Then, "Say, Mr. Van'ervelt, come over here a minute--jus' over to BillWhite's. Wanna see a man,--jus' minute."


But Young Van was not in a tolerant mood. "Stiffen up, Charlie," hesaid sharply. "No more of this sort of thing--not if you're going withus."


Charlie was meekly obedient, and even tried to hurry; but at the bestit took considerable time to get together the clothing of the cook andhis assistant, pay their bill, and return to Murphy's. This muchaccomplished, it became necessary to use some tact with Flagg, who wasbent on winning a little more before stopping. And as Flagg couldeasily have tossed the engineer out of the window, and had, besides,the strategical advantage, Young Van was unable to see much choice forhimself in the matter. And standing there, waiting on the pleasure ofhis cook, he passed the time in wondering where he had made hismistake. Paul Carhart, or John Flint, he thought, would never havefound it necessary to take the undignified measures to which he hadbeen reduced. But what was the difference? What would they have done?In trying to answer these questions he hit on every reason but theright one. He forgot that he was a young man.


* * * * *


Carhart and Flint, after waiting a long time at the "Eagle, House,"went down to the station, arriving there some time after the outburstof Peet, which was noted at the beginning of the chapter. Tiffany sawthem coming, and communicated the news to the superintendent. Theengine reappeared, and again coupled up to the forward car.


"Everything all right?" called Tiffany.


"No," replied Carhart; "don't start yet."


The three walked on and joined Old Van by the steps of the rear car.


"Well," growled the veteran, "how much longer are we going to wait,Paul?"


"Until Gus comes."


"Gus? I thought he was aboard here."


"No," said John Flint, with a wink; "he went out last night to see thewheels go round. Here he comes now. But what in--"


They all gazed without a word. Three men were walking abreast down theplatform, Gus Vandervelt, with a white face and ringed eyes, in themiddle. The youngest engineer of the outfit was not a small man, butbetween the two cooks he looked like a child.


"Would you look at that!" said Flint, at length. "Neither of those twoJesse Jameses will ever see six-foot-three again. Makes Gus look likea nick in a wall."


Young Van met Carhart's questioning gaze almost defiantly. "The cook,"he said, indicating Flagg.


"All right. Get aboard."


"Rear car," cried Old Van, who had charge of the arrangements on thetrain.


This time the bell did not ring in vain. The train moved slowly outtoward the unpeopled West, and the engineers threw off coats andcollars, and made themselves as nearly comfortable as they could underthe circumstances.


A few minutes after the start Paul Carhart, who was writing a letterin pencil, looked up and saw Young Van beside him, and tried not tosmile at his sorry appearance.


"I think I owe you an explanation, Mr. Carhart," began the young man,in embarrassment which took the form of stiffness.


But the chief shook his head. "I'm not asking any questions, Gus," hereplied. Then the smile escaped him, and he turned it off by adding,"I'm writing to Mrs. Carhart." He held up the letter and glanced overthe first few lines with a twinkle in his eyes. "I was just tellingher," he went on, "that the cook problem in Chicago is in itsinfancy."



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