IT was not far to the station—down through the lane from the Palace Saloon—and close to the station, he remembered, there was a little short-order house that was generally patronised by the railroad men. Old Mother Barrett's short-order house, they called it. She was the wife of an engineer who had been killed, he had heard, and she had a boy working somewhere on the railroad. Not that he was interested in these details; in fact, as he walked along, the Hawk was not interested in old Mother Barrett in a personal sense at all—but, as he reached the short-order house and entered, his eyes, as though magnetically drawn in that direction, fixed instantly on the little old woman behind the counter.

The Hawk was suddenly very much interested in old Mother Barrett. It was not that she made a somewhat pathetic figure, that she drooped a little at the shoulders, that her face under her grey hair looked tired, or that, though scrupulously neat, her clothes were a little threadbare—it was none of these things—it was old Mother Barrett's hands that for the moment concerned the Hawk. She was in the act of adjusting her spectacles and picking up a very new and crisp ten-dollar bill, that a customer from the stool in front of her had evidently tendered in payment for his meal. The Hawk shot a quick glance up and down the room. There were several other customers at the long counter, but the stool beside the owner of the ten-dollar bill was vacant—and the Hawk unostentatiously straddled it.

He glanced casually at the man at his elbow; allowed his eyes to stray to the kindly, motherly old face with its grey Irish eyes, that was puckered now in a sort of hesitant indecision—and glanced a little more than casually at the banknote she kept turning over and over in her hands. No, he had not been mistaken. It was one of those counterfeits which, according to MacVightie, had flooded the East and were now making their appearance in Selkirk, and it was a duplicate of those in the false tray of his trunk. His eyes perhaps were sharper than old Mother Barrett's—in any case, his identification was the quicker, for his gaze had wandered to the coffee urn, and he was drumming idly on the counter with his finger tips before the little old woman finally spoke.

“I—I'm afraid I can't take this,” she said slowly, handing the banknote back across the counter.

“What's the matter with it?” demanded the man gruffly.

“Why—it's—it's counterfeit,” she said a little anxiously, as though she were fearful of giving offence.

The Hawk's eyes, with mild and quite impersonal interest, were on the man's face now. The man had picked up the bill, and was pretending to examine it critically.

“Counterfeit!” echoed the man shortly. “Say, what are you giving us! It's as good as wheat! Give me my change, and let me get out—I'm in a hurry!” He pushed the bill toward her again.

She did not pick it up from the counter this time.

“I'm sorry.” She seemed genuinely disturbed, and the sweet old face was full of sympathy. “I'm sure you did not know that it was not good, and ten dollars is a great deal to lose, isn't it? It's too bad. Do you remember where you got it?”

“Look here, you're dippy!” snapped the man. “I tell you it's not counterfeit. Anyway, it's all I've got. If you want your pay, take it!”

“You owe me thirty-five cents, but I can't take it out of this.” She shook her head in a troubled way. “This is a counterfeit.”

“You seem to be pretty well posted—on counterfeits!” sneered the man offensively. “How do you know it's a counterfeit—eh?”

“Because I've seen one like this before,” she said simply. “My son showed me one the last time he was in from his run, and he warned me to be careful about taking any.”

“Oh, your son—eh?” sneered the man again. “Some son! Wised you up, did he? Carries it around with him—eh? And who does he shove it off on?”

There was a queer little sound from the old lady—like a quick, hurt catch of her breath. The Hawk's eyes travelled swiftly to her face. She had turned a little pale, and her lips were trembling—but she was drawn up very proudly, and the thin shoulders were squared back.

“I love my boy,” she said in a low voice, and tears came suddenly into her eyes, “I love him with all my heart, but I should a thousand times rather see him dead than know him for a thief. And a man who attempts to pass these things knowingly is a—thief. I have been very respectful to you, sir, and I do not deserve what you have said. I assumed that you had been swindled yourself, and that you were perfectly honest in offering the bill to me, but now from your——”

“What's the trouble, Mother Barrett?”—a big railroader farther up the counter had laid down his knife and fork, and swung round on his stool.

With a hurried glance in that direction, the man hastily thrust the counterfeit note into his pocket, laid down thirty-five cents on the counter—and, with a dive across the room, disappeared through the door.

The Hawk stared thoughtfully after him.

“I couldn't butt in on that, and hand him one,” said the Hawk to himself almost apologetically. “Not with twenty thousand in sight! I couldn't afford to get into a row, and maybe miss the local, and spill the beans, could I?”

He looked around again to find the little old woman wiping her spectacles, and smiling at him a little wistfully.

“I'm sorry that you had to listen to any unpleasantness,” she said. “My little place isn't very pretentious, but I would not like to have you, a stranger, think that sort of thing was customary here. What can I get you, sir?”

It was no wonder that the railroaders evidently swore by old Mother Barrett, and that one of them had been quick to shift her trouble to his own shoulders!

“I guess he was a bad one, all right!” growled the Hawk.

She shook her head regretfully. There was no resentment left—it was as though, indeed, the man was a charge upon her own conscience.

“He meant to be dishonest, I am afraid,” she admitted reluctantly; “but I am sure he cannot be thoroughly bad, for he wasn't very old—just a young man.”

She was a very simple, trusting little old lady—as well as a sweet little old lady. Why should her illusions be dispelled? The Hawk nodded gravely.

“Perhaps,” suggested the Hawk, “perhaps he hasn't had any one to keep him straight. Perhaps he hasn't got what keeps a good many chaps straight—a good mother.”

The mist was quick in her eyes again. He had not meant to bring that—he had meant only to show her a genuine admiration and respect.

“Perhaps not,” she answered slowly. “But if he has, I hope she will never know.” She shook her head again; and then: “But you have not told me yet what you would like, sir?”

The Hawk gave his order. He ate mechanically. Back in his mind he was reviewing a rather extensive acquaintanceship with certain gentry whose morals were not wholly above reproach. Failing, however, to identify the individual with the counterfeit note as one of this select number, he finally dismissed the man somewhat contemptuously from his mind.

“Just a piker crook, I guess,” decided the Hawk. “I'd like to have found out though how many more of those he's got, and who the fool was that let an amateur skate like that loose with any of the goods!”

He finished his meal, paid his bill, smiled a goodnight to old Mother Barrett, walked out of the short-order house, and made his way over to the station. Five minutes later, having purchased a magazine, the Hawk, with a ticket in his pocket for a station a number of miles beyond Burke's Siding, curled himself up with his pipe on a seat in the smoker of the local.

The train started, and the Hawk apparently became immersed in his magazine. The Hawk, however, though he turned a page from time to time, was concerned with matters very far removed from the printed words before him. The game to-night was more hazardous, more difficult, and for a vastly greater stake than any in which he had before pitted his wits or played his lone hand against the combined brains of the Butcher, his fellows, and their unknown leader, who collectively were referred to by the papers as—the Wire Devils.

The Hawk tamped down the ash in the bowl of his pipe with a wary forefinger. He, the Hawk, according to MacVightie, was the leader of this ingenious criminal league! It was very complimentary of MacVightie—very! Between MacVightie and the Wire Devils themselves, he was a personage much sought after! MacVightie, however, was not without grounds for his assertion and belief—the Hawk grinned pleasantly—he, the Hawk, had certainly, and for some time back, helped himself to the leader's share of the spoils, and helped himself very generously!

The grin died away. He had beaten them so far, appropriated from under their very noses the loot they had so carefully planned to obtain, and he had mocked and taunted them contemptuously in the doing of it; but the cold fact remained that luck sometimes was known to turn, and that the pitcher that went too often to the well ran the risk of getting—smashed! If they ever caught him, his life would not be worth an instant's purchase. He knew some of them, and he knew them well for what they were, and he laboured under no delusions on that score! The Butcher, for example, who was the Number One of the message, had already nearly done for him once; and the Butcher had nothing on Number Three, who was the Bantam, or on Number Seven, who was Whitie Jim—or, it was safe to presume, on any of the others that he had not yet identified—this Number Four and Number Six, for instance, who were mentioned in the cipher message to-night. And how many more were there? He did not know—except that there was the Master Spider of them all.

The Hawk had ceased now even to turn cursorily the pages of the magazine. He was staring out of the window.

“I wonder,” muttered the Hawk grimly, “when I'll run up against him? And who he is? And where the head office is?”

He nodded his head after a moment. MacVightie had called the turn. The Wire Devils formed as powerful and dangerous a criminal organisation as had probably ever existed anywhere. And not for very long would they put all their resources at work to pull off some coup, only to find that he, the Hawk, had made use of their preparations to snatch the prize away from them; they were much more likely to put all their resources at work—with the Hawk as their sole objective!

The Hawk's lips tightened. He might under-estimate, but he could not exaggerate, his danger! The man in the seat behind him might be one of them for all he knew. Somewhere, hidden away in his web, at the end of a telegraph wire, was the Master Spider directing the operations; and there must be very many of them—the little spiders—spread all over the division. Where there was a telegraph sounder that sounder carried the messages, the plans, the secret orders of the brain behind the organisation; and the very audaciousness with which they made themselves free of the railroad's telegraph system to communicate with each other was in itself a guarantee of success. If one of their messages was interfered with, they threatened to cut the wires; and that meant, if luckily it meant no more, that train operating was at an end until the break could be located and repaired. Were they tapping the wire somewhere? What chance was there to find out where? There were hundreds of old splices on the wires. Or, if found, what would prevent them tapping the wire on the next occasion many miles away? Also the sources of information that they tapped must be far-flung. How, for instance, unless they too had a “Bud” back there in New York, did they know of this diamond shipment coming through to-night?

The Hawk's lips grew still a little tighter. His safety so far had depended on the fact that he possessed the key to their cipher messages, which not only enabled him to reap where they had sown, but warned him of any move they might make against him. But it was becoming increasingly difficult to intercept those messages. He had MacVightie to thank for that. Where before he had only to crawl into some little way-station where there was no night operator, MacVightie now had every one of those stations securely guarded. Yes, it had become exceedingly more difficult! If only he could find out where those messages emanated from, or the system in force for receiving them!

The Hawk slid further down in his seat, tossed the magazine to one side, pulled his hat over his eyes, and appeared to sleep. All that was neither here nor there—to-night. He had the message to-night—but he had not yet got that twenty thousand dollars in unset stones! He would perhaps do well, now that he had the leisure, to give the details of that matter a little more critical attention than they had received when he had made up his mind that his best chance lay in the three miles between Burke's Siding and the point where the Butcher and his men planned to hold up the train. According to the message, the implication was that there would be nobody in the express car at that time except a drugged messenger. And now, somehow, he did not quite like the appearance of that. It seemed a little queer. What was the object of drugging the man if they did not take immediate advantage of it? He pondered the problem for a long time. No, after all, it was logical enough—since they meant to remove the safe bodily. There evidently was not a specialised cracksman amongst them who had lifted his profession to the plane of art, no “knob-twirler” such as—well, such as himself! The Hawk opened his eyes sleepily to inspect the tips of his carefully manicured fingers. Otherwise, with no one to interfere but a drugged messenger, they could have opened the safe, looted it, and, since the Fast Mail carried only through express matter, have slipped away from the car at the first stop, with no one being the wiser until, somewhere up the line, the messenger returned to life and gave the alarm.

Yes, it was very craftily worked out. The Master Spider was far from a fool! They would have to “soup” the safe, and blow it open. If they attempted that while the train was en route they ran the risk of being heard, and trapped like rats in the car; and if they were heard, even if they managed to stop the train and make their escape, they invited instant and definite pursuit on the spot. The reason for drugging the express messenger became quite evident now. If the man were already helpless when they held up the train, they, at one and the same time, assured their access to an otherwise guarded car without danger to themselves, and without danger of being balked at the last moment of their reward—which the messenger, with a small package like that, might easily have been able to accomplish if he were a game man. He could have opened the safe, say, the instant the first alarm came as they tried to force the car door, taken out the package, and secreted it somewhere. It needed only the nerve after that to defy them, and they had evidently given him credit for it whether he possessed it or not.

Yes, decidedly, the Master Spider was no fool in the spinning of his web! As it was, the safe, which would only be a small affair anyhow, would disappear bodily; and between the point where the train was held up and the point where they finally left the engine and express car there would be a distance of at least ten miles, even allowing that they approached no nearer than within two miles of Bradley, the first station west of Burke's Siding. With the wires cut and the coaches of the Fast Mail stalled three miles out of Burke's, considerable time must elapse before any one could make a move against them; and even when the pursuit finally started, MacVightie, for instance, would be confronted with that somewhat illusive stretch of ten miles in which to decide where the pursuit should begin. Ten miles was some little distance! MacVightie would be quite at liberty to make his guess, and there was the chance, with the trifling odds of some few odd thousand to one against it, that he might guess right—unless he guessed that the safe had been removed at the point where the engine and car were finally left, in which case MacVightie would guess wrong.

If the Hawk was asleep, he was perhaps dreaming—for the Hawk smiled. The chances were just about those few odd thousand to one that MacVightie would guess exactly that way—wrong. Yes, it was an exceedingly neat little web that the Master Spider had spun. If he, the Hawk, were permitted to make a guess, he would guess that the safe would never be found!

His mind reverted to the cipher message. The safe was to be delivered at “five-mile crossing.” Where that was the Hawk did not know—except that it must necessarily be somewhere between the point where the train was held up and Bradley. However, that was a detail with which he need hardly concern himself. Long before this “five-mile crossing” was reached, his vest pocket, if he played in luck, would be very comfortably lined! He would enter the express car as the Fast Mail pulled out of Burke's Siding, trust to certain long and intimate experience to open the safe—and get off the train as it slowed down at the Butcher's very thoughtful request! For the rest, the details—circumstances must govern there. In the main, that would be his plan.

The Hawk “slept” on. Station after station was passed. His mind now dealt in little snatches of thought. There was MacVightie and the police circular; and the search of his room that day; and speculation as to how they had managed to drug the express messenger; and the man with the counterfeit ten-dollar bill in old Mother Barrett's short-order house; and the little old woman herself, with her shabby clothes and her tired, gentle face—and finally the Hawk stirred, glanced at his watch, and, as the train whistled, picked up his magazine and sauntered down the car aisle to the door.

They were approaching Burke's Siding. The Hawk opened the door, went out on the platform, and descended to the lowest step. The train slowed. A water-tank loomed up, receded—and the Hawk dropped to the ground. A minute later, as the tail-lights winked by and came to a stop at the station a short distance down the track, he had made his way back, to the water-tank, crossed to the opposite side of the track, and stretched himself out on the grass in the hollow at the foot of the embankment. The Fast Mail's sole excuse for a stop at Burke's Siding was the water-tank—which would bring the express car to a halt directly in front of the spot where he now lay.

The local pulled out, and racketed away into the night. The tail-lights vanished. Silence fell. There was only the chirping of the insects now, and the strange, queer, indefinable medley of little night-sounds. Burke's Siding was a lonely place. There was a faint yellow gleam from the station windows, and there was the twinkle of the switch lights—no other sign of life. It was pitch black—so black that the Hawk could just barely distinguish the outline of the water-tank across the track.

“It's a nice night,” observed the Hawk pleasantly to himself. “A very nice night! It's strange how some people prefer a moon!”

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook