TWO days had passed—two days, and a night. The Hawk's fingers drummed abstractedly without sound on the table top; his eyes, in a curiously introspective stare, were fixed on the closely drawn window shade across the room. From the ill-favoured saloon below his unpretentious lodgings, there came, muffled, a chorus of voices in inebriated and discordant song—an over-early evening celebration, for it was barely seven o'clock.

The finger tips drummed on. At times, the strong, square chin was doggedly outthrust; at times, a frown gathered in heavy furrows on the Hawk's forehead. The net at last was beginning to tighten ominously—every sign pointed to it. He would be a blind fool indeed who could not read the warning, and a fool of fools who would not heed it!

His eyes strayed from the window, and rested upon the trunk that stood between the table and the foot of the bed; and his fingers abruptly ceased their restless movements. Within that trunk, concealed in its false lid, was the loot, totalling many thousands of dollars, obtained through his knowledge of the Wire Devils' secret code, which had enabled him to-turn their elaborately prepared plans on more occasions than one to his own account. But it was no longer a question of outwitting them in order to add to that purloined store; it was a question of outwitting them in order that—in very plain English—he, the Hawk, might live!

Nor was it the Wire Devils alone who threatened disaster. There were other factors; and, even if these factors were less imminent, as it were, less in a measure to be feared, they were by no means to be ignored. The police were showing increasing activity. The police circular, which he had once torn down from the station wall, was now replaced by another, only with this difference that, where the reward for the Hawk's capture had then stood at five thousand dollars, it now stood at ten. Also, last night—quite inadvertently!—while crouched under the window of the turner's “cubbyhole” at the rear of the roundhouse, the chosen spot for Lanson's and MacVightie's confidential conferences, he had overheard a conversation between the division superintendent and the head of the railroad's detective force that was certainly not intended for his ears. According to MacVightie, a man by the name of Birks, the sharpest man in the United States Secret Service, had been detailed by the Washington authorities to the case. MacVightie had even taken a generous share of the credit for this move to himself. Thefts there might be until the country rang with them, murders might add their quota to the reign of terror, yet all this was outside the province of the Secret Service. It was, so MacVightie had said, through MacVightie's insistence that the systematised thefts and murders were inseparable with the counterfeit notes then flooding the country that had induced Washington to act. The Hawk and his gang, according to MacVightie again, were at the bottom of both one and the other—and counterfeiting was, very pertinently, within the province of the Secret Service!

The Hawk permitted a twisted smile to flicker across his lips. MacVightie, the police in general, and Birks of the Secret Service in particular, might be classed as complications, even decidedly awkward complications, but his immediate peril lay, not in that direction, but from those whose leadership MacVightie so blandly credited to—the Hawk!

The smile twisted deeper—into one of grim irony. While MacVightie placarded the country with circulars offering rewards for the capture of the Hawk and his gang, the “gang” was moving heaven and earth to capture the Hawk for its own exclusive purposes—which purposes, in a word, were an intense desire to recover the proceeds of the robberies that he, the Hawk, had filched from under the gang's nose, and thereafter, with such finality as might be afforded by a blackjack, a knife thrust, or a revolver bullet, to expedite the Hawk's departure from this vale of tears!

The Hawk's hand curled suddenly into a clenched fist, and his face grew set. He was facetious—and he had little enough warrant for facetiousness! They had already shown their teeth. They had shown the grim, ugly deadliness of their challenge in the thrust with which they had opened their attack upon him. He had parried the thrust, it was true—but there would be another—and another. There was something of remorseless promise, that would stop at nothing, in the extravagantly laid plans with which they had just attempted to lure him into the open and trap him. They had failed, it was true, and he had even scored against them again—but their cunning, their power, their resources, their malignity remained unimpaired. They would try again. It was like two adversaries in a dark room, each conscious of the other's presence, each striving to place the other, each conscious that the death of one was life for the other. That was the pith of the situation.

The Hawk's teeth clamped together. It was quite certain that they would run him to earth—unless he were first at the same game! An organisation as widespread as the one against which he had elected to pit his wits and play a lone hand, an organisation clever enough to have seized and put to its own use the entire divisional telegraph system of a railroad, an organisation callous enough to have counted a score of murders but incidents in its schemes, and, above all, an organisation guided by an unknown brain that was a master of cunning and unhampered by scruples, was an antagonist as sinister as it was powerful. For days now, in the great majority of cases, he, the Hawk, had turned their plans to his own account, skimmed, as it were, the cream from their milk—and there could be but one answer. And they had answered—and in the opening attack they had just launched against him it was obvious enough that every resource at their command was to be thrown into the balance to settle scores with him. They might, and did, laugh at the police, but to have their prizes pocketed and carried off by a competitor admitted of but one solution—the annihilation of the competitor!

The Hawk rose abruptly from his seat, stepped over to the trunk, opened it, and in an instant had removed the secret tray from the curvature of the lid. He laid the tray down upon the table; and his fingers, brushing aside a certain magnificent diamond necklace whose thousand facets glittered in the light, delved swiftly in amongst pile after pile of banknotes, and secured a package of papers.

He pushed the tray to one side, sat down again at the table, removed the elastic band from the package, and began to examine the papers. It was not the first time he had done this—he did it again now in a sort of desperation, and simply because it presented the one possibility at which he might grasp in the hope of obtaining a clue. There were many papers here, loose sheets, documents in envelopes, and, careful as he had been before, there was a chance that he had missed the one thing—in a sentence, in perhaps only a word, or a pencilled note-on the back of an envelope—that would save him from disaster now.

It was the night before last that Parson Joe, with his fake tube of radium, had headed the gang in the attempt upon his, the Hawk's, life. The twisted smile returned to the Hawk's lips, as he turned first one paper and then another over in his hands. He had been fool enough to imagine that, besides failure, they had left a well-marked and clearly defined trail behind them—in the shape of that very comfortably, very cosily furnished house just on the outskirts of the city, where the Butcher had proposed to play the rôle of spider to his, the Hawk's, rôle of fly! It had even seemed a childishly simple matter to pick up such a thread and follow it. A house was neither rented nor furnished out of thin air. But the next morning the house was closed and deserted. It had been sublet—furnished. The subtenant, whose name was of no consequence, since it was of course assumed, had vanished—that was all. As far as the gang was concerned the house had lost its usefulness, and, having lost its usefulness, had simply been evacuated, and, together with the furniture, left to its own resources!

And it had been the same, on a previous occasion, with Isaac Kirschell's office. The morning after he, the Hawk, had appropriated the contents of Kirschell's cash box and had recognised Kirschell as one of the gang, the suite of rooms in the office building had been vacant.

The Hawk withdrew the last paper in the pile from its envelope, and read it with a sort of miserable realisation that its perusal, like the others, was foredoomed to futility. It was an alleged mortgage, spurious, of course, for these were Kirschell's papers that had been in the cash box, and, in the very nature of things, Kirschell's business had been only a blind to cover a sort of branch headquarters for the gang. He read it through, however, doggedly—and for his pains the printed words in their precise legal phraseology seemed to mock at him and chuckle with devilishly perverted humour.

He tossed the document upon the table, and, his face strained, pushed back his chair, got up, and began to pace the length of the room with a tread that, in its quick, nervous litheness and its silence, was like the pacing of a panther in its cage.

Nothing! And yet there must be something—somewhere! It was his move now, and there was little time to spare. It had become simply a question of which of the two, he or the gang, would win this game of blindman's-buff. It no longer sufficed that he should intercept those secret code messages in the former haphazard way, for, consistently as he had haunted the telegraph sounders, he was well enough aware that he must of necessity have missed many of the messages. He could afford to miss none of them now. Formerly, a message missed meant but a lost opportunity to thwart their plans, to add a little more to the contents of the trunk's false lid; now, since they had shown that they would stop at nothing to trap him, his life was dependent on having, with certainty, foreknowledge of their every plan. His defense lay in attack. He must trace those messages to their source, and trace them quickly before the Wire Devils should strike again, or leave the field to the Wire Devils—in other words, quit and run for it!

“Quit!” It was the first sound the Hawk had made, and it was only a whisper—but the whisper was gritted out through set teeth. Quit! He laughed a little, low, with menace, without mirth. It was not an alternative—it was the sting of a curling whip-lash to spur him on.

Well? What was he to do then? It was his move—and there was no time to spare. He approached the table again, and began to rearrange the papers into a pile, preparatory to replacing them in the tray. It was veritably a game of blindman's-buff! They knew him through personal contact, but only as a man who had always been masked; he knew many of them, and knew them personally—but only in the play-off of their schemes, when he had, as it were, snatched the plunder from their hands as he made his own escape, had he ever seen any of them. Well—the question came again, more insistent, more imperative, more vital—well, his life was in the balance, what was he to do? Go out again to-night and haunt a telegraph sounder, trust to——

He turned suddenly, the spurious mortgage, and the long envelope that had contained it, in his hand. The document, for some reason or other, refused to fit into the envelope as neatly or as readily as it had previously done. He held the envelope up to the light—and the next instant, flinging the document down on the table, he had ripped the envelope apart, and from under the inner flap, where it had undoubtedly been forced by the document itself and afterwards, as he had handled the envelope, had obviously worked its way partially out again, he extracted a small, thin slip of yellow paper.

And then for a moment the Hawk stood motionless, but into the dark eyes there leaped a triumphant flash. In his hand was the return portion of a railroad ticket that read:

Conmore to Selkirk City.

He whipped the ticket over to scrutinise the date stamp on the back—it was that of the day prior to his visit to Kirschell's office. And he laughed a little again, but there was no bitterness in the laugh now. The clue that he had sought, the clue that Lanson's men had in vain patrolled and scoured the division's right of way to obtain, was in his possession.

“It fits—like a glove!” muttered the Hawk, with grim complacence. “Kirschell had the envelope in his pocket, of course, and in putting his return ticket in his pocket it slipped into the envelope without his knowing it, got crowded under the flap, and he thought he had lost it!” The Hawk turned sharply to the table. “Conmore—eh?” He was working with feverish haste now, replacing the papers in the tray, and fitting the tray back into the curvature of the trunk lid. “Number Thirty-Eight, if she's on time, is due at seven-thirty.” He pulled out his watch. “Seven-twenty! Conmore—eh?” The light was out, the door locked behind him. “That's twenty-miles east of here, and between here and Bald Creek.” He was out of the house now, and running along the lane that gave on the station street. “Yes,” said the Hawk again, and there was suppressed elation in his voice, “it fits! It fits—like a glove!”

The Hawk reached the station, and purchased a ticket; but, as usual, the ticket did not indicate his destination—it read, not to Conmore, but to several stations farther along the line. The local pulled in on time. As it pulled out again, the Hawk, having appropriated the rear seat of the smoker, lighted, though he inclined little toward that particular form of tobacco, a cigar.

His slouch hat was jerked a little forward over his eyes. He settled back in his seat. Like links in a chain, the keen, alert brain was welding the events of the days gone by into a concrete whole. The headquarters of the gang, the heart of the web from which the Wire Devils operated was, logically, as he had known, as MacVightie had known, outside the city, where the telegraph line could be tapped without observation and at will. MacVightie's initial and only attempt to “ground out” the “tap” had indicated that the wire was being tampered with between Selkirk and Bald Creek. Conmore was between Selkirk and Bald Creek. And what interest could Kirschell, a New York crook, have in a place like Conmore, that was little more than a hamlet? What, then, had prompted Kirschell's trip to Conmore and return? The Hawk smiled whimsically.

It was not proof absolute, but in his own mind it was proof quite sufficient. Kirschell's visit to Conmore had been a visit to the headquarters of the gang. Also, material proof apart, he sensed intuitively that he had struck the right trail. Those messages, keeping the unknown brain that schemed and plotted each move in instant touch with every unit of the widespread organisation, making it possible for them to strike at a moment's warning at any point over a hundred miles of country, emanated—from Conmore.

The train stopped at a station, and went on again. The Hawk nursed his cigar sedulously, and stared out of the window. Twenty minutes went by. And then the train stopped again—at Conmore.

The Hawk did not move, save that his eyes rested casually on a passenger who was making a hurried and belated dash for the door. It was quite possible that the man was not one of the gang, and equally possible that the man was—he, the Hawk, did not recognise the other. But he would do the Wire Devils less than justice to credit them with lack of interest in passengers for Conmore—or in any occupant of any car who might have left his seat and found the platform attractive, say, just before Conmore was reached! If the man was a spy, then—well—the Hawk smiled at his now burned-to-the-butt cigar—the man would have little to report!

The train jerked forward into motion again. The station was on the same side as the Hawk's seat—the Hawk did not look out of the window, but he was far from being oblivious to the fact that no platform lights had shown through the car windows on the opposite side of the aisle. The speed increased a little, but still the Hawk did not stir. The train rattled over the east-end siding switch of the Conmore yard. And then the Hawk rose languidly, tossed his cigar butt into the cuspidor, brushed a very noticeable quantity of cigar ash from his vest, paused for a drink at the water-cooler, and, as though, his smoke finished, he was seeking the clearer atmosphere of a rear car, opened the door, and stepped out on the platform.

The Hawk dropped to the right of way from the side of the train opposite to that of the station, landed as sure-footed as a cat, flung himself instantly flat down at the edge of the embankment, and lay still. The local racketed its way past—the red tail-lights winked, and vanished—and there fell a silence, a drowsy night silence, broken only by the chirp of insects and the far-distant mutter of the receding train. The Hawk raised his head, and looked about him. A few hundred yards away glinted the station semaphore and window lights; the siding switch light, nearer, showed green like a huge glowing emerald in the black; there was nothing else. There was no sign of habitation—nothing—the little hamlet lay hidden in a hollow a mile away on the station side of the track.

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