THE Hawk rose, and began to move forward. Conmore was certainly an idealistic spot—from the Wire Devils' standpoint! He frowned a little. There was no doubt in his mind but that in a general way he had solved the problem, that somewhere in this vicinity the right of way held the wire tappers' secret; but, as he was well aware, his difficulties were far from at an end, and that particular spot might be anywhere within several miles of Conmore, and it might, with equal reason, be east or west of the station. And then the Hawk shrugged his shoulders. The night was early yet, early enough to enable him to cover several miles of track on both sides of the station, if necessary, before daylight came. If he had luck with him, he was on the right side now; if not, then, by midnight, he would start in on the other. It required the exercise of a little philosophical patience, nothing more.

It was black along the track—a black night, no moon, no stars. And it was silent. A half hour passed. Like a shadow, and as silent as one, the Hawk moved forward—from telegraph pole to telegraph pole. A pin point of light showed far down the right of way, grew larger, brighter, more luminous—and the Hawk-sought refuge, crouched beneath a culvert, as a big ten-wheeler and its string of coaches, trucks beating at the fishplates, quick like the tattoo of a snare drum, roared by over his head.

Still another half hour passed. It was slow work. He was perhaps, at most, a mile and a half from the Conmore station. And then, suddenly, the Hawk dropped to his hands and knees and crawled down the embankment, and lay flat and motionless in the grass—faint, almost inaudible, a footstep had crunched on the gravel of the roadbed ahead of him. The Hawk's only movement now was the tightening of his fingers around the stock of his automatic, as, out of the blackness, a blacker shape loomed up, and a man sauntered by along the track.

The Hawk's lips compressed into a grim smile. His caution had not been exaggerated! The Wire Devils' guard! Luck, at least initial luck, was with him, then! The “tap” was here east of the station, and at the next pole probably. But it was more than likely that there was another guard patrolling on the other side. They would certainly take no chances, either of surprise, or of being unable to dismantle their apparatus instantly at the first alarm—and it would almost necessarily require more than one man for that. He crept forward again, and again lay still. The man on the track returned—passed by—and, close to the telegraph pole now, two blurred shapes showed; and then, low, there came voices, and a laugh.

But now the Hawk was wriggling swiftly away from the track. There was no longer any need to examine the telegraph poles—the sense of touch guiding him, he was following an insulated wire, two wires, that lay along the ground, and, following these wires, he reached the barbed-wire fence that enclosed the right of way, worked his way through, and here paused. The wires had apparently disappeared abruptly into the ground.

For perhaps a minute the Hawk lay still, save that his fingers worked and dug at loose earth; and then, his coat extended on either side of him, he raised himself an inch or two from the ground, and, beneath his body, his tiny flashlight glowed for a brief instant, and was restored to his pocket.

The Hawk began to crawl forward again. He was on the edge of a ploughed field—a piece of farm land. It was all very simple, and it was very clear now. In the loose earth there was embedded a small, rough, wooden box. In this receptacle was a junction box, and from the junction box, through holes bored in the outer wooden casing, the wires continued on into a small, flexible conduit. The Hawk smiled grimly. Lanson, and Lanson's section men might search a thousand years and never solve the problem. The Wire Devils were not limited to any one single or particular telegraph pole. They were limited only in the radius of their operations by the length of the “tap” wires they used. They had only to tap the line, run their “tap” back, brush the loose earth away from the top of the wooden casing, open the latter, connect with the junction box, and their “tap” became an integral part of the railroad's telegraph system. It was very simple! When they were not operating—they reversed the process. They disconnected from the main line, coiled their “tap” wires up, hid them in the wooden casing, restored the loose earth over the latter's surface, and, save for one of those thousands of splices on the main line incident to years of service and differing in no way from any of its fellows, no sign or vestige of their work remained. It required, of course, a lineman's outfit and the necessary appliances for work at the top of the telegraph pole—but that the Wire Devils were adequately equipped in this respect was so obvious as to make any consideration of that detail absurd. For the rest, the little conduit laid in a ploughed furrow with the earth spread back over it completed in perfection and simplicity the unholy little scheme!

On the Hawk crawled across the field. All this premised a house, a farm house probably, in the immediate vicinity. The ploughed field must, of course, never be disturbed, therefore the tenancy of the land axiomatically was for the moment vested in the Wire Devils, and——ah! The Hawk, far enough from the railroad now to be secure from observation, had risen from his hands and knees, and, in a crouched position, was moving forward more rapidly. A small, wooded tract of land was showing a little way in front of him; the house undoubtedly was there.

He gained the trees, made his way through what appeared to be an open grove of pines, and, on the other side, at the edge of the clearing, halted, and listened intently. He could just make out a little group of buildings—the house itself, a barn, and one or two smaller structures, probably wagon and implement sheds. No light showed from anywhere, nor was there any sound. Cautiously, silently, the Hawk crossed the clearing, and began to circuit the house. It was a little strange! The place seemed absolutely deserted. Had he made a mistake? Naturally, he could not follow the direction of the buried conduit! Was there another house in the neighbourhood? He shook his head. There might be another house, many of them for that matter, but the ploughed field, from its location, surely belonged to this one. And yet—he halted once more, and, listening again intently, looked sharply about him.

He was around on the other side of the house now, and now his eyes were fixed on one of the lower windows. It was not the window of a lighted room, yet still a faint glow seemed to emanate most curiously from it. He crept toward it, crouched beneath it, listened again, then partially straightening up—the window sill was but breast high—peered in. Of the room itself he could see nothing—only the dull glow of light, extremely faint, that came, he now discovered, from an open door across the room. He tried the window; and then, finding the catch unfastened, with a deft pressure of his fingers upon the sash, he began to raise it slowly, silently.

And now into the Hawk's dark eyes there leaped for the second time that night a triumphant flash. Yes, beyond doubt, beyond question, beyond cavil, here was the heart of the spider's web at last! Muffled, low, indistinct, barely audible, but equally unmistakable, there came the clicking of a telegraph instrument.

The Hawk drew his mask from his pocket, slipped it over his face, swung noiselessly over the window sill, and began to creep across the room toward the opened door and the glow of light. And, as the clicking of the sounder grew more distinct and there mingled with it now a murmur of voices, the Hawk's lips compressed into a thin, straight line. If he were caught, if a single inadvertent sound betrayed his presence; it needed no effort of the imagination to picture what would follow. Death, if it were sudden, would be a very merciful ending—but it would not be death, if the Wire Devils could prevent it, until they had exhausted every means, torture ingenious and devilish, for instance, to extort from him the whereabouts of the plunder taken from them, and which they knew to be in his possession. He knew much now, he knew their lair at last, and for a moment, as these thoughts flashed across his mind, he was prompted to retreat again while he had the chance. An inner voice called him a fool to persist; another bade him go on. But the latter voice was right. He knew much—but he did not know enough.

If his life was in peril in the one sense, it was equally in peril in the other. He did not know enough. Who, for instance, was the master brain behind the organisation? Where and how, for instance, was the next trap they would set for him to be laid?

Brief snatches of conversation now began to reach the Hawk, as he drew nearer to the door:

“... Twenty-five thousand dollars... Traders' National Bank... superintendent's car... dummy package... counterfeit seals... that's all right, but MacVightie says the Secret Service is sending a man by the name of Birks out here....”

And then a voice at which the Hawk involuntarily held his breath, and to which, at the door now, he listened in a sort of stunned incredulity, as though he were indeed the sport of his own ears. It was a very quiet voice, very soft, a velvet voice, a voice whose tones were cultured tones—and whose language was the language of a pirate of the Spanish Main.

“Time enough to attend to this Birks personage—what I want is the Hawk!” came in limpid tones. “And if I were not tied down here in this damned and double-damned wheel chair, I would have twisted his throat for him long ago. I furnish brains—and I am cursed with a miserable, crawling mob of gnats upon whom they are wasted! That's it—gnats! Gnats—insects—moths—anything that, if shown the light, knows nothing but to singe its own wings!” The voice was not raised; it was like a mother's, like a woman's voice, talking plaintively to a spoiled child—but there was something absolutely deadly in its inflection.

“The Ladybird!” The Hawk's lips framed the words without sound, and in a sort of numbed hesitant way. “I—I thought he was dead.”

The telegraph sounder kept on spluttering at intervals, but it was only stray stuff, routine railroad business, going over the wires. The Hawk, flat on the floor and at one side of the jamb now, stared through the doorway. It was the doorway leading to the cellar. The stairs, halfway down, turned abruptly at right angles. The Hawk was rewarded with a view of the stone foundation wall of the house, nothing more. But for the moment the Hawk was lost to his immediate surroundings. The Hawk's criminal acquaintanceship was wide, varied and intimate, and his mind was still not entirely recovered from the startled amazement which the recognition of that voice had brought him. He was quite fully conversant with the Ladybird's record—only he had thought the Ladybird dead!

The Ladybird was not an ordinary criminal; instead of having spent twenty years in Sing Sing, as was very justly his due, the police had spent those twenty years in trying to put him there—and the Ladybird was still to know the restrictions of a cage! Clever, fearless, cunning, Napoleonic in the scope and breadth of his operations, the biggest scoops on the blotters of the New York police, and, higher up, on the Federal records, were laid to the Ladybird's door; but always, somewhere, the thread of evidence broke—sometimes not till the door itself was reached—but always it broke; the thread had never crossed the threshold. The man himself was highly educated, a man now well on toward fifty. In the underworld there were a thousand different stories of his early life—that he had been a professor of science in a great university; that he came of a rich family high up in the social scale; that he had been, in fact, everything that the spice of imagination could supply to enhance the glamour that surrounded him in the sordid empire of Crimeland, where so many were his followers and worshippers. But here, too, the thread was broken. None knew who he had been; none knew where he had come from. They knew him only as one who was invulnerable against the attacks and efforts of the police, as a peer of their own unholy realm, as one whose name was a name to conjure with—for in the name, the “moniker” they themselves had given the Ladybird on account of his effeminate voice and manner, derision was neither intended nor implied. There were limits and bounds to even the underworld's temerity, and none knew better than the underworld the sinister incongruity of those effeminate characteristics. Where another might bellow and roar his rage, and threaten, the Ladybird lisped his words—and struck.

But he, the Hawk, had thought the Ladybird dead! The man had been badly hurt a year ago in a railroad accident somewhere in the East, and the report had spread, and had been credited even in the inner circles of the underworld, that he was dead. The Hawk's lips twisted grimly. The Ladybird had seen to it evidently that the report was not denied! And so, instead, the man was a cripple now, weaving his plots, and scheming with that black, cunning brain of his from a wheel chair! Well, he——

The Hawk reached quickly into his pocket for pencil and paper—there would be just light enough to enable him to see. The sounder was rattling a brisk, tattoo, but it was no longer stray stuff. The message, in quick, sure “sending,” was coming in the Wire Devils' secret code. Letter by letter the Hawk jotted it down:

“pikxtfbmez byqetbqfsl kgqmbokufec srfijojeremb sthfgsbk bnfebvwq jduuvsfpq xwfsnlipb ouflmnfsbg jeborr ettjupuj ohllsppn.”

The sounder ceased abruptly. There was silence. The Hawk replaced pencil and paper in his pocket. The minutes passed—the message was evidently being decoded. Then the Ladybird's voice:

“Very well! Code a message to Number One, and tell him Number Seven has completed his work. Tell him again to take no chances by hurrying things; that he is to wait until they are asleep. And warn him again that under no circumstances is our hand to show in this to-night.”

A slight confusion followed from below—the scuf-, fling of feet, the murmur of voices mingling with curious, indefinable metallic sounds. And then suddenly the Ladybird's voice again:

“No—never mind that message! Damn my cursed, useless legs!” A flow of unbridled oaths followed—the sacrilege the more horrible, the menace the more ghastly for the languid, conversational tones in which the blasphemy rolled so smoothly from the man's lips. “I'll trust to no message tonight! Curse my legs! If I could only get there myself! Failure! Failure! Failure! Gnats! But I will not have my plans ruined to-night by any fool! Here, you, Dixer! Where's Dixer?”

“I'm here,” a voice answered.

“Listen, them!” murmured the Ladybird. “You haven't got any more brains than any of the rest of them, but you're so cautious you wouldn't take a chance on swapping a Mexican dollar for a gold eagle unless you had a bottle of acid in your pocket—for fear the eagle was bad! I want caution tonight, and I want orders obeyed to the letter, and that's all I want. You take the runabout and go down there. You've lots of time. Tell Number One you're in charge. I'll wire him to that effect. And now pay attention to me so you won't have ignorance for an excuse! It's time the police and the rags they call newspapers around here had a little something to divert their attention—from us. They're getting to be pests, and I want a lull in which to devote a little more attention to—the Hawk. It's about time they understood we are modest enough not to hog all the lime-light!” He laughed a little, a low, modulated, dulcet laugh, that rippled like a woman's—but in the ripple there was something that was akin to a shudder. “Twice in the last month, the Traders' National has made remittances to its banking correspondent at Elkhead for the mine country pay rolls and on account of general business. They did it very neatly, they fooled us completely—because the remittances were only piker amounts, and because it was only a question of letting them get fed up enough with their own cleverness to pull a good one! They're pulling a good one to-night!” The Ladybird's laugh rippled out again. “To outwit us, and paying us the compliment of not daring to trust to ordinary means of shipment, they've had a little arrangement in force with Lanson, the division superintendent. It was very simple. Lanson, in his car, making a trip over the division, could never interest us—certainly not! Why should it? Only they did not count on Number Eleven inside the bank. Very well! They wrapped their banknotes up in small packages, sealed them with the bank's seal, wrapped these small packages up again into an innocent looking parcel without a seal, and handed it over to a trusted young employé by the name of Meridan—Paul Meridan. On both the former occasions, Meridan left the bank at the usual closing hour, took the parcel with him, and went home; but, later on, in the evening, he slipped down to the railroad yard, boarded Lanson's private car, locked the parcel up in a small cupboard at the bottom of the bookcase with which the main compartment of the car is equipped, smoked a cigar with Lanson, turned in, the car was coupled to the night express, and in the morning Meridan delivered his package in Elkhead.

“That was the way it was done before, Dixer”—the Ladybird's voice, if anything, grew softer—“and that's the way it is being done this time—only there are more little sealed packages in the parcel to-night. And to-night Meridan will sneak out of his home again, and go down to the private car with the money as usual. Your way, yours and the Butcher's, and that of the rest of you, would be to lay a blackjack over Meridan's head on the way to the railroad yard, and snatch the parcel. It's not my way. It's too hot, as it is, around here now, and there's got to be a big enough noise made to attract attention to the other side of the fence and give us a breathing spell. Paul Meridan stands for this to-night. There's nothing new about one of those ubiquitous 'trusted employés' going wrong, but everybody sucks in their breaths just the same every time it happens, and the splash is always just as big. Understand? Number One has got a dummy package identical in appearance with Meridan's—each of the small packages is sealed with the bank's seal in dark-green wax, and the whole is wrapped up with the bank's special wrapping paper and tied precisely as is the one Meridan has in his possession. Number Eleven did his work well. There was, of course, no opportunity to effect the exchange in the bank itself, and the dummy parcel had to be made up outside, but there was no difficulty in carrying away enough wrapping paper and wax for the purpose—and, as far as the seal was concerned, it was you, Dixer, who engraved it a week ago, wasn't it?”

“Yes,” said Dixer. “You took me off the new twenty-spot plate for that.”

“Exactly!” lisped the Ladybird. “Well, though this exchange could not be effected in the bank, there was no great ingenuity required to get Meridan to handle, perhaps only to lift, say, a pile of the bank's wrapping paper from one position on a table or desk to another. If the under sheet happened to be slightly smeared, and so left a not too evident, but still well-defined finger print, it was, I am afraid, our friend Meridan's great misfortune! That was one of the sheets Number Eleven took away with him. Very good! Meridan delivers his package to his bank's correspondent in Elkhead to-morrow morning. When the seals are broken, the little packages are found to contain—piles of blotting paper, neatly and carefully cut to the size of banknotes! There could be no reason for suspecting Meridan, the trusted employé—no one would think of such a thing. He had simply been the victim of a clever substitution. He was entirely blameless. Naturally! That would be the way Meridan would reason, and that would be the way they would figure he had reasoned when they read the letter from 'a friend' that we are sending to-night, and which they will receive in the morning. Meridan did have an ample opportunity to effect the substitution himself. The letter simply suggests a close inspection of the wrappers for finger prints, and directs attention to Apartment B, on the ground floor of The Linden—a rather fashionable abode for a young and newly married bank clerk—where there might possibly be found certain articles such as, say, a counterfeit of the bank's seal, a quantity of the bank's special dark-green wax, and some superfluous sheets of the bank's particular wrapping paper!”

There was utter silence from the cellar below for an instant, then there came a callous guffaw.

Some plant, all right!” applauded a voice hoarsely. “And it was twenty-five thousand dollars, you said, wasn't it, chief?”

Again that rippling laugh, soft, low and silvery.

“Twenty-five thousand dollars is correct,” corroborated the Ladybird. “And now, Dixer, if you fail, you'll talk to me—you've seen all the cards. Number One has a duplicate key to the private car, and a duplicate key to the bookcase cupboard. Don't enter the car until you are sure Meridan, Lanson and the porter are asleep. I want caution—and I will settle with the man until he will wish he had never been born who lets our hand show in this tonight. The car won't be moved from the siding until the Eastern Express is made up at midnight, but don't touch the car while it is on the siding at all if it means taking any chances; in that case you and Number One can get berths in the Pullman, and, with the private car right behind you, you can then make the exchange sometime during the night. You'll find Number One and the rest of them in the old freight shed near the roundhouse, and, with the private car right behind you, you can then make the exchange sometime during the night. You'll find Number One and the rest of them in the old freight shed near the roundhouse, and——”

The Hawk was wriggling silently back across the floor. There was no scheme on foot to-night that was aimed at him; there was, instead, twenty-five thousand dollars—in cash. He gained the window, and swung to the sill. Footsteps, hurried, sounded from the direction of the cellar stairs. The Hawk dropped to the ground, stole noiselessly around the rear of the house, and reached the shelter of the grove of trees. Here, he paused, slipped his mask into his pocket, and, for a moment, a look of puzzled hesitation was in his face; then, running again, but making a wide detour to avoid the guarded section of the track, he headed for a point that would intercept the right of way quite close to the Conmore station. And, as he ran, he jerked his watch and flashlight from his pockets. It was a quarter past nine. It was early yet, very early, and they certainly would not make any attempt on the car much before midnight, but, for all that, the Hawk, who was intimately conversant with the train schedules, shook his head impatiently, as he sped along—there were twenty miles between himself and Selkirk, and the quickest, as indeed the only way to get there, since, unlike Dixer, he was not possessed of a runabout, was slow at best. There were no westbound passenger trains scheduling Conmore for two hours or more, and he would scarcely have dared to risk boarding one at the station if there had been—there remained, then, not by choice, but by necessity, the way freight. The way freight “made” Conmore at about ten o'clock, and Selkirk at about eleven-thirty.

It would serve admirably, of course, if——He shook his head again, and then laughed shortly. There were no “ifs”—he would be a passenger on the way freight.

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