THE wound was healed—partially, at least. If the Hawk had unduly shortened his period of convalescence, he was perhaps justified, and not wholly without excuse! He stood now in the black shadows, hugged close to the wall of the roundhouse. And now he moved stealthily forward, until, from a crouched position, he straightened up against the wall at the side of one of the few windows which were lighted. Lanson had strolled aimlessly across the tracks from the station some ten minutes before, and, five minutes later, MacVightie had followed Lanson—to their chosen spot for secret conferences, this little “cubbyhole” of a turner's office in the roundhouse, as the Hawk, from more than one experience in the past, had very good reason to know. They were in there now, and, as the Hawk was likewise exceedingly well aware, the events of the next few hours, and incidentally his own particular movements, depended very pertinently upon the movements of MacVightie and Lanson.

Lanson's voice in quietly modulated tones reached the Hawk:

“Yes, both trains are on time to the minute; I've taken care of that. And so far there doesn't seem to be a hitch anywhere, and with your men boarding the trains west of here at different stations along the line, and mixing quietly with the passengers, I don't see how any one could be the wiser on that score. Yes, it looks as though everything were all right—eh, MacVightie?”

“I don't know; I hope so,” MacVightie's deep growl came in reply. “Anyhow, we've carried out instructions from Washington, and it's up to the Secret Service crowd as to how it pans out.”

“No, it isn't!” declared Lanson, still quietly. “It isn't up to a soul on earth except those of us who have got the responsibility of this division on our shoulders! I believe the plan is a good one, but because it came from Washington doesn't let us out—not for a minute! What about Birks; has he shown up yet?”

“Not yet,” MacVightie answered—and swore suddenly under his breath. “And I don't mind admitting that the crowd down there in Washington make me tired! It's over two weeks ago that I put it up to them. They said they would take the matter under consideration, and in any case would send one of their men, this Birks, out here to make an investigation. But nothing doing! Then, as you know, I wrote them again a week ago, when we knew this Alaskan gold shipment was coming through, and you know their reply; they outlined a plan for us, and stated definitely that Birks would be on deck to-night. Maybe he will—in time to tell us what we should have done!”

“The Secret Service isn't a police force,” said Lanson tersely. “The only excuse they would have for acting at all would be if your pet theory were correct—that the Hawk and his gang, apart from their systematised murders and robberies, were also the ones who have been flooding the country with those counterfeit ten-dollar notes. You had no actual proof to offer, and Washington evidently hasn't felt quite so sure about it as you have. However, there's no use discussing that to-night. If Birks shows up, all right; if he doesn't—well, I don't see that he could make any difference one way or the other now.”

There was silence for a moment, then Lanson spoke again.

“What worries me as much as anything,” he said slowly, “is the express company making a shipment of money at the same time—forty thousand dollars in the car's safe. Of course, it's logical enough with a half million to guard anyway, but it's an added incentive to those, devils, that's all. A half million In raw gold isn't any easy thing to pick up and walk off with, and there's more than an even chance that the Wire Devils might pass it up on that account; but with banknotes alone in so large an amount——”

“If they know about it!” interrupted MacVightie brusquely. “And it's not likely they do! You can't send a heavily guarded express car on from the coast and keep it mum that gold is going through, especially when the papers print pictures of the cases being swung out of the steamer's hold on arrival from Alaska—but the other's different. I'm not banking on them passing up the gold on any account, though they may, at that; but in any case they'll be welcome to open the safe now, won't they?”

Again there was an instant's silence; and the Hawk now, as though fearful of losing a word that might be spoken, strained forward closer still to the side of the window.

“Yes, that's right!” Lanson laughed now in a grimly humorous way. “It's in the biggest case of all! Yes, I guess it's all right, MacVightie; anyway, another hour or two will tell the story. The shift should have been made at Mornleigh without any trouble, and the Limited will come through here without a thing in the express car except the guards! If they hold her up anywhere on the division, that's all they'll find—the guards, and one of your posses. Yes, it ought to work.” Lanson's voice took on a curiously monotonous drone, as though he were checking over the details in his own mind, and unconsciously doing so audibly. “The Limited takes water at Mornleigh, and No. 18 always takes the siding there to let the Limited pass, so there's nothing in that to arouse suspicion. In the darkness, with the door of the Limited's express car only a foot or so away from the door of No. 18'. baggage car, and a picked crew to transfer the gold, I don't see how there could be any 'leak.' The Limited pulls in here with its guarded express car—everything looks just as those Wire Devils would expect it to look—and they know the gold left the coast on that train, and in that car. Yes, I think we win to-night. If they hold up the Limited they'll catch a Tartar, and without any risk on our part as far as the gold is concerned. How many men in the posse scattered through the cars on that train?”

“Twenty,” said MacVightie tersely.

“Good!” said Lanson approvingly. “That ought to be enough to round them up—if they nibble at the bait at all. And if they don't, if they let the Limited go through unmolested, it will be pretty nearly safe to assume, as I said before, that they figure gold in the bulk is too awkward a thing to handle, and too hard to get away with. But even there we are not taking any chances; they might have discovered that it had been transferred. How many men in the posse on No. 18?”

“The same number,” replied MacVightie—and then MacVightie's fist crashed down into the palm of his hand. “I hope they start something!” he exclaimed savagely. “I'd give a year's salary to get to grips with them, and if I ever do I'll clean 'em out! And I'll see that some of them, and particularly that damned Hawk, swing for it! I haven't forgotten the murder of old Mother Barrett's boy in the express car that night, or a dozen others, or——”

“That's your end of it, MacVightie,” said Lanson grimly. “Mine's to see five hundred thousand dollars' worth of bullion and forty thousand in cash over this division and safely on its way East. If the plan——”

The Hawk, slipping silently out of the shadows, began to cross the railroad yard, heading for the station.

“Forty thousand dollars,” said the Hawk softly to himself—and chuckled suddenly. “Forty thousand dollars in a big packing case! The biggest case of the lot, he said, wasn't it?” The chuckle died away, and the Hawk's face grew hard. “I don't know!” muttered the Hawk. “It's no cinch! I guess there'll be something doing to-night!”

A glance at the illuminated dial of the clock on the station tower showed it to be half past eight, as the Hawk stepped to the platform. He hesitated an instant in indecision, then went on into the general waiting room. There was ample time. The Limited was not due for another hour; and No. 18—in which alone he had now any concern—did not schedule Selkirk until forty minutes after the Limited. Nearly two hours!

The Hawk, standing in the doorway of the waiting room, ostentatiously consulted a time-table which he drew from his pocket, frowned, glanced about him, and, finally, approaching the news-counter, which appeared for the moment to be minus an attendant, helped himself to a newspaper, tossed a copper on top of the pile, and appropriated the nearest seat. The Hawk opened his paper in front of him—and over the top of the paper inspected with some interest the view afforded by the open doorway of the news-counter, which was directly facing him and but a few feet away. The news-counter was a long, narrow affair, glass enclosed, with big sliding windows, making one corner of the waiting room, and at its further end boasted a little office of its own. The door of this private domain was closed, but it, too, was glass panelled, and the apparent absence of any attendant was explained. The Hawk permitted a curious smile to flicker across his lips behind his newspaper. Inside the little office a man, sprawled forward in a chair, his head resting on his arms, which were outflung across the desk in front of him, appeared to be sound asleep and magnificently oblivious to anything so grossly material as business.

The Hawk shifted his glance, this time for a more critical survey of the waiting room. He found himself, strangely enough, quite sheltered from observation. True, it was “between trains,” and there were very few people in the room—he had noted several women and an elderly man with a little boy, as he had come in—but these were now screened from his view by the large, boxed-in posts, or pillars, that, in the remodelling and enlargement of the station some years before, had sought to combine, evidently, ornamentation with stability.

The Hawk's eyes, under cover of his newspaper, reverted to the man at the desk. The minutes passed—five, ten of them. The man's hours were long undoubtedly, and usually there were two in charge of the news-counter, which might perhaps account for the man's weariness, and the profound slumber that was possible even in such an uncomfortable position! The Hawk turned to the editorial page of his newspaper. There were almost two hours before No. 18 was due, and, though he had a little business of a purely personal and intimate nature to transact before then, there was time in abundance and to spare, and it might possibly be utilised as profitably here as anywhere else. In any case, there was usually an editorial diatribe, interesting principally for the virulent language in which it was couched, anent the Hawk and the Wire Devils, with whose leadership he, the Hawk, was universally credited. The Hawk smiled thinly. If leadership was vested in the lion's portion of the spoils, then MacVightie, and Lanson, and the newspapers, and the public generally were unquestionably right—but, since those spoils had been snatched from under the noses of the Wire Devils, thanks to his possession of their secret code, the Wire Devils and the Ladybird in particular, that peer of the underworld who, as he had discovered a few nights ago, was the moving spirit of the gang, held a very different and even more decided opinion on the subject!

He folded the paper over, and sprawled himself out lazily on his seat—but if the editorial in question was on the sheet before him, he did not see it. The man at the desk raised his head, yawned, stretched himself, and, as though wearily resuming his work, reached into a small drawer that stood open in the upper section of the roll-top desk, took out a pad of paper, and began to write.

Still another five minutes passed; and then the man tossed his pencil away from him, and reached out for the telephone at his elbow. But now he seemed to hesitate, then evidently changed his mind. He pushed back his chair, stood up, tore the sheet of paper on which he had been writing from the pad, replaced the pad in the drawer, closed the drawer, and, turning quickly, opened the office door. He came down the narrow space behind the news-counter itself, stepped out into the waiting room, glanced hurriedly about him, and, breaking suddenly into a run, disappeared through the waiting room door in the direction of the platform.

The Hawks lassitude seemed suddenly to have vanished. In a flash he had covered the few feet of space that separated his seat from the doorway of the news-counter, and now, crouched low, hidden by the counter itself, he darted silently for the little office, gained it, wrenched open the drawer of the desk—and over the Hawk's set, tense features there flickered again that curious smile. Faint, muffled, but none the less distinctly, there came from the interior of the drawer, which, as he reached in his hand, he found was open through to the wall, the clicking of a telegraph sounder. But, while he listened, the Hawk was working with breathless haste. His fingers closed on the pad of paper, and tore off the topmost sheet. Without folding or crushing the paper, he laid it carefully inside his vest, buttoned his vest over it again, closed the drawer of the desk noiselessly—and in another instant was lolling again in his seat in the waiting room, apparently immersed once more in his newspaper.

It had taken the Hawk a matter of less than a minute to go and come, but for all that his margin of safety had been small. The man returned almost instantly, and again entered the office. The Hawk, finding that for once the editorial which might have afforded him a genuine, if passing, interest, was absent, turned another page of the paper, spent a few minutes in the somewhat unprofitable perusal of what proved to be massed columns of “Help Wanted” and “Situations Vacant” advertisements, and, finally, throwing the paper down on the seat beside him, got up leisurely, and strolled out through the main entrance of the station to the street.

The Hawk crossed the road, and slipped into the lane that was almost opposite the station. This being accustomed ground to the Hawk, he made his way quickly along in the blackness, reached the first intersecting street, dove through the doorway of the dirty and squalid three-story building, the ground floor of which was occupied by a saloon, and, mounting the narrow staircase, entered the room that was directly over the saloon on the first landing. The Hawk locked the door behind him. If his temporary abode in Selkirk City could be so designated, the Hawk was at home.

He switched on the electric light, drew a chair up to the cheap and somewhat dilapidated table that stood against the wall opposite the door, and from under his vest took out the sheet of paper he had purloined a few minutes before. He spread it out eagerly before him on the table, scanned it closely, and into his dark eyes there came a half mocking, half triumphant gleam.

“I thought so!” murmured the Hawk. “He didn't dare telephone it. I thought the messages must be coming in pretty hot to-night—the other fellow must have gone up to the East End to shoot some mighty important reply back, or else he'd never have left his pal short-handed. It's no wonder I never tumbled to that lay until the Ladybird opened the bag! I didn't recognise those news-counter fellows, did I? Why should I? They're new ones just breaking into the game, or they'd never have pulled a fool stunt like this!”

The Hawk bent over the paper. In places the impression left by the pencil was faint and, indeed, illegible, and had not come through from the upper sheet at all; but the Hawk patiently and painstakingly settled himself to his task. The first few lines were but a confused and, to all outward appearances, meaningless jumble of letters run together—one of the Wire Devils' code messages. And here, if this had been all, the Hawk would have been hopelessly astray; but lower down on the sheet the man had decoded the cipher, and here, where letters and words were too faintly impressed on the paper or were missing altogether, the Hawk was able to supply them by following the general sense of the message. He began by tracing over the impressions carefully with a sharp lead pencil, and at the expiration of a few minutes was staring, a grim smile on his lips, at the following:

“Gold transferred to No. 18 at Momleigh. Keep away from Limited. Probably big posse on No. 18. Every man will join Number One on Train 18 to-night. Those boarding No. 18 at Selkirk must on no account excite suspicion. All other details to stand.”

The Hawk's remark, as he reached into his inside coat pocket and brought out several small slips of paper, which he laid on the table in front of him, was seemingly quite irrelevant.

“Yes,” said the Hawk. “I've been curious ever since yesterday to get a look at that desk—yes, I guess the Ladybird's no fool!”

The Hawk arranged the slips of paper in what appeared to be a sort of chronological order, and studied them for a moment. Prefacing the message he had just obtained, these others, messages that he had intercepted at intervals during the preceding few days, made a complete and decidedly enlightening record. The first one, decoded, read:

“Reported movement of half million in gold to be made from coast. Number Three will proceed to coast, verify, and secure details.”

The Hawk nodded shortly. Number Three was the Bantam. He passed on to the next message:

“Gold coming through on Limited on Thursday night. Express car well guarded. Numbers One, Seven, Eight, Six and Four will board Limited at different stopping points west of Mornleigh; all others to hold themselves in readiness at Selkirk.”

Again the Hawk nodded. This was Thursday night! Mornleigh was the Limited's last stop west of Selkirk. Number One was the Butcher, and the others were—he shrugged his shoulders. As he had once facetiously remarked, somebody must have left the door of Sing Sing open!

There was still another message:

“Hold up train three miles East of Echo Rock. Detach express car, and run to Willow Creek bridge. Load gold on wagon, and disperse.”

The Hawk consulted his watch. It was a quarter past nine. He took out his pipe, lighted it, put his feet up on the table, and gathering together the various slips of paper abstractedly began to tear them into shreds.

Pieced together, the whole affair was quite simple. In a word, every move that had been made by Larson and MacVightie at the instigation of the Secret Service men, and, presumably, in particular by one Birks, was known to the Ladybird and the Wire Devils. Lanson and MacVightie had waited until the last moment before making the transfer at Mornleigh, the final stop before Selkirk, but the Bantam was already accompanying the gold east on the Limited, and, added to the Bantam by that: time, there would have been those others who were detailed to board the Limited at the various points still further west of Mornleigh.

It was very simple. The Bantam had not been asleep at Mornleigh, and it was not the contents of the express car alone that had been transferred there—the Bantam and his companions had likewise transferred themselves to No. 18! Also, either because the Bantam had spotted some of MacVightie's men, or because logical deductions in the Ladybird's very shrewd brain had led to that conclusion, it was known that No. 18 harboured a posse. It was evident, however, that this in no way dismayed the Ladybird; and it was equally evident that both Lan-son and MacVightie were very far astray, in their estimate of the nerve and resourcefulness of the brain behind the Wire Devils' organisation, to have, even considered it as a possibility that the physical difficulty in the way of handling a half million in raw gold would have caused the Ladybird to hesitate an instant in an effort to get his hands upon it. A half million—was a half million! That was the answer! The only change the Ladybird had seen fit to make was to mobilise, as it were, the entire, strength of the Wire Devils to offset MacVightie's posse. Apart from that, according to the final message, the prearranged plan was to stand.

It was not a plan that was markedly original, paralleling very closely, as it did, the Wire Devils' removal of the safe from the express car of the last Mail on a certain night not very long since, but this could hardly be held up against the Ladybird—there were limitations to originality, and originality was a secondary consideration as compared with feasibility and success. Echo Rock station was two stations east of Conmore, the Wire Devils' headquarters—just far enough distant to preclude the immediate search from spreading to the neighbourhood of Conmore, and yet not too far away to make the transport of the gold to the isolated old farmhouse impractical before daylight. The details of the holdup itself required little elucidation. In whatever manner they might elect to bring the train to a stop, all that was necessary, once that was accomplished, was to keep MacVightie's men from No. 18'. baggage car while the car itself, into which the Wire Devils would naturally retreat, moved off down the line to the Willow Creek bridge some two or three miles further on.

The Hawk took his pipe from his lips, polished the bowl by rubbing it along the side of his nose, and inspected the result critically. And then the Hawk smiled pleasantly to himself. In none of the messages had the Wire Devils given the slightest evidence of any knowledge of a fact that was very near to his, the Hawk's, heart. It was quite possible, even probable, that on one point, at least, Lanson and MacVightie were right—that the Wire Devils were ignorant of the presence of that forty thousand dollars in bills—but even supposing that they did know, they would scarcely give him, the Hawk, credit for being in possession of the knowledge as well. Therefore, bitter as was the feud between them, the Ladybird would be almost certain to ignore his, the Hawk's existence in so far as this night's work was concerned. The Hawk's smile broadened. It was quite true, single-handed he would have no excuse on earth for attempting the impossible feat of carrying away a half million in gold—but forty thousand dollars in banknotes was not as prohibitory in its weight! His problem, therefore, simplified itself into an intimate investigation of No. 18'. baggage car before Echo Rock was reached, and before either MacVightie's posse, or the Butcher and his ungentle crowd in the cars behind, should have started anything on their own account.

“Yes,” said the Hawk confidentially to the toe of his boot, “yes, I guess I'll sit in for a hand in the game myself; yes, I guess it looks pretty good—if the luck holds.”

The Hawk relapsed into silence, still studying the toe of his boot. His last remark seemed suddenly to have obsessed him, and he frowned. If the luck still held! It wasn't altogether luck—indeed, it was far from luck. The Ladybird, and, for that matter, a half dozen others of the Wire Devils whom he could name, were not to be lightly reckoned with. He had no delusions on that score! Since the day he had begun to trespass on the Wire Devils preserves, listening when and where he could, he had intercepted enough of their cipher messages as they came over the wires to enable him to pull from the fire and pocket for himself the chestnuts they had been so carefully roasting for themselves, to turn in fact the entire labour and effort of their organisation to his own account—and in their turn they had sought by every means within their power to trap him. And they had nearly caught him, very nearly caught him once, and he had realised that the haphazard method in which, not knowing their source, he had been able to obtain the cipher messages would no longer do. It was through those messages alone that he could hope to get a hint of, and thereby forestall, the next trap they might set for him. And then the way had seemed to clear a little when he had at last discovered that source in the old farmhouse near Conmore, and had discovered that the Ladybird, thought dead and mourned by the underworld as one of its greatest, from a wheel chair now, a maimed thing in all save brain, moved and guided what MacVightie had been pleased to call the most powerful and dangerous criminal organisation that had ever known existence. Only on the night that he, the Hawk, had made those discoveries he had been wounded! That was a week ago. For three days, not daring to let it be known that a wounded man was in the house, he had remained here in his room, nursing his hurt as best he could. It had only been a flesh wound, and those three days were all he had allowed himself to remain inactive; for in those three days, temporarily blindfolded as to any move against him that the Ladybird might make, he had lived like a hunted man, wary of every passing moment, of every sound without his door, his automatic never for an instant out of reach. After that, during the past four nights, he had resumed his vigil at the farmhouse again.

The Hawk smiled grimly. No, he laboured under no delusions as to the craft, the cunning, and the power of those against whom he had elected to play a lone hand! The four nights just past had resulted in something more than the mere accumulation of those code messages he had just read, in something besides a more intimate acquaintanceship with the farmhouse and its surroundings, even including the underground passage, for instance, that led from the wagon shed to a trapdoor in the cellar—it had resulted, last night, in a still further insight into the ingenuity and the sort of remorseless mastery of detail through which the organisation attained its ends. The method by which they tapped the wires, commandeering the telegraph system of the railroad, the primary purpose of which was undoubtedly to supply them with the vital information that must of necessity pass over the wires and on which they based their own plans, this gold shipment to-night, for example, or the shipment of diamonds from New York of a few weeks back, was ingenious enough; but still more ingenious, when using their secret code and putting the wires to another purpose, that of enabling the Ladybird to direct his operations and send his orders as he had done to-night, was the method by which those messages were received. Every sounder on the line carried them, of course, and when, in isolated cases, the gang was working at smaller places along the line, they could readily enough, if expecting a message, as he, the Hawk, had often done, keep within sound of an instrument by the simple expedient of occupying a waiting room, or of lounging on the platform outside the operator's window; but the vast majority of the messages were for those of the gang who maintained a sort of branch headquarters in Selkirk, and such a method was neither practical nor possible, since the first essential in making the scheme of value was that, without the chance of a single message being missed, the messages should reach their destination at any hour of the day and night.

Again the Hawk smiled grimly. It had puzzled him a good many times—but it puzzled him no longer! Last night the Ladybird, quite unconscious of a rapt audience, had, by a chance remark, disclosed the secret; and to-night he, the Hawk, had seen the plan in operation! The news-counter! It was simple enough; but it held a deadly significance in its proof of the fact that there were no obstacles too great, no details too minute to stand in the way between the Ladybird and the end he sought. The news-counter was directly beneath the operator's room upstairs. In the old days, before the station had been enlarged and modernised, it had been a somewhat diminutive affair, and where the news-counter now stood had been the superintendent's office. This had connected with the room above by means of an old-fashioned speaking tube. When the alterations had been made, the mouthpieces, both above and below, had been removed, the room above had been papered over, and the waiting room had been plastered; but, as the wall had been left intact, the speaking tube had remained embedded—in the wall. Yes, it was very simple! Say, a dint in the wall in the operator's room above, and a slight tear in the paper that, if it attracted any attention at all in surroundings where the call boys backed their chairs against the wall and kept their hair on end with nickel thrillers, would at least never excite suspicion! And below, with the desk in the little office of the news-counter backed up against it, who was to know that a hole had been punched in the wall, or, for that matter, in the back of the desk itself behind the convenient little drawer, so that one could sit there and listen to the sounder upstairs! Also, it was quite obvious now why, several months ago, the old lessee of the news-counter had been bought out by some newcomers!

The Hawk's lips tightened. The game to its full extent was wide open now. The news-counter ran day and night, operated by four of the gang in pairs, one always on duty at the desk; while, should there, by any chance or at any time, be an unwelcome intruder in the office, the drawer had only to be shut and the sound was thereby eliminated. When a message “broke” over the wires above, the man on duty had only to decipher it and telephone it to what the Ladybird had referred to as the “boarding house”—the disguise, it appeared now, under which the gang maintained its headquarters in the city. That was all there was to it! To-night, it was true, the operation had been a little different; but the reason for that, as the Hawk had already decided in his own mind, was obvious enough. With MacVigh-tie, Lanson, and the authorities generally, on the alert, due to the gold shipment coming through, the man had not dared to take the risk of telephoning any such message as he had received, but had taken it outside to where one of the gang, undoubtedly, in view of the importance of the night's work, was on additional duty and in readiness to receive and transmit it on the instant, say, to the local headquarters. As for the absence of the second man at the news-counter, who ordinarily preserved the pretence of catering to the public, it was quite possible, and indeed likely, that he had gone on a similar errand with a previous message; or, if one of the rare occasions when it was necessary to telegraph a cipher message from Selkirk had arisen, he might have gone—according to the Ladybird again—to the little suburban station at the East End of the city, which was closed at night, but to which an entry and the subsequent use of the wire would present little difficulty, since MacVightie had finally given up as impossible the task of guarding all the numerous stations of that description on the division.

“Yes,” said the Hawk suddenly, under his breath, “I guess they'd go a long way to get their hands on what I've got off their bat; and I guess, after that, I'd go out—like a pricked bubble!” He sucked meditatively at his brier for a moment; then a mirthless smile parted his lips, and he spoke again. “Forty thousand dollars,” whispered the Hawk. “Yes, I guess that's the play—and the last one! If I win out to-night, and I guess I will, this is where the curtain drops, and the Hawk makes his fade-away for parts unknown!”

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