The Untamed/18

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Hardly a score of miles away, Jim Silent and his six companions topped a hill. He raised his hand and the others drew rein beside him. Kate Cumberland shifted her weight a little to one side of the saddle to rest and looked down from the crest on the sweep of country below. A mile away the railroad made a streak of silver light across the brown range and directly before them stood the squat station-house with red-tiled roof. Just before the house, a slightly broader streak of that gleaming light showed the position of the siding rails. She turned her head towards the outlaws. They were listening to the final directions of their chief, and the darkly intent faces told their own story. She knew, from what she had gathered of their casual hints, that this was to be the scene of the train hold-up.

It seemed impossible that this little group of men could hold the great fabric of a train with all its scores of passengers at their mercy. In spite of herself, half her heart wished them success. There was Terry Jordan forgetful of the wound in his arm; Shorty Rhinehart, his saturnine face longer and more calamitous than ever; Hal Purvis, grinning and nodding his head; Bill Kilduff with his heavy jaw set like a bull dog's; Lee Haines, with a lock of tawny hair blowing over his forehead, smiling faintly as he listened to Silent as if he heard a girl tell a story of love; and finally Jim Silent himself, huge, solemn, confident. She began to feel that these six men were worth six hundred.

She hated them for some reasons; she feared them for others; but the brave blood of Joe Cumberland was thick in her and she loved the danger of the coming moment. Their plans were finally agreed upon, their masks arranged, and after Haines had tied a similar visor over Kate's face, they started down the hill at a swinging gallop.

In front of the house of the station-agent they drew up, and while the others were at their horses, Lee Haines dismounted and rapped loudly at the door. It was opened by a grey-bearded man smoking a pipe. Haines covered him. He tossed up his hands and the pipe dropped from his mouth.

"Who's in the house here with you?" asked Haines.

"Not a soul!" stammered the man. "If you're lookin' for money you c'n run through the house. You won't find a thing worth takin'."

"I don't want money. I want you," said Haines; and immediately explained, "you're perfectly safe. All you have to do is to be obliging. As for the money, you just throw open that switch and flag the train when she rolls along in a few moments. We'll take care of the rest. You don't have to keep your hands up."

The hands came down slowly. For a brief instant the agent surveyed Haines and the group of masked men who sat their horses a few paces away, and then without a word he picked up his flag from behind the door and walked out of the house. Throughout the affair he never uttered a syllable. Haines walked up to the head of the siding with him while he opened the switch and accompanied him back to the point opposite the station-house to see that he gave the "stop" signal correctly. In the meantime two of the other outlaws entered the little station, bound the telegrapher hand and foot, and shattered his instrument. That would prevent the sending of any call for help after the hold-up. Purvis and Jordan (since Terry could shoot with his left hand in case of need) went to the other side of the track and lay down against the grade. It was their business to open fire on the tops of the windows as the train drew to a stop. That would keep the passengers inside. The other four were distributed along the side nearest to the station-house. Shorty Rhinehart and Bill Kilduff were to see that no passengers broke out from the train and attempted a flank attack. Haines would attend to having the fire box of the engine flooded. For the cracking of the safe, Silent carried the stick of dynamite.

Now the long wait began. There is a dreamlike quality about bright mornings in the open country, and everything seemed unreal to Kate. It was impossible that tragedy should come on such a day. The moments stole on. She saw Silent glance twice at his watch and scowl. Evidently the train was late and possibly they would give up the attempt. Then a light humming caught her ear.

She held her breath and listened again. It was unmistakable—a slight thing—a tremor to be felt rather than heard. She saw Haines peering under shaded eyes far down the track, and following the direction of his gaze she saw a tiny spot of haze on the horizon. The tiny puff of smoke developed to a deeper, louder note. The station-agent took his place on the track.

Now the train bulked big, the engine wavering slightly to the unevenness of the road bed. The flag of the station-agent moved. Kate closed her eyes and set her teeth. There was a rumbling and puffing and a mighty grinding—a shout somewhere—the rattle of a score of pistol shots—she opened her eyes to see the train rolling to a stop on the siding directly before her.

Kilduff and Shorty Rhinehart, crouching against the grade, were splintering the windows one by one with nicely placed shots. The baggage-cars were farther up the siding than Silent calculated. He and Haines now ran towards the head of the train.

The fireman and engineer jumped from their cab, holding their arms stiffly above their heads; and Haines approached with poised revolver to make them flood the fire box. In this way the train would be delayed for some time and before it could send out the alarm the bandits would be far from pursuit. Haines had already reached the locomotive and Silent was running towards the first baggage-car when the door of that car slid open and at the entrance appeared two men with rifles at their shoulders. As they opened fire Silent pitched to the ground. Kate set her teeth and forced her eyes to stay open.

Even as the outlaw fell his revolver spoke and one of the men threw up his hands with a yell and pitched out of the open door. His companion still kept his post, pumping shots at the prone figure. Twice more the muzzle of Silent's gun jerked up and the second man crumpled on the floor of the car.

A great hissing and a jetting cloud of steam announced that Haines had succeeded in flooding the fire box. Silent climbed into the first baggage-car, stepping, as he did so, on the limp body of the Wells Fargo agent, who lay on the road bed. A moment later he flung out the body of the second messenger. The man flopped on the ground heavily, face downwards, and then—greatest horror of all!—dragged himself to his hands and knees and began to crawl laboriously. Kate ran and dropped to her knees beside him.

"Are you hurt badly?" she pleaded. "Where? Where?"

He sagged to the ground and lay on his left side, breathing heavily.

"Where is the wound?" she repeated.

He attempted to speak, but only a bloody froth came to his lips. That was sufficient to tell her that he had been shot through the lungs.

She tore open his shirt and found two purple spots high on the chest, one to the right, and one to the left. From that on the left ran a tiny trickle of blood, but that on the right was only a small puncture in the midst of a bruise. He was far past all help.

"Speak to me!" she pleaded.

His eyes rolled and then checked on her face.

"Done for," he said in a horrible whisper, "that devil done me. Kid—cut out—this life. I've played this game—myself—an' now—I'm goin'—to hell for it!"

A great convulsion twisted his face.

"What can I do?" cried Kate.

"Tell the world—I died—game!"

His body writhed, and in the last agony his hand closed hard over hers. It was like a silent farewell, that strong clasp.

A great hand caught her by the shoulder and jerked her to her feet.

"The charge is goin' off! Jump for it!" shouted Silent in her ear.

She sprang up and at the same time there was a great boom from within the car. The side bulged out—a section of the top lifted and fell back with a crash—and Silent ran back into the smoke. Haines, Purvis, and Kilduff were instantly at the car, taking the ponderous little canvas sacks of coin as their chief handed them out.

Within two minutes after the explosion ten small sacks were deposited in the saddlebags on the horses which stood before the station-house. Silent's whistle called in Terry Jordan and Shorty Rhinehart—a sharp order forced Kate to climb into her saddle—and the train robbers struck up the hillside at a racing pace. A confused shouting rose behind them. Rifles commenced to crack where some of the passengers had taken up the weapons of the dead guards, but the bullets flew wide, and the little troop was soon safely out of range.

On the other side of the hill-top they changed their course to the right. For half an hour the killing pace continued, and then, as there was not a sign of immediate chase, the lone riders drew down to a soberer pace. Silent called: "Keep bunched behind me. We're headed for the old Salton place—an' a long rest."