It was the height of the reign of terror. McMurdo, who had already bee_ppointed Inner Deacon, with every prospect of some day succeeding McGinty a_odymaster, was now so necessary to the councils of his comrades that nothin_as done without his help and advice. The more popular he became, however, with the Freemen, the blacker were the scowls which greeted him as he passe_long the streets of Vermissa. In spite of their terror the citizens wer_aking heart to band themselves together against their oppressors. Rumours ha_eached the lodge of secret gatherings in the Herald office and o_istribution of firearms among the law-abiding people. But McGinty and his me_ere undisturbed by such reports. They were numerous, resolute, and wel_rmed. Their opponents were scattered and powerless. It would all end, as i_ad done in the past, in aimless talk and possibly in impotent arrests. S_aid McGinty, McMurdo, and all the bolder spirits.
It was a Saturday evening in May. Saturday was always the lodge night, an_cMurdo was leaving his house to attend it when Morris, the weaker brother o_he order, came to see him. His brow was creased with care, and his kindl_ace was drawn and haggard.
"Can I speak with you freely, Mr. McMurdo?"
"I can't forget that I spoke my heart to you once, and that you kept it t_ourself, even though the Boss himself came to ask you about it."
"What else could I do if you trusted me? It wasn't that I agreed with what yo_aid."
"I know that well. But you are the one that I can speak to and be safe. I've _ecret here," he put his hand to his breast, "and it is just burning the lif_ut of me. I wish it had come to any one of you but me. If I tell it, it wil_ean murder, for sure. If I don't, it may bring the end of us all. God hel_e, but I am near out of my wits over it!"
McMurdo looked at the man earnestly. He was trembling in every limb. He poure_ome whisky into a glass and handed it to him. "That's the physic for th_ikes of you," said he. "Now let me hear of it."
Morris drank, and his white face took a tinge of colour. "I can tell it to yo_ll in one sentence," said he. "There's a detective on our trail."
McMurdo stared at him in astonishment. "Why, man, you're crazy," he said.
"Isn't the place full of police and detectives and what harm did they ever d_s?"
"No, no, it's no man of the district. As you say, we know them, and it i_ittle that they can do. But you've heard of Pinkerton's?"
"I've read of some folk of that name."
"Well, you can take it from me you've no show when they are on your trail.
It's not a take-it-or-miss-it government concern. It's a dead earnest busines_roposition that's out for results and keeps out till by hook or crook it get_hem. If a Pinkerton man is deep in this business, we are all destroyed."
"We must kill him."
"Ah, it's the first thought that came to you! So it will be up at the lodge.
Didn't I say to you that it would end in murder?"
"Sure, what is murder? Isn't it common enough in these parts?"
"It is, indeed; but it's not for me to point out the man that is to b_urdered. I'd never rest easy again. And yet it's our own necks that may be a_take. In God's name what shall I do?" He rocked to and fro in his agony o_ndecision.
But his words had moved McMurdo deeply. It was easy to see that he shared th_ther's opinion as to the danger, and the need for meeting it. He grippe_orris's shoulder and shook him in his earnestness.
"See here, man," he cried, and he almost screeched the words in hi_xcitement, "you won't gain anything by sitting keening like an old wife at _ake. Let's have the facts. Who is the fellow? Where is he? How did you hea_f him? Why did you come to me?"
"I came to you; for you are the one man that would advise me. I told you tha_ had a store in the East before I came here. I left good friends behind me, and one of them is in the telegraph service. Here's a letter that I had fro_im yesterday. It's this part from the top of the page. You can read i_ourself."
This was what McMurdo read:
How are the Scowrers getting on in your parts? We read plenty of them in th_apers. Between you and me I expect to hear news from you before long. Fiv_ig corporations and the two railroads have taken the thing up in dea_arnest. They mean it, and you can bet they'll get there! They are right dee_own into it. Pinkerton has taken hold under their orders, and his best man, Birdy Edwards, is operating. The thing has got to be stopped right now.
"Now read the postscript."
Of course, what I give you is what I learned in business; so it goes n_urther. It's a queer cipher that you handle by the yard every day and can ge_o meaning from.
McMurdo sat in silence for some time, with the letter in his listless hands.
The mist had lifted for a moment, and there was the abyss before him.
"Does anyone else know of this?" he asked.
"I have told no one else."
"But this man—your friend—has he any other person that he would be likely t_rite to?"
"Well, I dare say he knows one or two more."
"Of the lodge?"
"It's likely enough."
"I was asking because it is likely that he may have given some description o_his fellow Birdy Edwards—then we could get on his trail."
"Well, it's possible. But I should not think he knew him. He is just tellin_e the news that came to him by way of business. How would he know thi_inkerton man?"
McMurdo gave a violent start.
"By Gar!" he cried, "I've got him. What a fool I was not to know it. Lord! bu_e're in luck! We will fix him before he can do any harm. See here, Morris, will you leave this thing in my hands?"
"Sure, if you will only take it off mine."
"I'll do that. You can stand right back and let me run it. Even your name nee_ot be mentioned. I'll take it all on myself, as if it were to me that thi_etter has come. Will that content you?"
"It's just what I would ask."
"Then leave it at that and keep your head shut. Now I'll get down to th_odge, and we'll soon make old man Pinkerton sorry for himself."
"You wouldn't kill this man?"
"The less you know, Friend Morris, the easier your conscience will be, and th_etter you will sleep. Ask no questions, and let these things settl_hemselves. I have hold of it now."
Morris shook his head sadly as he left. "I feel that his blood is on m_ands," he groaned.
"Self-protection is no murder, anyhow," said McMurdo, smiling grimly. "It'_im or us. I guess this man would destroy us all if we left him long in th_alley. Why, Brother Morris, we'll have to elect you Bodymaster yet; fo_ou've surely saved the lodge."
And yet it was clear from his actions that he thought more seriously of thi_ew intrusion than his words would show. It may have been his guilt_onscience, it may have been the reputation of the Pinkerton organization, i_ay have been the knowledge that great, rich corporations had set themselve_he task of clearing out the Scowrers; but, whatever his reason, his action_ere those of a man who is preparing for the worst. Every paper which woul_ncriminate him was destroyed before he left the house. After that he gave _ong sigh of satisfaction; for it seemed to him that he was safe. And yet th_anger must still have pressed somewhat upon him; for on his way to the lodg_e stopped at old man Shafter's. The house was forbidden him; but when h_apped at the window Ettie came out to him. The dancing Irish deviltry ha_one from her lover's eyes. She read his danger in his earnest face.
"Something has happened!" she cried. "Oh, Jack, you are in danger!"
"Sure, it is not very bad, my sweetheart. And yet it may be wise that we mak_ move before it is worse."
"Make a move?"
"I promised you once that I would go some day. I think the time is coming. _ad news to-night, bad news, and I see trouble coming."
"Well, a Pinkerton. But, sure, you wouldn't know what that is, acushla, no_hat it may mean to the likes of me. I'm too deep in this thing, and I ma_ave to get out of it quick. You said you would come with me if I went."
"Oh, Jack, it would be the saving of you!"
"I'm an honest man in some things, Ettie. I wouldn't hurt a hair of your bonn_ead for all that the world can give, nor ever pull you down one inch from th_olden throne above the clouds where I always see you. Would you trust me?"
She put her hand in his without a word. "Well, then, listen to what I say, an_o as I order you, for indeed it's the only way for us. Things are going t_appen in this valley. I feel it in my bones. There may be many of us tha_ill have to look out for ourselves. I'm one, anyhow. If I go, by day o_ight, it's you that must come with me!"
"I'd come after you, Jack."
"No, no, you shall come WITH me. If this valley is closed to me and I ca_ever come back, how can I leave you behind, and me perhaps in hiding from th_olice with never a chance of a message? It's with me you must come. I know _ood woman in the place I come from, and it's there I'd leave you till we ca_et married. Will you come?"
"Yes, Jack, I will come."
"God bless you for your trust in me! It's a fiend out of hell that I should b_f I abused it. Now, mark you, Ettie, it will be just a word to you, and whe_t reaches you, you will drop everything and come right down to the waitin_oom at the depot and stay there till I come for you."
"Day or night, I'll come at the word, Jack."
Somewhat eased in mind, now that his own preparations for escape had bee_egun, McMurdo went on to the lodge. It had already assembled, and only b_omplicated signs and countersigns could he pass through the outer guard an_nner guard who close-tiled it. A buzz of pleasure and welcome greeted him a_e entered. The long room was crowded, and through the haze of tobacco smok_e saw the tangled black mane of the Bodymaster, the cruel, unfriendl_eatures of Baldwin, the vulture face of Harraway, the secretary, and a doze_ore who were among the leaders of the lodge. He rejoiced that they should al_e there to take counsel over his news.
"Indeed, it's glad we are to see you, Brother!" cried the chairman. "There'_usiness here that wants a Solomon in judgment to set it right."
"It's Lander and Egan," explained his neighbour as he took his seat. "The_oth claim the head money given by the lodge for the shooting of old ma_rabbe over at Stylestown, and who's to say which fired the bullet?"
McMurdo rose in his place and raised his hand. The expression of his fac_roze the attention of the audience. There was a dead hush of expectation.
"Eminent Bodymaster," he said, in a solemn voice, "I claim urgency!"
"Brother McMurdo claims urgency," said McGinty. "It's a claim that by th_ules of this lodge takes precedence. Now Brother, we attend you."
McMurdo took the letter from his pocket.
"Eminent Bodymaster and Brethren," he said, "I am the bearer of ill news thi_ay; but it is better that it should be known and discussed, than that a blo_hould fall upon us without warning which would destroy us all. I hav_nformation that the most powerful and richest organizations in this stat_ave bound themselves together for our destruction, and that at this ver_oment there is a Pinkerton detective, one Birdy Edwards, at work in th_alley collecting the evidence which may put a rope round the necks of many o_s, and send every man in this room into a felon's cell. That is the situatio_or the discussion of which I have made a claim of urgency."
There was a dead silence in the room. It was broken by the chairman.
"What is your evidence for this, Brother McMurdo?" he asked.
"It is in this letter which has come into my hands," said McMurdo. Me read th_assage aloud. "It is a matter of honour with me that I can give no furthe_articulars about the letter, nor put it into your hands; but I assure yo_hat there is nothing else in it which can affect the interests of the lodge.
I put the case before you as it has reached me."
"Let me say, Mr. Chairman," said one of the older brethren, "that I have hear_f Birdy Edwards, and that he has the name of being the best man in th_inkerton service."
"Does anyone know him by sight?" asked McGinty.
"Yes," said McMurdo, "I do."
There was a murmur of astonishment through the hall.
"I believe we hold him in the hollow of our hands," he continued with a_xulting smile upon his face. "If we act quickly and wisely, we can cut thi_hing short. If I have your confidence and your help, it is little that w_ave to fear."
"What have we to fear, anyhow? What can he know of our affairs?"
"You might say so if all were as stanch as you, Councillor. But this man ha_ll the millions of the capitalists at his back. Do you think there is n_eaker brother among all our lodges that could not be bought? He will get a_ur secrets—maybe has got them already. There's only one sure cure."
"That he never leaves the valley," said Baldwin.
McMurdo nodded. "Good for you, Brother Baldwin," he said. "You and I have ha_ur differences, but you have said the true word to-night."
"Where is he, then? Where shall we know him?"
"Eminent Bodymaster," said McMurdo, earnestly, "I would put it to you tha_his is too vital a thing for us to discuss in open lodge. God forbid that _hould throw a doubt on anyone here; but if so much as a word of gossip got t_he ears of this man, there would be an end of any chance of our getting him.
I would ask the lodge to choose a trusty committee, Mr. Chairman—yourself, i_ might suggest it, and Brother Baldwin here, and five more. Then I can tal_reely of what I know and of what I advise should be done."
The proposition was at once adopted, and the committee chosen. Beside_hechairman and Baldwin there were the vulture-faced secretary, Harraway, Tiger Cormac, the brutal young assassin, Carter, the treasurer, and th_rothers Willaby, fearless and desperate men who would stick at nothing.
The usual revelry of the lodge was short and subdued: for there was a clou_pon the men's spirits, and many there for the first time began to see th_loud of avenging Law drifting up in that serene sky under which they ha_welt so long. The horrors they had dealt out to others had been so much _art of their settled lives that the thought of retribution had become _emote one, and so seemed the more startling now that it came so closely upo_hem. They broke up early and left their leaders to their council.
"Now, McMurdo!" said McGinty when they were alone. The seven men sat frozen i_heir seats.
"I said just now that I knew Birdy Edwards," McMurdo explained. "I need no_ell you that he is not here under that name. He's a brave man, but not _razy one. He passes under the name of Steve Wilson, and he is lodging a_obson's Patch."
"How do you know this?"
"Because I fell into talk with him. I thought little of it at the time, no_ould have given it a second thought but for this letter; but now I'm sur_t's the man. I met him on the cars when I went down the line on Wednesday—_ard case if ever there was one. He said he was a reporter. I believed it fo_he moment. Wanted to know all he could about the Scowrers and what he called
'the outrages' for a New York paper. Asked me every kind of question so as t_et something. You bet I was giving nothing away. 'I'd pay for it and pa_ell,' said he, 'if I could get some stuff that would suit my editor.' I sai_hat I thought would please him best, and he handed me a twenty-dollar bil_or my information. 'There's ten times that for you,' said he, 'if you ca_ind me all that I want.'"
"What did you tell him, then?"
"Any stuff I could make up."
"How do you know he wasn't a newspaper man?"
"I'll tell you. He got out at Hobson's Patch, and so did I. I chanced into th_elegraph bureau, and he was leaving it.
"'See here,' said the operator after he'd gone out, 'I guess we shouldcharg_ouble rates for this.'—'I guess you should,' said I. He had filled the for_ith stuff that might have been Chinese, for all we could make of it. 'H_ires a sheet of this off every day,' said the clerk. 'Yes,' said I; 'it'_pecial news for his paper, and he's scared that the others should tap it.'
That was what the operator thought and what I thought at the time; but I thin_ifferently now."
"By Gar! I believe you are right," said McGinty. "But what do you allow tha_e should do about it?"
"Why not go right down now and fix him?" someone suggested.
"Ay, the sooner the better."
"I'd start this next minute if I knew where we could find him," said McMurdo.
"He's in Hobson's Patch; but I don't know the house. I've got a plan, though, if you'll only take my advice."
"Well, what is it?"
"I'll go to the Patch to-morrow morning. I'll find him through the operator.
He can locate him, I guess. Well, then I'll tell him that I'm a Freema_yself. I'll offer him all the secrets of the lodge for a price. You bet he'l_umble to it. I'll tell him the papers are at my house, and that it's as muc_s my life would be worth to let him come while folk were about. He'll se_hat that's horse sense. Let him come at ten o'clock at night, and he shal_ee everything. That will fetch him sure."
"You can plan the rest for yourselves. Widow MacNamara's is a lonely house.
She's as true as steel and as deaf as a post. There's only Scanlan and me i_he house. If I get his promise—and I'll let you know if I do—I'd have th_hole seven of you come to me by nine o'clock. We'll get him in. If ever h_ets out alive—well, he can talk of Birdy Edwards's luck for the rest of hi_ays!"
"There's going to be a vacancy at Pinkerton's or I'm mistaken. Leave it a_hat, McMurdo. At nine to-morrow we'll be with you. You once get the door shu_ehind him, and you can leave the rest with us."