Author of The Quickening, The Grafters A Fool for Love, etc.
With Illustrations by Jay Hambidge
Indianapolis The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers Press of Braunworth & Co. Bookbinders and Printers Brooklyn, N.Y.
I A MASTER OF MEN 1
II A SPIKED SWITCH 13
III LOSS AND DAMAGE 30
IV COLD STORAGE 38
V WANTED: THIRTY-FIVE MILLIONS 47
VI THE AWAKENING OF CHARLES EDWARD 59
VII HAMMER AND TONGS 66
VIII THE AUTOMATIC AIR 75
IX THE RACE TO THE SLOW 90
X THE SINEWS OF WAR 100
XI HURRY ORDERS 120
XII THE ENTERING WEDGE 141
XIII THE BARBARIANS 155
XIV THE DRAW-BAR PULL 166
XV AN UNWILLING HOST 177
XVI THE TRUTHFUL ALTITUDES 186
XVII A NIGHT OF ALARMS 198
XVIII THE MORNING AFTER 217
XIX THE RELUCTANT WHEELS 238
XX THE CONSPIRATORS 254
XXI THE MILLS OF THE GODS 271
XXII THE MAN ON HORSEBACK 285
XXIII THE DEADLOCK 311
XXIV RUIZ GREGORIO 325
XXV THE SIEGE OF THE NADIA 336
XXVI THE STAR OF EMPIRE 362
A MASTER OF MEN
Engine Number 206, narrow gauge, was pushing, or rather failing to push, the old-fashioned box-plow through the crusted drifts on the uptilted shoulder of Plug Mountain, at altitude ten thousand feet, with the mercury at twelve below zero. There was a wind—the winter day above timber-line without its wind is as rare as a thawing Christmas—and it cut like knives through any garmenting lighter than fur or leather. The cab of the 206 was old and weather-shaken, and Ford pulled the collar of his buffalo coat about his ears when the grunting of the exhaust and the shrilling of the wheels on the snow-shod rails stopped abruptly.
"Gar-r-r!" snarled Gallagher, the red-headed Irish engineer, shutting off the steam in impotent rage. "The power is not in this dommed ould camp-kittle sewin' machine! 'Tis heaven's pity they wouldn't be givin' us wan man-sized, fightin' lokimotive on this ind of the line, Misther Foord."
Ford, superintendent and general autocrat of the Plug Mountain branch of the Pacific Southwestern, climbed down from his cramped seat on the fireman's box and stood scowling at the retracting index of the steam-gauge. When he was on his feet beside the little Irishman, you saw that he was a young man, well-built, square-shouldered and athletic under the muffling of the shapeless fur greatcoat; also, that in spite of the scowl, his clean-shaven face was strong and manly and good to look upon.
"Power!" he retorted. "That's only one of the hundred things they don't give us, Mike. Look at that steam-gauge—freezing right where she stands!"
"'Tis so," assented Gallagher. "She'd be dead and shtiff in tin minutes be the clock if we'd lave her be in this drift."
Ford motioned the engineer aside and took the throttle himself. It was the third day out from Cherubusco, the station at the foot of the mountain; and in the eight-and-forty hours the engine, plow and crew of twenty shovelers had, by labor of the cruelest, opened eleven of the thirteen blockaded miles isolating Saint's Rest, the mining-camp end-of-track in the high basin at the head of the pass.
The throttle opened with a jerk under the superintendent's hand. There was a snow-choked drumming of the exhaust, and the driving-wheels spun wildly in the flurry beneath. But there was no inch of forward motion, and Ford gave it up.
"We're against it," he admitted. "Back her down and we'll put the shovelers at it again while you're nursing her up and getting more steam. We're going to make it to Saint's Rest to-day if the Two-six has to go in on three legs."
Gallagher pulled the reversing lever into the back gear and sent the failing steam whistling into the chilled cylinders with cautious little jerks at the throttle. The box-plow came out of the clutch of its snow vise with shrillings as of a soul in torment, and the bucking outfit screeched coldly down over the snowy rails to the "let-up," where the shovelers' box-car had been uncoupled.
Ford swung off to turn out the shoveling squad; and presently the laborers, muffled to the eyes, were filing past the 206 to break a path for the plow. Gallagher was on the running-board with his flare torch, thawing out an injector. He marked the cheerful swing of the men and gave credit where it was due.
"'Tis a full-grown man, that," he commented, meaning Ford. "Manny's the wan would be huggin' the warm boiler-head these times, and shtickin' his head out of the windy to holler, 'G'wan, boys; pitch it out lively now, and be dommed to yez!' But Misther Foord ain't built the like o' that. He'll be as deep in that freezin' purgatory up yander in th' drift as the foremist wan of thim."
The Irishman's praise was not unmerited. Whatever his failings, and he groaned under his fair human share of them, Stuart Ford had the gift of leadership. Before he had been a month on the branch as its "old man" and autocrat, he had won the good-will and loyalty of the rank and file, from the office men in the headquarters to the pick-and-shovel contingent on the sections. Even the blockade-breaking laborers—temporary helpers as they were—stood by him manfully in the sustained battle with the snow. Ford spared them when he could, and they knew it.
"Warm it up, boys!" he called cheerily, climbing to the top of the frozen drift to direct the attack. "It's been a long fight, but we're in sight of home now. Come up here with your shovels, Olsen, and break it down from the top. It's the crust that plugs Mike's wedge."
He looked the fighting leader, standing at the top of the wind-swept drift and crying on his shovelers. It was the part he had chosen for himself in the game of life, and he quarreled only when the stake was small, as in this present man-killing struggle with the snowdrifts. The Plug Mountain branch was the sore spot in the Pacific Southwestern system; the bad investment at which the directors shook their heads, and upon which the management turned the coldest of shoulders. It barely paid its own operating expenses in summer, and the costly snow blockades in winter went to the wrong side of the profit and loss account.
This was why Ford had been scheming and planning for a year and more to find a way of escape; not for himself, but for the discredited Plug Mountain line. It was proving a knotty problem, not to say an insoluble one. Ford had attacked it with his eyes open, as he did most things; and he was not without a suspicion that President Colbrith, of the Pacific Southwestern, had known to the full the hopelessness of the mountain line when he dictated the letter which had cost one of the great Granger roads its assistant engineer in charge of construction, transferring an energetic young man with ambitions from the bald plains of the Dakotas to the snow-capped shoulders of the Rockies.
Originally the narrow gauge had been projected and partly built by a syndicate of Denver capitalists, who were under the hallucination, then prevalent, that any railroad penetrating the mountains in any direction, and having Denver for its starting point, must necessarily become at once a dividend-paying carrier for the mines, actual or to be discovered.
Failing to tap their bonanza freight-producer on the route up Blue Canyon, the projectors—small fish in the great money-pool—had talked vaguely of future extensions to Salt Lake, to San Francisco, to Puget Sound, or to some other of the far-beyonds, and had even gone the length of surveying a line over Plug Pass and down the valley of the Pannikin, on the Pacific slope of the range. But they had prudently stopped building; and the pause continued until the day of the great silver strike at Saint's Rest.
The new carbonate beds chanced to lie within easy rifle-shot of the summit of Plug Pass; in other words, they were precisely on the line of the extension survey of the narrow gauge. The discovery was a piece of sheer luck for the amateur railroad builders. For a time, as all the world knows, Saint's Rest headed the mining news column in all the dailies, and the rush for the new camp fairly swamped the meager carrying facilities of the incomplete line and the stages connecting its track-end with the high-mountain Mecca of the treasure-seekers.
Then, indeed, the Denver syndicate saw its long deferred opportunity and grasped it. Long purses might be lacking, but not shrewd heads. The unfinished Plug Mountain was immediately bonded for more than it ever promised to be worth, and in the hottest heat of the forwarding strife it was extended at the rate of a mile a day until the welcome screech of its locomotive whistles was added to the perfervid clamor of the new camp in the Plug Pass basin.
The goal reached, the Denver folk took a fresh leaf out of the book of shrewdness. Holding the completed line only long enough to skim the cream of the rush earnings, they sold their stock at a sound premium to the Pacific Southwestern, pocketed their winnings cannily, and escaped a short half-year before the slump in silver, and the consequent collapse of Saint's Rest, came to establish the future Waterloo for Napoleonic young superintendents in the Southwestern's service.
This was all ancient history when Ford left the Granger road to climb, at President Colbrith's behest, into the Plug Mountain saddle; and a round half-dozen of the young Napoleons had been broken before he put foot in stirrup for the mounting. While his attacking of the problem had been open-eyed, he had not stopped to specialize in the ancient history of the Plug Mountain branch. When he did specialize, his point of view was pretty clearly defined in a letter to Mr. Richard Frisbie, of St. Paul, written after he had been for six months the master of the Plug Mountain destinies.
"I'm up against it, good and solid," was the way he phrased it to Frisbie. "My hundred and fifty miles of 'two streaks of rust and a right-of-way' has never paid a net dollar since the boom broke at Saint's Rest, and under present conditions it never will. If I had known the history of the road when President Colbrith went fishing for me—as I didn't—I wouldn't have touched the job with a ten-foot pole.
"But now I'm here, I'm going to do something with my two streaks of rust to make them pay—make a spoon or spoil a horn. Just what shall be done I haven't decided fully, but I have a notion in the back part of my head, and if it works out, I shall need you first of all. Will you come?
"Have I told you in any of my earlier letters that I have personally earned the ill-will of General Manager North? I have, and it is distinct from and in addition to his hostility for the unearning branch for which I am responsible. I'm sorry for it, because I may need his good word for my inchoate scheme later on. It came up over some maintenance-of-way charges. He is as shrewd as he is unscrupulous, and he knows well how to pile the sins of the congregation on the back of the poor scapegoat. To make a better showing for the main line, and at the same time to show what a swilling pig the Plug Mountain is, he had the branch charged up with a lot of material we didn't get. Naturally, I protested—and was curtly told to mind my own business, which had no ramifications reaching into the accounting department. Then I threatened to carry it over his head to President Colbrith; whereupon I gained my point temporarily, and lost a possible stepping-stone to success.
"None the less, I am going to win out if it costs me the best year of my life. I'm going to swing to this thing till I make something out of it, if I have to put in some more winters like the one I have just come through—which was Sheol, with ice and snow in the place of the traditional fire and brimstone. If I have one good quality—as I sometimes doubt—it's the inability to know when I am satisfactorily and permanently licked."
Stuart Ford was shivering through the second of the winters on the gray, needle-winded day when he stood on the crusted drift, heartening his men who were breaking the way for further rammings of the scrap-heap 206 and her box-plow. During the summer which lay behind the pitiless storms and the blockading snows he had explored and planned, studied and schemed; and now a month of good weather would put the finishing touches preparatory upon the "notion" hinted at in the letter to Frisbie.
"That'll do, boys; we'll let Gallagher hit it a few times now," he sang out, when he saw that the weaker ones among the shovelers were stumbling numbly and throwing wild. "Get back to the car and thaw yourselves out."
The safety-valve of the 206 was stuttering under a gratifying increase of steam pressure when the superintendent climbed to the canvas-shrouded cab.
"Ha! two hundred and fifty pounds! That looks a little more like it, Michael. Now get all the run you can and hit her straight from the shoulder," he ordered, mounting to his seat on the fireman's box, and bracing himself for what should come.
Gallagher released the driver-brakes and let the 206 and the plow drift down the grade until his tender drawhead touched the laborers' car. Then the reversing lever went forward with a clang, and the steam squealed shrilly in the dry-pipe. For a thunderous second or two the driving-wheels slipped and whirled futilely on the snowy rails. Gallagher pounced upon the sand lever, whereat the tires suddenly bit and held and a long-drawn, fire-tearing exhaust sobbed from the stack.
"You've got her!" shouted Ford. "Now hit it—hit it hard!"
Swiftly the huge mass of engine and plow gathered headway, the pounding exhausts quickening until they blended in a continuous roar. The little Irishman stayed himself with a foot against the boiler brace; the fireman ducked under the canvas curtain and clung to the coal bulkhead; and Ford held on as he could.
The shock came like the crashing blow of a collision. The box-plow buckled and groaned with fine cracklings as of hard-strained timbers, and an avalanche of snow thrown up from its inclined plane buried engine and cab and tender in a smothering drift. Ford slid his window and looked out.
"Good work, Michael; good work! You gained a full car-length that time. Try it again."
Gallagher backed the plow carefully out of the cutting, and the fireman opened the blower and nursed his fire. Again and again the wheeled projectile was hurled into the obstruction, and Ford watched the steadily retrograding finger of the steam-gauge anxiously. Would the pressure suffice for the final dash which should clear the cutting? Or would they have to stop and turn out the wretched shovelmen again?
The answer came with the fourth drive into the stubborn barrier. There was the same nerve-racking shock of impact; but now the recoil was followed by a second forward plunge, and Gallagher yelled his triumph when the 206 burst through the remaining lesser drifts and shot away on the clear track beyond.
Ford drew a long breath of relief, and the engineer checked the speed of the runaway, stopped, and started back to couple on the car-load of laborers.
Ford swung around and put his back to the open window.
"Let's hope that is the worst of it and the last of it for this winter, Mike," he said, speaking as man to man. "I believe the weather will break before we have any more snow; and next year—"
The pause was so long that Gallagher took his chance of filling it.
"Don't be tellin' me the big boss has promised us a rotary for next winter, Misther Foord. That'd be too good to be thrue, I'm thinking."
"No; but next winter you'll be doing one of two things, Michael. You will be pulling your train through steel snow-sheds on Plug Mountain—or you'll be working for another boss. Break her loose, and let's get to camp as soon as we can. Those poor devils back in the box-car are about dead for sleep and a square meal."
A SPIKED SWITCH
Ford's hopeful prophecy that the snow battles were over for the season proved true. A few weeks later a warm wind blew up from the west, the mountain foot-trails became first packed ice-paths and then slippery ridges to trap the unwary; the great drifts began to settle and melt, and the spring music of the swollen mountain torrents was abroad in the land.
At the blowing of the warm wind Ford aimed the opening gun in his campaign against fate—the fate which seemed to be bent upon adding his name to the list of failures on the Plug Mountain branch. The gun-aiming was a summons to Frisbie, at the moment a draftsman in the engineering office of the Great Northern at St. Paul, and pining, like the Plug Mountain superintendent, for something bigger.
"I have been waiting until I could offer you something with a bread-and-meat attachment in the way of day pay," wrote Ford, "and the chance has come. Kennedy, my track supervisor, has quit, and the place is yours if you will take it. If you are willing to tie up to the most harebrained scheme you ever heard of, with about one chance in a thousand of coming out on top and of growing up with a brand new country of unlimited possibilities, just gather up your dunnage and come."
This letter was written on a Friday. Frisbie got it out of the carriers' delivery on the Sunday morning; and Sunday night saw him racing westward, with the high mountains of Colorado as his goal. Not that the destination made any difference, for Frisbie would have gone quite as willingly to the ends of the earth at the crooking of Ford's finger.
It was the brightest of May days when the new supervisor of track debarked from the mountain-climbing train at Saint's Rest, stretched his legs gratefully on terra firma, had his first deep lungful of the ozonic air of the high peaks, and found his welcome awaiting him. Ford would have no talk of business until he had taken Frisbie across to the little shack "hotel," and had filled him up on a dinner fresh from the tin; nor, indeed, afterward, until they were smoking comfortably in the boxed-off den in the station building which served as the superintendent's office.
"I've been counting on you, Dick, as you know, ever since this thing threatened to take shape in my head," Ford began. "First, let me ask you: do you happen to know where you could lay hands on three or four good constructing engineers—men you could turn loose absolutely and trust implicitly? I'm putting this up to you because the Plug Mountain exile has taken me a bit out of touch."
"Why—yes," said Frisbie, taking time to call the mental roll. "There are Major Benson and his son Jack—you know 'em both—just in off their job in the Selkirks. Then there is Roy Brissac; he'd be a pretty good man in the field; and Chauncey Leckhard, of my class,—he's got a job in Winnipeg, but he'll come if I ask him to, and he is the best office man I know. But what on top of earth are you driving at, Stuart?"
Ford cleared his pipe of the ash and refilled it.
"I'll go into the details with you a little later. We shall have plenty of time during the next month or six weeks, and, incidentally, a good bit more privacy. The thing I'm trying to figure out will burst like a bubble if it gets itself made public too soon, and"—lowering his voice—"I can't trust my office force here. Savez?"
"I savez nothing as yet," laughed the new supervisor, "but perhaps I shall if you'll tell me what is going to happen in the next month or six weeks."
"I'm coming to that, right now. How would you like to take a hunting trip over on the wilderness side of the range? There are big woods and big game."
Frisbie grinned. He was a little man, with sharp black eyes shaded by the heaviest of black brows, and it was his notion to trim his mustaches and beard after the fashion set by the third Napoleon and imitated faithfully by those who sing the part of Mephistopheles in Faust. Hence, his grin was handsomely diabolic.
"You needn't ask me what I'd like; you just tell me what you want me to do," he rejoined, with clansman loyalty.
"So I will," said Ford, taking the reins of authority. "We leave here to-morrow morning for a trip over the Pass and down the Pannikin on the other side, and if anybody asks you why, you can say that we expect to kill a deer or two, and possibly a bear. Your part of the outsetting, however, is to pack your surveying instruments on the burro saddles so they'll pass for grub-boxes, tent-poles, and the like."
"Call it done," said Frisbie. "But why all this stage play? Can't you anticipate that much without endangering your bubble?"
Ford lowered his voice again.
"I gave you the hint. Penfield, my chief clerk—his desk is just on the other side of that partition—is an ex-main-line man, shoved upon me when I didn't want him. He was General Manager North's stenographer. For reasons which will be apparent to you a little later on, I want to blow my bubble in my own way; or, to change the figure, I'd like to fire the first volley myself."
Frisbie's grin was rather more than less diabolic.
"Then I'd begin by firing Mr. Penfield, himself," he remarked.
"No, you wouldn't," said Ford. "There are going to be obstacles enough in the way without slapping Mr. North in the face as a preliminary. Under the circumstances, he'd take it that way; Penfield would make sure that he took it that way."
It was at this point in the low-toned conference that the ingenious young man in the outer office put down the desk telephone ear-piece long enough to smite with his fist at some air-drawn antagonist. Curiosity was this young man's capital weakness, and he had tinkered the wires of the private telephone system so that the flicking of a switch made him an auditor at any conversation carried on in the private office. He was listening intently and eagerly again when Ford said, still in the same guarded tone:
"No, I can't fire Penfield, and I don't particularly want to. He is a good office man, and loyal to his salt: it's my misfortune that it is Mr. North's salt-cellar, and not mine, that he dips into. Besides, I'd have trouble in replacing him. Saint's Rest isn't exactly the paradise its name implies—for a clean-cut, well-mannered young fellow with social leanings."
"Now, what in the mischief does all that mean?" mused the chief clerk, when Ford and his new track man had gone out. "A month's hunting trip over the range, with the surveying instruments taken along. And last summer Mr. Ford spent a good part of his time over there—also hunting, so he said. Confound it all! I wish I could get into that private drawer of his in the safe. That would tell the story. I wonder if Pacheco couldn't make himself an errand over the Pass in the morning? By George!" slapping his thigh and apostrophizing the superintendent, "I'll just go you once, Mr. Ford, if I lose!"
Now the fruit, of which this little soliloquy was the opening blossom, matured on the second day after Ford and Frisbie had started out on the mysterious hunting trip across the range. Pacheco, the half-breed Mexican who freighted provisions by jack train to the mining-camps on the head waters of the Pannikin, came in to report to the chief clerk.
"Well, 'Checo, what did you find out?" was the curt inquiry.
The half-breed spread his palms.
"W'at I see, I know. Dey'll not gone for hunt much. One day out, dey'll make-a da camp and go for squint t'rough spy-glass, so"—making an imaginary transit telescope of his hands. "Den dey'll measure h-on da groun' and squint some more, so."
Penfield nodded and a gold piece changed hands silently.
"That's all, 'Checo; much obliged. Don't say anything about this over in the camp. Mr. Ford said he was going hunting, and that's what we'll say, if anybody asks us."
That night the chief clerk sent a brief cipher telegram to the general manager at Denver.
Ford and his new track supervisor, who is really a high-priced constructing engineer, gone over the range for a month's absence. Gave it out here that they were going after big game, but they took a transit and are picking up the line of the old S. L. & W. extension in the upper Pannikin.
It was late in the month of June when Ford and Frisbie, tanned, weathered and as gaunt as pioneers, returned to Saint's Rest; and for those who were curious enough to be interested, there were a couple of bear-skins and one of a mountain lion to make good the ostensible object of the absence.
But the most important trophies of the excursion were two engineers' note-books, well filled with memoranda; and these they did not exhibit. On the contrary, they became a part of the collection of maps, statistics, estimates and private correspondence which Chief Clerk Penfield was so anxious to examine, and which Ford kept under lock and key when he and Frisbie were not poring over some portion of it in the seclusion of the private office.
None the less, Penfield kept his eyes and ears open, and before long he had another detail to report by cipher telegram to the general manager. Ford was evidently preparing for another absence, and from what the chief clerk could overhear, he was led to believe that the pseudo supervisor of track would be left in charge of Plug Mountain affairs.
It was on the day before Ford's departure for Denver that a letter came from General Manager North. Ford read it with a scowl of disapproval and tossed it across the double desk to Frisbie.
"A polite invitation for me to stay at home and to attend to my business," he commented.
"Had you written him that you were going away?" inquired Frisbie.
"No; but evidently somebody else has."
Frisbie read the letter again.
"'So that all heads of departments may be on duty when the president makes his annual inspection trip over the lines,'" he quoted. "Is Mr. Colbrith coming out this early in the summer?"
"No, of course not. He never comes before August."
"Then this is only a trumped-up excuse to make you stay here?"
"That's all," Ford replied laconically.
Mr. Richard Frisbie got up and walked twice the length of the little room before he said:
"This Denver gentleman is going to knock your little scheme into a cocked hat, if he can, Stuart."
"I am very much afraid we'll have to reckon upon that. As a matter of fact, I've been reckoning upon it, all along."
"How much of a pull has he with the New York money-people?"
"I don't know that: I wish I did. It would simplify matters somewhat."
Frisbie took another turn up and down the room, with his head down and his hands in his pockets.
"Stuart, I believe, if I were in your place, I'd enlist Mr. North, if I had to make it an object for him," he said, at length.
"Certainly, I mean to go to him first," said Ford. "That is his due. But I am counting upon opposition rather than help. Wait a minute"—he jerked the door open suddenly and made sure that the chief clerk's chair was unoccupied. "The worst of it is that I don't trust North," he went on. "He is a grafter in small ways, and he'd sell me out in a minute if he felt like it and could see any chance of making capital for himself."
"Then don't go to him with your scheme," urged Frisbie. "If you enlist him, you won't be sure of him; and if you don't, you'll merely leave an active opponent behind you instead of a passive one."
"I guess you're right, Dick; but I'll have to be governed by conditions as I find them. Aside from North's influence with Mr. Colbrith, which is considerable, I believe, he can't do much to help. But he can do a tremendous lot to hinder. I think I shall try to choke him with butter, if I can."
Notwithstanding the general manager's letter, Ford took the train for Denver the following morning, and the chief clerk remarked that he checked a small steamer trunk in addition to his hand baggage.
"Going to be gone some time, Mr. Ford?" he asked, when he brought the night mail down for the superintendent to look over.
"Yes," said Ford absently.
"You'll let me know where to reach you from time to time, I suppose?" ventured Penfield.
Ford looked up quickly.
"It won't be necessary. You can handle the office work, as you have heretofore, and Mr. Frisbie will have full charge out of doors."
Penfield looked a little crestfallen.
"Am I to take orders from Mr. Frisbie?" he asked, as one determined to know the worst.
"Just the same as you would from me," said the superintendent, swinging up to the step of the moving car. And the chief clerk went back to his office busily concocting another cipher message to the general manager.
On the way down the canyon Ford was saying to himself that he was now fairly committed to the scheme over which he had spent so many toilful days and sleepless nights, and that he would have it out with Mr. North to a fighting conclusion before he slept.
But a freight wreck got in the way while the down passenger train was measuring the final third of the distance, and it was long after office hours in the Pacific Southwestern headquarters when Ford reached Denver.
By consequence, the crucial interview with the general manager had to be postponed; and the enthusiast was chafing at his ill luck when he went to his hotel—chafing and saying hard words, for the waiting had been long, and now that the psychologic moment had arrived, delays were intolerable.
Now it sometimes happens that seeming misfortunes are only blessings in disguise. When Ford entered the hotel cafe to eat his belated dinner, he saw Evans, the P. S-W. auditor, sitting alone at a table-for-two. He crossed the room quickly and shook hands with the man he had meant to interview either before or after the meeting with North.
It was after they had chatted comfortably through to the coffee that the auditor said, blandly: "What are you down for, Ford?—anything special?"
"Yes. I am down to get leave of absence to go East," said Ford warily.
"But that isn't all," was the quiet rejoinder. "In fact, it's only the non-committal item that you'd give to a Rocky Mountain News reporter."
Ford was impatient of diplomatic methods when there was no occasion for them.
"Give it a name," he said bluntly. "What do you think you know, Evans?"
The auditor smiled.
"There is a leak in your office up at Saint's Rest, I'm afraid. What sort of a bombshell are you fixing to fire at Mr. North?"
Ford grew interested at once.
"Tell me what you know, and perhaps I can piece it out for you."
"I'll tell you what Mr. North knows—which will be more to the purpose, perhaps. For a year or more you have been figuring on some kind of a scheme to pull the company's financial leg in behalf of your good-for-nothing narrow gauge. A month ago, for example, you went all over the old survey on the other side of the mountains and verified the original S. L & W. preliminaries and rights-of-way on its proposed extension."
Ford's eyes narrowed. He was thinking of the warning letter he would have to write to Frisbie. But what he said was:
"I'd like to know how the dickens you guessed all that. But no matter; supposing I did?"
"It's no good," said the auditor, shaking his head. "I'm talking as a friend. North doesn't like you, personally; and if he did, you couldn't persuade him to recommend anything in the way of an experiment on the Plug Mountain. So far from extending your two-by-four branch—if that is what you have in mind—he'd be much more likely to counsel its abandonment, if the charter didn't require us to keep it going."
Ford found a cigar for the auditor, and lighted one for himself.
"From all of which I infer that the semiannual report of the Pacific Southwestern is going to be a pretty bad one," he said, with carefully assumed indifference.
Evans regarded him shrewdly.
"Are you guessing at that? Or is there a leak at our end of the line as well as at yours?"
"Oh, it's a guess," laughed Ford. "Call it that, anyhow. At least, I haven't any of your confidential clerks in my pay. But just how bad is the report going to be?"
The auditor shook his head.
"Worse than the last one. Perhaps you have noticed that the stock has dropped six points in the past week. You're one of the official family: I don't mind telling you that we are in the nine-hole, Ford."
"Of course we are," said Ford, with calm conviction. "That much is pretty evident to a man who merely reads the Wall Street news bulletins. What is the matter with us—specifically, I mean?"
"Are you a division superintendent on the system and don't know?" he demanded. "We are too short at both ends. With our eastern terminal only half-way to Chicago, we can't control the east-bound grain which grows on our own line; and with the other end stopping short here at Denver, we can't bid for west-bound transcontinental business. It's as simple as twice two. Our competitors catch us going and coming."
"Precisely. And if we don't get relief?"
The auditor smiled grimly.
"As I've said, you're one of us, Ford, and I don't mind speaking freely to you. A receivership is looming in the distance, and the not very dim distance, for the P. S-W."
"I thought so. How near is it?"
"I don't know—nobody knows definitely. If we had a man of resources at the head of things—as we have not—it might be stood off for another six months."
"I'm on the way to stand it off permanently, if I can get any backing," said Ford quietly.
"You!" was the astonished reply.
"Yes, I. Listen, Evans. For two years I have been buried up yonder in the hills, with not enough to do in the summer season to keep me out of mischief. I am rather fond of mathematics, and I am telling you I have this thing figured out to the fourth decimal. If President Colbrith and his associates can be made to see that the multiplication of two by two gives an invariable resultant of four, there will be no receivership for the P. S-W. this year, or next."
"Show me," said the auditor.
Ford hesitated for a moment. Then he took a packet of papers, estimates, exhibits and fine-lined engineer's maps from his pocket and tossed it across the table.
"That is for you, personally—for David Evans; not the P. S-W. auditor. You've got to keep it to yourself."
The auditor went through the papers carefully, shifting his cigar slowly from one corner of his mouth to the other as he read and examined. When he handed them back he was shaking his head, almost mournfully.
"It's a big thing, Ford; the biggest kind of a thing. And it is beautifully worked out. But I know our people, here and in New York. They will simply give you the cold stare and say that you are crazy."
"Because it can't be financed?"
"Because it doesn't come from Hill or Harriman or Morgan, or some other one of the big captains. You'll never be able to stand it upon its feet by your single-handed lonesome."
Ford set his teeth, and his clean-cut face seemed to grow suddenly older and harder as the man in him came to the fore.
"By heavens! if I put my back under it, it's got to stand upon its feet! I'm not going into it with the idea that there is any such thing in the book as failure."
The auditor looked darkly into the cool gray eyes of the man facing him.
"Then let me give you a word of advice before you start in. Skip North, absolutely; don't breathe a word of it to him. Don't ask me why; but do as I say. And another thing: drop into my office to-morrow before you leave. I'll show you some figures that may help you to stir things up properly at the New York end. Do you go direct from here?"
"No; I shall have to stop over a few days in Chicago. I know pretty well where to put my hands on what I need; I have laid the foundations from the bottom up by correspondence. But I want to go over the situation on the ground before I make my grand-stand play before Mr. Colbrith and the board of directors."
"Well, come in and get the figures, anyway: come to the private door of my office and rap three times. It will be just as well if it isn't generally known that you are confabbing with me. Our semiannual report will probably be in New York ahead of you, but it won't hurt if you have the information to work with." Evans was pushing his chair from the table when he added: "By the way, you happened upon the exact psychological moment to make your raid; the report coming out, and things going to the dogs generally."
Ford's laugh was genially shrewd.
"Perhaps it wasn't so much of a happening as it appears. Didn't I tell you that I had figured this thing out to the fourth decimal place? Psychological moments are bigger arguments than dollars and cents, sometimes."
The auditor had taken his hat from the waiter and was shaking hands with his dinner companion.
"I'd like to believe you're a winner, Ford; you deserve to be. Come and see me—and make your call upon Mr. North as brief as possible. He'll probe you if you don't."
This was how it came about that the next morning, when Ford went to call upon the sallow, heavy-faced, big-bodied man who sat behind the glass door lettered "General Manager, Private,"—this after half an hour spent in Auditor Evans' private office,—it was only to ask for leave of absence to go East—on business of a personal nature, he explained, when Mr. North was curious enough to ask his object.
LOSS AND DAMAGE
At this period of his existence, Stuart Ford troubled himself as little as any anchorite of the desert about the eternal feminine.
It was not that he was more or less than a man, or in any sense that anomalous and impossible thing called a woman-hater. On the contrary, his attitude toward women in the mass was distinctly and at times boyishly sentimental. But when a young man is honestly in love with his calling, and is fully convinced of its importance to himself and to a restlessly progressive world, single-heartedness becomes his watchword, and what sentiment there is in him will be apt to lie comfortably dormant.
For six full working-days Ford had been immersed to the eyes in the intricacies of his railway problem, acquiring in Chicago a valiseful of documentary data that demanded to be classified and thoroughly digested before he reached New York and the battle-field actual. This was why he was able to ride all day in studious abstraction in his section of the Chicago-New York Pullman, without so much as a glance for the young woman in the modest gray traveling coat directly across the aisle.
She was well worth the glance, as he admitted willingly enough afterward. She was the dainty type, with fluffy bright brown hair, eyes the color of wood violets, a nose tilted to the precise angle of bewitching piquancy, and the adorable mouth and chin familiarized to two continents by the artistic pen of the Apostle of the American Girl. How he could have ridden within arm's reach of her through all the daylight hours of a long summer day remained as one of Ford's unanswered enigmas; but it required an accident and a most embarrassing contretemps to make him aware of her existence.
The accident was one of the absurd sort. The call for dinner in the dining-car had been given, and Ford was just behind the young woman in the rear of the procession which filed forward out of the Pullman. The train had at that moment left a way station, and the right-hand vestibule door was still open and swinging disjointedly across the narrow passage. Ford reached an arm past the young woman to fold the two-leaved door out of her way. As he did it, the door-knob hooked itself mischievously in the loop of her belt chatelaine, snatched it loose, and flung it out into the backward-rushing night.
Whereupon: "Oh!—my purse!" with a little gasp of sudden bereavement, and a quick turning to face the would-be helper.
Ford was honestly aghast when the situation fully enveloped him.
"Heavens and earth! Did you ever see such idiotic clumsiness!" he ejaculated. And then, in deepest contrition: "I won't attempt to apologize—it's beyond all that. But you must let me make your loss good."
In all the pin-pricking embarrassment of the moment, he did not fail to remark that she quickly recovered the serenity which belongs to the well-bred. She was even smiling, rather ruefully, when she said:
"Fortunately, the conductor has my passes. But really"—and now she laughed outright—"I am afraid I shall have to go hungry if I can't borrow enough to pay for my dinner."
Another man, a man less purposefully lost in the purely practical labyrinth of professional work, would have found something fitting to say. But Ford, having discovered a thing to do, did it painstakingly and in solemn silence. There was an unoccupied table for two in the dining-car; he seated her, gave her his purse, called a waiter, and would have betaken himself forthwith to another table if she had not detained him.
"No," she said decisively, with a charming little uptilt of the adorable chin. "I do not forget that you were trying to do me a kindness. Please sit down here and take your purse. I'm sure I don't want it."
He obeyed, still in somber silence, gave his dinner order after she had given hers, and was wondering if he might venture to bury himself in a bundle of the data papers, when she spoke again.
"Are you provoked with yourself, or with me?" she asked—rather mockingly, he thought.
"Neither," he said promptly. "I was merely saying to myself that my wretched awkwardness didn't give me an excuse for boring you."
"It was an accident—nothing more or less," she rejoined, with an air of dismissing finally the purse-snatching episode. Then she added: "I am the one who ought to be embarrassed."
"But you are not," he returned quickly. "You are quite the mistress of yourself—which is more than most women would be, under the circumstances."
"Is that a compliment?" she asked, with latent mockery in the violet eyes. "Because if it is, I think you must be out of the West; the—the unfettered West: isn't that what it is called?"
"I am," Ford acknowledged. "But why do you say that? Was I rude? I beg you to believe that I didn't mean to be."
"Oh, no; not rude—merely sincere. We are not sincere any more, I think; except on the frontier edges of us. Are we?"
Ford took exceptions to the charge for the sheer pleasure of hearing her talk.
"I'd be sorry to believe that," he protested. "The conventions account for something, of course; and I suppose the polite lie which deceives no one has to have standing-room. But every now and then one is surprised into telling the truth, don't you think?"
"If I can't fully agree with you, I can at least admire your point of view," she said amiably. "Is it Western—or merely human?"
"Shall we assume that the one implies the other? That would be in accordance with your point of view, wouldn't it?"
"Yes; but it would be a distinct reversal of yours. Truth belongs to another and simpler time than ours. We are conventional first and everything else afterward."
"Are we?" he queried. "Some few hundreds or thousands of us may be; but for the remainder of our eighty-odd millions the conventions are things to be put on and off like Sunday garments. And even the chosen few of us brush them aside upon occasion; ignore them utterly, as we two are ignoring them at this moment."
She proved his assertion by continuing to talk to him, and the dining-car was emptying itself when they realized that there is an end even to a most leisurely dinner. Ford paid the steward as they left the car, but in the Pullman he went back to first principles and insisted upon some kind of a definite accounting for the lost purse.
"Now you will tell me now much I threw away for you, and I'll pay my debt," he said, when she had hospitably made room for him in the opposing seat of her section.
"Indeed, you will do nothing of the kind!" she asserted. "You will give me your card—we're going back to the conventions now—and when we reach the city you may lend me enough money to take me up-town. And to-morrow morning my brother will pay you back."
He gave in because he had to.
"You are much more lenient than I deserve. Really, you ought to stick me good and hard for my awkwardness. It would serve me right."
"I am considering the motive," she said almost wistfully, he fancied. "We have drifted very far from all those quiet anchorages of courtesy and helpfulness. If we lived simpler lives—"
He smiled at the turn she was giving it.
"Are you, too, bitten with the fad of the moment, 'the simple life'?" he asked. "Let me assure you that it is beautiful only when you can look down upon it from the safe altitude of a comfortable income. I know, because I've been living it for the past two years."
She looked as if she were sorry for him.
"That is rank heresy!" she declared. "Our forefathers had the better of us in many ways, and their simpler manner of living was one of them. They had time for all the little courtesies and kindnesses that make life truly worth living."
Ford's laugh was boyishly derisive.
"Yes; they certainly had plenty of time; but they didn't have much else. Why, just think, for a moment, of what our own America would be if merely one of the modern civilizers, the railroads, had never existed. There simply wouldn't be any America, as we know it now."
"How can you say that?"
"Because it is so. For nearly two centuries we stood still, because there were no means of locomotion—which is another word for progress and civilization. But in less than fifty years after the first railroad was built we had become a great nation."
She was silenced, if not wholly convinced; and a few minutes later the train drew into the Forty-second Street Station. When the parting time came, Ford dutifully gathered her belongings, said good-by, and put her on a north-bound subway; all this without remembering that he did not know her name. The recollection came, however, when the subway train shot away into the tunnel.
"Of all the blockheads!" he growled, apostrophizing his own unreadiness. "But I'll find her again. She said she'd send her brother to the hotel with the dinner money, and when I get hold of him it will go hard with me if I don't manage some way to get an introduction."
This was what was in his mind when he sought the down-town hotel whose name he had written on his card for her; it was his latest waking thought when he went to sleep that night, and his earliest when he awoke the following morning.
But when he went to the clerk's desk, after a leisurely breakfast, to get his mail, he found that the sure thread of identification had broken in his fingers. There was a square envelope among the other letters in his key-box containing the exact amount of the young woman's indebtedness to him; this, with a brief note of thanks—unsigned.
If courage, of the kind fitted to lead forlorn hopes, or marchings undaunted up to the muzzles of loaded cannon, be a matter of gifts and temperament, it is also in some degree a matter of environment.
Stuart Ford was Western born and bred; a product of the wider breathing spaces. Given his proper battle-field, where the obstacles were elemental and the foes to be overcome were mere men of flesh and blood fighting freely in the open, he was a match for the lustiest. But New York, with its submerging, jostling multitudes, its thickly crowding human vastness, and, more than all, its atmosphere of dollar-chasing, apparent and oppressive even to the transient passer-by, disheartened him curiously.
It was not that he was more provincial than he had to be; for that matter, there is no provincialism so rampant as that of the thronging, striving, self-sufficient city. But isolation in any sort is a thing to be reckoned with. The two pioneering years in the Rockies had done their work,—of narrowing, as well as of broadening,—and the plunge into the chilling sea of the money-mad metropolis made him shiver and wish he were out.
This feeling was really at the bottom of the late rising and the leisurely breakfast, making him temporize where he had meant to be prompt, energetic and vigorously aggressive. Having pocketed the young woman's unsigned note, he glanced at his watch and decided that it was still too early to go in search of President Colbrith.
"I don't suppose he'll be in his office for an hour yet," he mused reflectively; "and anyway, I guess I'd better go over the papers again, so I can be sure to speak my piece right end to. By Jove! I didn't suppose a couple of thousand miles of easting would take the heart out of things the way it does. If I didn't know better, I should think I'd come here to float the biggest kind of a fake, instead of a life-boat for the shipwrecked people in the Pacific Southwestern. It is beginning to look that way in spite of all I can do."
Going once again over his carefully tabulated argument did not help matters greatly. He was beginning to realize now how vastly, antipodally different the New York point of view might be from his own. It came to him with the benumbing effect of a blow that his own ambitions had persistently looked beyond the mere money-making results of his scheme. Also, that President Colbrith and his fellow-investors might very easily refuse to consider any other phase of the revolutionary proposition he was about to lay before them.
By ten o'clock postponement was no longer a tenable city of refuge: the plunge had to be taken. Accordingly, he fared forth to present himself at the Broadway address given in the Pacific Southwestern printed matter as the New York headquarters of the company.
The number proved to be a ground floor, with the business office of the eastern traffic representative in front, and three or four private desk-rooms in the rear, one of them labeled "President" in inconspicuous gilt lettering. Entering, with less assurance than if he had been the humblest of place-seekers out of a job, Ford was almost relieved to find only a closed desk, and a young man absently scanning a morning paper.
Inquiry developed a few facts, tersely stated but none the less enlightening. Mr. Colbrith was not in: the office was merely his nominal headquarters in the city and he occupied it only occasionally. His residence? It was in the Borough of the Bronx, pretty well up toward Yonkers—locality and means of access obligingly written out on a card for the caller by the clerk. Was Mr. Ford's business of a routine nature? If so, perhaps, Mr. Ten Eyck, the general agent, could attend to it. Ford said it was not of a routine nature, and made his escape to inquire his way to the nearest subway station. To pause now was to lose the precious impetus of the start.
It was worth something to be whirled away blindly out of the stifling human vortex of the lower city; but Ford's first glimpse of the Colbrith mansion depressed him again. The huge, formal house had once been the country residence of a retired dry-goods merchant. It fronted the river brazenly, and the fine old trees of a ten-acre park shamed its architectural stiffness. Ford knew the president a little by family repute and more particularly as a young subordinate knows the general in command. It struck him forcibly that the aspect of the house fitted the man. With the broad river and the distant Palisades to be dwelt upon, its outlook windows were narrow. With the sloping park and the great trees to give it dignity, it seemed to assume an artificial, plumb-line dignity of its own, impressive only as the product of rigid measurements and mechanical uprightness.
From the boulevard there was a gravelled driveway with a stone portal. The iron gates were thrown wide, and at his entrance Ford stood aside to let an outgoing auto-car have the right of way. Being full of his errand, and of the abstraction of a depressed soul, Ford merely remarked that there were two persons in the car; a young man driving, and a young woman, veiled and dust-coated, in the mechanician's seat beside him. None the less, there floated out of the mist of abstraction an instantly vanishing phantom of half-recognition for the Westerner. Something in the pose of the young woman, the way she leaned forward and held her hat with the tips of her gloved fingers, was, for the fleeting moment, almost reminiscent.
If Ford had wished to speculate upon abstruse problems of identity, there was neither time nor the mental aptitude. A little later he had given his card to the servant at the door and was waiting in a darkened and most depressive library for the coming of the master of the house. The five minutes of waiting nearly finished him. As the absurdly formal clock between the book-cases ticked off the leaden-winged seconds, his plan for the rescue of Pacific Southwestern took the form of a crass impertinence, and only the grim determination to see a lost cause decently coffined and buried kept the enthusiast with his face to the front.
After all, the beginning of the interview with the tall, thin, gray-haired and hatchet-faced old man, who presently stalked into the library and gave his hand with carefully adjusted cordiality to the son of one of his college classmates, was only a little more depressing: it was not mortal. Ford had been born in Illinois; and so, something better than a third of a century earlier, had the president. Moreover, Mr. Colbrith had, in the hey-day of his youth, shared rooms with the elder Ford in the fresh-water university which had later numbered the younger Ford among its alumni. These things count for somewhat, even when the gap to be bridged is that between the president of a railroad and one of his minor officials.
But when the revolutionary project was introduced, the president's guarded cordiality faded like a photographic proof-print in the sunlight, and the air of the darkened library grew coldly inclement.
"So you came to talk business, did you?" said the high, rasping voice out of the depths of the easy-chair opposite; and Ford raged inwardly at the thought that he had clearly placed himself at a disadvantage by becoming even constructively the guest of the president. "As a rule, I positively refuse to discuss such matters outside of their proper environment; but I'll make an exception for Douglas Ford's son. Your plan is simply impossible. I can understand how it may appear possible, and even attractive, to a young man, and especially to the young man who has invented it. But as an investment for capital—my dear young sir, go back to your division, and strive by faithful service to rise in the accepted and time-honored way. You are wasting your time in New York."
Curiously enough, Ford found his evaporated courage recrystallizing under opposition.
"I can not believe that I have made the plan, and the present condition of the system, sufficiently clear to you," he insisted; whereupon he went patiently and good-naturedly over the argument again, emphasizing the desperate straits to which the Pacific Southwestern was reduced.
"We know all that, Mr. Ford," was the unyielding reply. "But granting it to be the fact, don't you see the absolute futility of asking for thirty-five millions additional capital at such a crisis?"
"No, I don't," said Ford stubbornly. "I know—as I can not explain to you in detail in a half-hour interview—that this plan of mine can be made successful. For two years, Mr. Colbrith, I have been the man on the ground: no word that I am saying to you is speculative. Every clause of the proposition has a carefully established fact behind it."
"No doubt it seems so to you," came the rasping voice from the chair-depths. "But thirty-five millions!"—with a quavering gasp. "And at a time when our earnings are falling off steadily and the stock is going down day by day. It's—it's simply preposterous! I must really decline to discuss it any further."
Ford had his packet of data in hand.
"I have all the exhibits here, carefully tabulated and condensed. Won't you reconsider far enough to examine them, Mr. Colbrith?"
A thin white hand of negation and protest waved out of the depths of the engulfing easy-chair.
"I am sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Ford. I knew your father, and we were great friends. You are like him," he added reminiscently. "He might have died rich if he had gone into corn-buying with me when we were graduated, as I wanted him to. But he was too enthusiastic. He wanted to turn the world upside down—just as you do, my dear young man; just as you do."
Ford got upon his feet. The time had arrived for the firing of the shot of last resort, and he aimed it deliberately.
"I came first to you, Mr. Colbrith, because it was my duty as a subordinate, and your own appointee, and because you were my father's friend so many years ago. I may say, frankly, that I did it against good advice. Men who profess to know you have counseled me to appeal directly to the board. What I wish to know now is if you are willing to take the entire responsibility of turning this plan of mine down. Will it not relieve you of all responsibility if you will call a meeting of the directors, and let me lay this absurd proposal of mine before it? You can surely have no fears for the result."
The shot told. The president struggled to his feet and took a nervous turn up and down the long room. When he replied, it was with the indecisive man's reluctance to commitment of any sort.
"If I call the meeting, I shall be ridiculed; and if I don't call it, I suppose you'll go to Brewster and Magnus and tell them I've muzzled you. Have it your own way. I'll issue the call for ten o'clock, the day after to-morrow, in McVeigh and Mackie's offices in Broad Street. But I warn you in advance, Mr. Ford, I shall not be able to help you in the least. And I may add this: that when you reach that part of your proposal where you call for thirty-five millions additional capital, you may as well put on your hat and go home. That will be the end of it."
"And of me," laughed the enthusiast. But in spite of the cold comfort, and of the still colder promise of opposition, he took his leave with a lighter heart, refusing Mr. Colbrith's rather perfunctory invitation to stay to luncheon.
And on the gravelled drive, where he again had to make way for the auto-car purring in on its return, he did not so much as look up at the pair in the driving-seat.
WANTED: THIRTY-FIVE MILLIONS
The offices of McVeigh and Mackie, brokers and financial agents, are in Broad Street, and the windows of the room used for board meetings look down upon the angle where beats the money pulse of the nation.
Ford had successfully resisted the temptation to lobby for his scheme during the one-day interval between his conference with Mr. Colbrith and the date of the called meeting of the directors. It was not any mistaken sense of loyalty to the president that restrained him; on the contrary, he decided that Mr. Colbrith's declaration of war left him free to fight as he would. But upon due consideration he concluded to set the advantage of an assault en masse over against the dubious gain of an advanced skirmish line, and when he turned out of Broadway into Wall Street on the morning of destiny the men whom he was to meet and convince were still no more to him than a list of names in the Poor's Manual, consulted within the hour for the purpose.
He was early on the battle-ground; much too early, he thought, when a clerk ushered him into the board room in the rear of the brokers' offices. As yet there was only one person present—a young man who was lounging in the easiest of the leather-covered chairs and yawning dismally. At the first glance the face seemed oddly and strikingly familiar; but when the young man marked the new-comer's entrance, the small hand-bag in which the amateur promoter carried his papers, and got up to shake hands, Ford found the suggestive gropings baffled.
"My name is Adair," said the lounger genially; "and I suppose you are the Mr. Ford Uncle Sidney has been telling us about. Pull up a chair and sit by the window. It's the only amusement you'll have until the clan gathers."
Ford looked at his watch.
"I seem to be ahead of time," he remarked. "I understood Mr. Colbrith to say that the meeting would be called for ten o'clock."
"Oh, that's all right; and so he did," rejoined the other cheerfully. "But that means anything up to noon for a directors' meeting in New York." Then, after a pause: "Do you know any of us personally, Mr. Ford?"
Ford was rummaging in his memory again. "I ought to know you, Mr. Adair. It isn't very decent to drag in resemblances, but—"
"The resemblance is the real thing, this time," said Adair. "You saw me day before yesterday, driving out of the Overlook grounds as you were going in."
Ford shook his head.
"No; it goes back of that; sometime I'll remember how and where. But to answer your question: I know Mr. Colbrith slightly, but I've never met any of the directors."
"Well, you are meeting one at this moment," laughed the young man, crossing his legs comfortably. "But I am the easiest mark of the lot," he added. "I inherited my holdings in Pacific Southwestern."
Ford was crucially anxious to find out how the battle was likely to go, and his companion seemed amiably communicative.
"Since you call Mr. Colbrith 'Uncle Sidney,' I infer that you know what I am here for, Mr. Adair. How do you think my proposition is likely to strike the board?"
Again the young man laughed.
"Fancy your asking me!" he said. "I haven't talked with any one but Uncle Sidney; and the most I could get out of him was that you wanted thirty-five million dollars to spend."
"Well," said the Westerner anxiously, "am I going to get it?"
"You can search me," was the good-natured rejoinder. "But from my knowledge of the men you are going presently to wrestle with, I should say 'no' and italicize it."
"Perhaps it might help me a little if I could know in advance the particular reason for the italics," Ford suggested.
"Oh, sure. The principal reason is that your name isn't Hill or Harriman or Morgan or Gates. Money is ridiculously sheepish. It will follow a known leader blindly, idiotically. But if it doesn't hear the familiar tinkle of the leader's bell, it is mighty apt to huddle and run back."
Ford's smile was grim.
"I don't mind saying to you, Mr. Adair, that this is one of the times when it will be much safer to huddle and run forward. Have you seen the half-yearly report?"
"I? Heaven forbid! I have never seen anything out of the Pacific Southwestern—not even a dividend."
Ford would very willingly have tried to share his enthusiasm with the care-free young man, whose face was still vaguely but persistently remindful of some impression antedating the automobile passing; but now the other members of the board were dropping in by twos and threes, and privacy was at an end.
Just before President Colbrith took his place at the head of the long table to call the meeting to order, Adair leaned forward to say in low tones: "I couldn't give you the tip you wanted, Mr. Ford, but I can give you another which may serve as well. If your good word doesn't win out, scare 'em—scare 'em stiff! I don't know but you could frighten half a million or so out of me if you should try."
"Thank you," said Ford. "I may take you at your word,"—and just then Mr. Colbrith rose in his place, fingering his thin white beard rather nervously, Ford thought, and rapping on the table for silence.
It was admitted on all hands that the president of the Pacific Southwestern was a careful man and a thrifty. It was these qualities which had first determined his election. There were many small stock-holders in the company, and it is the foible of small stock-holders to believe that rigid economy counts for more than adventurous outreachings in the larger field.
"Gentlemen," he began, his high, raucous voice rasping the silence like the filing of a saw, "this meeting is called, as you have probably been informed, for the purpose of considering a plan for betterments submitted by Mr. Stuart Ford, who is at the present time superintendent of our Plug Mountain Division.
"In making this unusual innovation, and in introducing Mr. Ford, I desire to say that I have been actuated by that motive of prudence which, while it stands firmly upon its own feet, is willing to consider suggestions from without, even when these suggestions appear to be totally at variance with a policy of careful and judicious financiering.
"In presenting Mr. Ford as the son of an old friend, long since gone to his reward, I wish it distinctly understood that I am in no sense committed to his plan. The policy of this company under the present administration has been uniformly cautious and prudent: Mr. Ford would throw caution and prudence to the winds. Our best efforts have been directed toward the saving of the ultimate dollar of expense: Mr. Ford urges us to spend millions. We have been trying to dispose of some of our non-paying branches: Mr. Ford would have us acquire others and build new lines."
While Mr. Colbrith was speaking, Adair was rapidly characterizing the members for Ford, checking them off upon his fingers.
"The little man at Uncle Sidney's right is Mackie, and the miserly looking one next to him is McVeigh," he whispered. "One of them will furnish your coffin, and the other will drive the nails into it. The big man with the beard is Brewster—a multimillionaire; and the one who looks like Senator Bailey is Magnus, president of the Mohican National. Connolly, the fat Irishman, is a politician—wads of money, but not much interest in the game. The other three—"
But now the president had made an end and was beckoning to Ford.
The young engineer rose, feeling much as if a bucket of ice-water had been suddenly emptied down the back of his neck. But one of his saving qualities was the spring-like resilience which responds instantly to a shock. Spreading his papers on the table, he began with a little apology.
"I didn't come here this morning prepared to make a promoter's speech; and perhaps it is just as well, since my gift, if I have one, lies in doing things rather than in talking about them. But I can lay a few facts before you which you may deem worthy of consideration."
From this as a beginning he went on swiftly and incisively. The Pacific Southwestern, in its present condition, was a failure. It was an incomplete line, trying vainly to hold its own against great and powerful systems overlapping it at either end. The remedy lay in extension. The acquisition of a controlling interest in three short roads, which, pieced together, would bridge the gap between the Missouri River and Chicago, would place the Pacific Southwestern upon an equal footing with its competitors as a grain carrier. By standardizing the Plug Mountain narrow gauge and extending it to Salt Lake and beyond, the line would secure a western outlet, and would be in a position to demand its share of transcontinental business.
To finance these two extensions a capital of thirty-five million dollars would be needed; five million dollars for the purchase of the majority stock in the three short roads, and the remainder for the western outlet. These assertions were not guesses: by referring to exhibits marked "a" "b" and "f," his hearers would find accurate estimates of cost, not only of construction, but also of stock purchases.
As to the manner of providing the capital, he had only a suggestion to offer. The five million dollars necessary for the acquirement of a controlling interest in the three short roads would be a fair investment. It could be covered immediately by a reissue—share for share—of the reorganization stock of the P. S-W., which would amply secure the investors, since the stock of the most prosperous of the three local roads was listed at twenty-eight, ten points lower than the present market quotation of P. S-W.
The thirty million dollar extension fund might be raised by issuing second mortgage bonds upon the entire system, or the new line itself could be bonded mile for mile under a separate charter. Ford modestly disclaimed any intention of dictating the financial policy; this was not in his line. But again he would submit facts. The grain crop in the West was phenomenally large in prospect. With its own eastern terminal in Chicago, the Pacific Southwestern could control the grain shipments in its own territory. With the moving of the grain, the depressed P. S-W. stock would inevitably recover, and on a rising market the new issue of bonds could doubtless be floated.
The enthusiast closed his argument with a hasty summing-up of the benefits which must, in the nature of things, accrue. From being an alien link in the great transcontinental chain, the Pacific Southwestern would rise at a bound to the dignity of a great railway system; a power to be reckoned with among the other great systems gridironing the West. Its earnings would be enhanced at every point; cross lines which now fed its competitors would become its allies; the local lines to be welded into the eastern end of the system would share at once in the prosperity of a strong through line.
For the western extension he could speak from personal knowledge of the region to be penetrated. Apart from the new line's prime object—that of providing an outlet for the system—there was a goodly heritage of local business awaiting the first railroad to reach the untapped territory. Mines, valueless now for the lack of transportation facilities, would become abundant producers; and there were many fertile valleys and mesas to attract the ranchman, who would find on the western slopes of the mountains an unfailing water supply for his reservoirs and ditches. Ford did not hesitate to predict that within a short time the extension would earn more, mile for mile, than the grain-belt portion of the system.
When he sat down he felt that his cause was lost. There was no enthusiasm, no approval, in the faces of his auditors. After a short and informal discussion, in which the engineer was called on to explain his plans and estimates in detail to one and another of the members, Magnus, the bank president, sufficiently summed up the sense of the meeting when he said:
"There is no question about the ingenuity of your plan, Mr. Ford. You must have given a great deal of time and thought to it. But it is rather too large for us, I'm afraid, and there are too many contingencies. Your province, I understand, is the building and operating of railroads, and it is nothing to your discredit that you are unfamiliar with the difficulties of financing an undertaking as vast as this proposal of yours."
"I don't deny the difficulties," said Ford. "But they wouldn't seem to be insuperable."
"Not from your point of view," rejoined the banker suavely. "But you will admit that they are very considerable. The opposition on the part of the competing systems would be something tremendous. No stone would be left unturned in the effort to dismount us. To go no further into the matter than the proposed purchase of the majority stocks in the three short roads: at the first signal in that field you would find those stocks flying skyward in ten-point advances, and your five millions wouldn't be a drop in the bucket. In view of the difficulties, I think I voice the conviction of the board when I say that the plan is too hazardous."
The nods of assent were too numerous to leave Ford any hope of turning the tide in his favor. He rose, gathered up his papers, and reached for his hat.
"It is very pointedly your own funeral, gentlemen," he said curtly. "'Nothing venture, nothing have' is an old proverb, but it is as true now as it was when it was coined. With P. S-W. stock at thirty-eight and steadily declining; with another dividend about to be passed; and with the certainty that the July interest on the bonds will have to be defaulted unless some compromise can be effected with the bondholders—"
"What's that you're saying?" broke in Mackie, whose P. S-W. holdings were large.
Ford drew a folded paper from his pocket and laid it on the table.
"I was merely quoting from the auditor's semiannual report, of which that is a summary," he said, indicating the folded paper. "The report itself will doubtless reach you in a day or two. It would seem to an unprejudiced observer that the present condition spells something like a receivership, unless you have the bondholders with you."
"One moment, Mr. Ford," interposed the banker member; but Ford was working up to his climax and refused to be side-tracked.
"Of course, as an officer of the company, I have felt in duty bound to bring my grist first to the company's mill. But if you gentlemen don't wish to grind it, it will be ground, notwithstanding. I could very easily have found a market for my proposal without coming to New York."
With which parting shot, and a word of apology for having taken the time of the board to no good purpose, he bowed himself out, closing the door upon a second attempt on the part of the banker member to renew the argument.
THE AWAKENING OF CHARLES EDWARD
Ford went directly to his hotel from the meeting in the Broad Street board room, paid his bill, and had himself shot up to the fifth floor to prepare for a swift retreat from the scene of his humiliating defeat. It was hardly in keeping with his boast of persistence that he should suffer himself to be thus routed by a single reverse, however crushing. But in a world where every problem contains its human factor, red wrath accounts for much that is otherwise unaccountable.
Ford was thoroughly and unreasoningly angry and disgusted when he began to fling his belongings into the small steamer trunk, and it was only natural that he should turn with a little brow-wrinkling of resentment when, a little later, Mr. Charles Edward Adair, following his card up to the fifth floor front, lounged good-naturedly into the room.
"Beg pardon, I'm sure," said the intruder easily. "Didn't know you were busy. I thought maybe you'd like to know the effect of your little double-headed bombshell, and I couldn't be sure Uncle Sidney would take the trouble to tell you."
Ford made no effort to conceal his contempt for the financial gods.
"I don't imagine it will take you very long to tell it," he retorted. "Nothing short of a combined earthquake and volcanic eruption would have any effect upon that crowd."
"Oh, but you're wrong!" protested Adair. "That shot of yours with the semiannual summary for a projectile stirred 'em up good. It seems that Uncle Sidney and Hertford and Morelock—they're the executive committee, you know—have had the auditor's figures for some days, but they hadn't thought it necessary to harrow the feelings of the other members of the board with the cataclysmic details. So there was a jolly row. Magnus wanted to know, top-loftily, why a small official from the farther end of the system should be the first to bring the news; and Mackie was so wrathy that he inadvertently put the hot end of his cigar in his mouth. Even Connolly woke up enough to say that it was blanked bad politics."
"But nothing came of it?" said Ford, hope rising in spite of the negative query.
"No; nothing but a general hand-out of pretty sharp talk. What was needed right then was a unifier—somebody who could take command and coax or bully the scrapping factions into line. Magnus tried it, but he's too smooth. Brewster was the man, but he has too many other and bigger irons in the fire to care much about P. S-W. Connolly could have done it if the scrap had been a political split, but he was out of his element."
"Humph!" growled Ford. "It didn't occur to me that there were any differences of opinion to be reconciled. The entire board sat on my proposition—as a unit."
Adair laughed with imperturbable good-humor.
"The factions were there, just the same. You see, it's like this: Brewster and Magnus and two or three more are pretty well-to-do, and their holdings in P. S-W. don't cut much of a figure with them, one way or another. The others have more stock in the company, and fewer millions. When the jangle came, Brewster and the heavy men said, 'Oh, let it go; it isn't worth bothering with.' Naturally, the little fellows, with more to lose and less money-nerve, said, 'No.'"
"It spells the same word for me, in any event," Ford commented, and went on pitching things into his steamer trunk.
Adair got upon his feet and strolled away to the window.
When he turned again to face the beaten one he said:
"If I wasn't so infernally lazy, Mr. Ford, I more than half believe that I could pull this thing off for you, myself. But that is the curse of being born with too much money. I can take a plunge into business now and then—I've done it. But my best friend couldn't bet on me two days in succession."
Ford looked up quickly.
"Then don't put your hand to this plow, Mr. Adair. I'll be frank with you. I can fit the mechanical parts of this scheme of mine together, so that they will run true and do business. But I, or any man in my place, would have to have solid backing here in New York; a board that would be as aggressive as a handful of rebels fighting for life, and every man of it determined to win out or smash something. Mr. Magnus spoke of the opposition we should encounter from our competitors. He might have said more. What the Transcontinental, for example, wouldn't do to obliterate us needn't be catalogued. How do you suppose the present P. S-W. board would fare in such a fight?"
The youngest member of the flouted board laughed again.
"You mustn't say in your wrath that all men are liars—or cowards. There is plenty of fight in our crowd; and plenty of money, too, if you could only get it sufficiently scared."
"I've done my best," said Ford, slamming the lid of the trunk and buckling the straps vigorously. "The next time I'll find my market first and build my scheme afterward."
"Well, if I can say it without offense, I'm honestly sorry for you, Mr. Ford; you've been butchered to make a Broad Street holiday," said Adair, lounging toward the door. "You are going back to the West, I suppose?"
"Pennsylvania; five-ten this afternoon."
"That is a long time between drinks. Suppose you come up to the club and have luncheon with me?"
Ford hesitated, watch in hand.
"I was about to lie to you, Mr. Adair, and plead business; but I shan't. I'll tell you the plain truth. I'm too sore just now to be any good fellow's good company."
"Which is precisely the reason why I asked you," laughed the golden youth. "Come on; let's go now. You can take it out on me as much as you like, you know. I shan't mind."
But the club luncheon ignored the business affair completely, as Adair intended it should. Ford came out of the shell of disappointment with the salad course, and by way of reparation for his former attitude talked rather more freely of himself than he was wont to do on such short acquaintance with any one. The young millionaire met him quite half-way on this road to a better understanding, contrasting with mild envy Ford's well-filled, busy life with his own erratic efforts at time-killing.
"You make me half sorry for myself," he said, when they went to the smoking-room to light their cigars. "It's no less than a piteous misfortune when a fellow's father has beaten all the covers of accomplishment for him."
Ford could laugh now without being bitter.
"The game isn't all corralled, even for you, Mr. Adair. There was excellent good shooting for you in that directors' meeting this morning, but you wouldn't take the trouble."
"That's the fact," was the easy-going rejoinder. "That is just what my sister is always telling me—that I won't take the trouble. And yet I do take the trouble to begin a lot of things; only they never seem worth while after a few days' dip into them."
"Pick out bigger ones," suggested Ford. "My trouble is just the other way about; I am always tackling things that are worlds too big for me—just as I have this time."
"It isn't too big for you, Mr. Ford. It was too big for Colbrith, Magnus, et al. And, besides, you're not going to give it up. You'll drop off in Chicago, hunt up some meat-packer or other Croesus, and land your new railroad independently of the P. S-W."
It was a measure of the sincerity of Ford's liking for his host when he said: "That little shot of mine at your colleagues was merely a long bluff. If my scheme can't be worked with the P. S-W., it can't well be worked without it. We are lacking the two end-links in the chain—which I could forge. But my two end-links without the middle one wouldn't attract anybody."
It was quite late in the afternoon when they left the club, and Ford had no more than time to check his luggage and get to his train. He wondered a little when Adair went with him to the ferry, and was not ungrateful for the hospitality which seemed to be directed toward a lightening of the burden of failure. But Adair's word of leave-taking, flung across the barrier when the chains of the landing-stage were rattling to their rise, was singularly irrelevant.
"By the way, Mr. Ford; what time did you say your train would reach Chicago?"
"At eight forty-five to-morrow evening," replied the beaten one; and then the boat swung out of its slip and the retreat without honor was begun.
HAMMER AND TONGS
It was raining dismally the evening of the following day when Ford saw from his Pullman window the dull sky-glow of the metropolis of the Middle West. It had been a dispiriting day throughout. When a man has flung himself at his best into a long battle which ends finally in unqualified loss, the heavens are as brass, and the future is apt to reflect only the pale light of the past failure.
It was after the train had entered the suburbs of Chicago that a blue-coated messenger boy came through the Pullman, with the car conductor for his guide. Ford saw himself pointed out, and a moment later was reading a telegram, with a tumult, not of the drumming car wheels, roaring in his ears.
Had a talk with my sister and made up my mind to see you through—if I don't get tired and quit, as usual. Secure options on that short-road stock quick, and wire me care McV. & M. Funds to your credit in Algonquin National, Chicago. Another directors' meeting to-day, and things look a little less chaotic. Answer. ADAIR.
For some time Ford could only read and re-read the exciting telegram, scarcely trusting the evidence of his senses. That the coldly indifferent members of the P. S-W. board, with a man like President Colbrith at their head, could be swung into line in the short space of a single day by a young fellow who seemed to be little more than a spoiled son of fortune, was blankly incredible.
But he was not long in realizing that the cherished scheme for which he had studied and struggled was actually beginning to stagger to its feet; or in reaching the equally stirring conclusion that his part in the suddenly reopened game called instantly for shrewd blows and the swiftest possible action.
The stock-holders in the three local roads which were to be united to bridge the Chicago-Missouri River gap were scattered all over the Middle West. To secure the necessary options on working majorities of the stock would be a task for a financial diplomat, and one who could break the haste-making record by being in a dozen different places at one and the same moment. Moreover, secrecy became a prime factor in the problem. If the opposition, and particularly the Transcontinental people, should get wind of the move, it would take fifteen millions to do the work of five, as Banker Magnus had intimated.
Notwithstanding the thickly marshaled obstacles, Ford had his plan of campaign pretty well thought out by the time his train was slowing into the Union Station. Before going to New York he had painstakingly "located" the required holdings of the three stocks. Some of them were in Chicago, but the greater number of the men to be bargained with were local capitalists living in the smaller cities along the lines of the three short railroads.
In his bag was a carefully compiled list of these stock-holders, with their addresses and the amounts of their respective holdings. At the worst, he concluded, it should mean nothing more formidable than a deal of quick traveling, some anxious bargaining, perhaps, and a little finesse to keep his object in securing the options safely in the background.
This was how it appeared in the prospect; and the young engineer had yet to learn that the securing of options is a trade by itself—a trade by no means to be caught up in passing, even by the most gifted of tyros.
Hence, it was extremely fortunate for this particular tyro—more fortunate than he could possibly know at the moment—that his telephone message sent from the first telephone he could reach after his train stopped in the Union Station, caught Kenneth at the Green Bag Club. It was a mere chance that he knew that Kenneth, the senior member of the firm of attorneys having general oversight of the Pacific Southwestern's legal department, was at the moment in Chicago; a chance hanging upon the fact that he had met Kenneth as he was passing through on his way eastward. But it was not by chance that the first familiar face he saw on entering the rotunda of the Grand Pacific Hotel was that of Kenneth. The sight was merely the logical result of Ford's urgent request telephoned to the lawyer's club.
"By Jove, Kenneth; this comes within two inches of being a miracle!—my catching you here before you had started West," Ford ejaculated. And then: "When are you going back?"
"I am supposed to be on the way now," was the lawyer's reply. "I had made all my arrangements to start back to-night on the slow train, but I dined with some friends on the North Side and made a miss. Where have you been?"
"I'm just in from New York. Let me register and get a room; and you put away any lingering notion you may have of heading westward to-night. I've got to have your ear for a few hours to begin with, and the whole of you for the next few days. No; don't probe me here. Wait, and I'll unload on you gradually. You won't be sorry you missed your train."
Fifteen minutes later Ford had his adviser safely behind a closed door, and had put him succinctly in possession of the world-subverting facts, as far as they went. When he concluded, the lawyer was shaking his head dubiously, just as Auditor Evans had done.
"Ford, have you any adequate idea of what a tremendous proposition you are up against?" he asked quietly, helping himself to a cigar out of the engineer's freshly opened box.
"I don't believe I have underrated the difficulties, any of them," said Ford, matching the attorney's gravity. "There are bones all the way along, but I think I have struck the biggest of them just here. I ought to be in a dozen places at once, and not later than to-morrow noon. That's something I can't quite compass."
"Getting these options, you mean? That is very true; but it isn't all of it, by long odds. There are the thousand and one mechanical details to be worked out: the coupling up of these three local lines at their connecting points, the securing of proper trackage or trackage rights at these junctions, the general ordering of things so that a through line may be opened immediately when the stock is secured. If there were ten of you, you couldn't get things licked into shape in time to get in on the grain carrying this season."
Ford had relighted his cigar, which had gone out in the explanatory interval, and was blowing smoke-rings toward the ceiling.
"I may be the biggest ass this side of the jack trails, and the most conceited, Kenneth; but you're over on my side of the ring when you talk about the mechanical obstacles. What I'm worrying about now is the fact that I can't do two things at once. The options must be secured before we can make the fifth part of a move in the other field; and the Lord only knows how long that will take. To hurry is to lose out."
The lawyer nodded. "And not to hurry is to lose out, too," he qualified. Then he smoked in thoughtful silence for five full minutes before he said, abruptly: "Give me your list of stock-holders and turn the option business over to the legal department, where it properly belongs. That will leave you foot-loose to go after the mechanical matter. How does that suit you?"
Ford sprang to his feet.
"By Jove, Kenneth, you're a man and a brother; I'm not forgetting that you are taking this entire fairy tale on my personal say-so; and I shan't forget it, either. It's what I wanted to ask—and was afraid to ask, after I got you safely jailed up here."
The attorney's smile was grim but friendly.
"I'm not forgetting how you took a sick man over into the Pannikin wilderness on a two-months hunting trip last fall and made a well man of him, Ford," he said. "Any man who can shoot as straight as you do wouldn't be sitting here telling me lies about a trifling little matter involving the expenditure of a beggarly thirty-five millions. But to come down to earth again: you haven't shifted any considerable part of the burden, you know. I can do this bit of routine work; but the main thing is up to you, just as it was before I said yes."
Ford rose, stretching himself like a man who has just been relieved of a burden whose true weight was appreciable only in its lifting.
"I know," he said cheerfully. "It has been up to me, all along. In the morning we'll go around to the Algonquin National, and I'll put you into the financial saddle. Then I'll get out on the line, and by the time you have the stock corralled, we'll be practically ready to pull through freight—if not passengers—from Denver to Chicago. Oh, I know what I am talking about," he added, when the general counsel smiled his incredulity. "This is no affair of yesterday with me. I have every mile of these three short roads mapped and cross-sectioned; I have copies of all their terminal and junction-point contracts. I know exactly what we can do, and what we can't do."
The lawyer's comment was frankly praiseful, not to say flattering.
"You're a wonder, Ford—and that's no figure of speech. How on earth did you manage to do it all at such long range?"
Ford's smile was reminiscent of the obstacles.
"It would take me all night to tell you in detail, Kenneth. But I did it. It's no mere brag to say that I could walk into the Chicago, Peoria & Davenport general offices here to-morrow morning and organize a through service over the P. S-W. and the three stub lines within twenty-four hours, if I had to."
"Well, that part of it is far enough beyond me," said the attorney. "The stock-chasing is more in my line. I hope we can keep quiet enough about it so that the opposition won't guess what we are trying to do. You're sure it won't be given away from the New York end?"
It was the engineer's turn to shake his head and to look dubious.
"Now you are shouting, Kenneth. I can't tell anything about it. You'll remember that when I left New York the board had turned the plan down, definitely and permanently, as I supposed. I should say that our only safety lies in lightning speed. When you get the options on those controlling stock majorities snugly on deposit in the Algonquin National, we can draw our first long breath. Isn't that about the way it strikes you?"