THE HONORABLE SENATOR SAGE-BRUSH
THE HONORABLE SENATOR SAGE-BRUSH
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS NEW YORK : : : : : 1913
COPYRIGHT, 1913, BY
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
* * * * *
Published September, 1913
TO MR. GEORGE ADY
My Regius Professor in the School of Western Railroading, and himself a keen observer, in situ, of the conditions which I have herein sought to portray, this book is most affectionately inscribed.
I. BECAUSE PATRICIA SAID "NO" 3
II. THE BOSS 26
III. A FALSE GALLOP OF MEMORIES 40
IV. THE HIGHBINDERS 56
V. AT WARTRACE HALL 69
VI. ON THE WING OF OCCASIONS 86
VII. A BATTLE ROYAL 96
VIII. THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT 110
IX. THE RANK AND FILE 121
X. IN THE HERBARIUM 138
XI. THE GREAT GAME 148
XII. A WELL-SPRING IN THE DESERT 165
XIII. THE LIEGEMAN 178
XIV. BARRIERS INVISIBLE 193
XV. SWORD-PLAY 203
XVI. THE SAFE-BLOWER 213
XVII. ON THE KNEES OF THE HIGH GODS 230
XVIII. THE CHASM 241
XIX. A COG IN THE WHEEL 256
XX. A STONE FOR BREAD 264
XXI. THE UNDER-DOG 280
XXII. THE ICONOCLAST 293
XXIII. A CRY IN THE NIGHT 302
XXIV. FIELD HEADQUARTERS 320
XXV. BLOOD AND IRON 327
XXVI. APPLES OF GOLD 343
XXVII. IN WHICH PATRICIA DRIVES 356
XXVIII. THE GOSSIPING WIRES 367
XXIX. AT SHONOHO INN 379
XXX. THE RECKONING 390
XXXI. A LA BONNE HEURE 407
THE HONORABLE SENATOR SAGE-BRUSH
BECAUSE PATRICIA SAID "NO"
Some one was giving a dinner dance at the country club, and Blount, who was a week-end guest of the Beverleys, was ill-natured enough to be resentful. What right had a gay and frivolous world to come and thrust its light-hearted happiness upon him when Patricia had said "No"? It was like bullying a cripple, he told himself morosely, and when he had read the single telegram which had come while he was at dinner he begged Mrs. Beverley's indulgence and went out to find a chair in a corner of the veranda where the frivolities had not as yet intruded.
It was a North Shore night like that in which Shakespeare has mingled moon-shadows with the gossamer fantasies of the immortal "Dream." Though the dance was in-doors, the trees on the lawn and the road-fronting verandas of the club-house were hung with festoons of Chinese lanterns. At the carriage-entrance smart automobiles were coming and going, and one of them, with the dust of the Boston parkways on its running-gear, brought the guests of honor—three daughters of a Western senator lately home from their summer abroad.
Blount knew neither the honorers nor the honored ones, and had resolutely refused the chance offered him by Mrs. Beverley to amend his ignorance. For Patricia's "No" was not yet twenty-four hours old, and since it had changed the stars in their courses for Patricia's lover, the cataclysm was much too recent to postulate anything like a return of the heavenly bodies to their normal orbits.
Not that Blount put it that way, either to Mrs. Beverley or to himself. He was a level-eyed, square-shouldered young man of an up-to-date world, and the stock from which he sprang was prosaic and practical rather than poetic or sentimental. But the fact remained, and when he sat back in his corner absently folding the lately received telegram into a narrow spill and scowling moodily down upon the coming and going procession of motor-cars he was unconsciously giving a very life-like imitation of the disappointed lover the world over.
It was thus, and apparently by the merest chance, that Gantry found him; a chance because the Winnebasset club-house is spacious and the dinner dance minimized the hazards of a meeting between two unattached men who were merely transient guests. But the railroad man at least was unfeignedly glad.
"Doesn't it beat the dickens what a little world this is?" he exclaimed, with a true bromidian disregard for the outworn and the axiomatic. "Of course, I knew you were in or around Boston somewhere, but to run slap up against you here, when there seemed to be nothing in it for me but to be bored stiff—" He stopped short, finding it difficult to be shiftily insincere with as old a friend as Evan Blount. But in the nature of things it was baldly impossible to tell Blount that the meeting was not accidental.
"Pull up a chair and sit down," said Blount, not too ungraciously, considering his just cause to be more ungracious. "I was thinking of you a little while ago, Dick. I saw your name in the list of Transcontinental representatives to the traffic meeting in Boston, and—well, at the present moment I'm not sure but you are the one man in the world I wanted most to meet."
"Say! that sounds pretty good to me," laughed Gantry, settling himself comfortably in a lazy-chair and feeling in his pockets for a cigar. "I've been in Boston the full week, skating around over the chilly crust of things and never able to get so much as one tenuous little social claw-hold. Say, Evan, how many ice-plants does that impenetrable old town keep going ever count 'em?"
"Boston is all right when you know it—or, rather, when it comes to know you," returned Blount, remembering that Boston or Cambridge—which is Boston in the process of elucidation—was the birth and dwelling place of Patricia.
Gantry grinned broadly and lighted his cigar.
"The 'effete East' has psychically and psychologically corralled you, hasn't it, Evan?—to put it in choice Bostonese. I thought maybe it would when I heard you were taking the post-graduate frills in the Harvard Law School. By the way, how much longer are you in for?"
"I am out of the Law School, if that is what you mean—out and admitted to the bar," said Blount. "If you get into trouble with the Boston police let me know, and I'll ask for a change of venue to the greasewood hills and Judge Lynch's court."
"The good old greasewood hills!" chanted Gantry, who was of those who curse their homeland to its face and praise it consistently and pugnaciously elsewhere. "Are you ever coming back to them, Blount? I believe you told me once, in the old college days, that you were Western-born."
"I told you the truth; and until to-night I have never thought much about going back," was Blount's rather enigmatic reply.
"But now you are thinking of it?" inquired the railroad man, waking up. "That's good; the old Sage-brush State is needing a few bright young lawyers mighty bad. Is that why I'm the particular fellow you wanted to meet?"
Blount passed the telegram which had come while he was at dinner across the interval between the two chairs. "Read that," he said.
Gantry smoothed the square of yellow paper carefully and held it up to the softened glow of the electric ceiling-globe. Its date-line carried the name of his own city in the "greasewood country"—the capital of the State—and the time-markings sufficiently indicated its recent arrival. Below the date-line he read:
TO EVAN SHELBY BLOUNT, Standish Apartments, Boston.
You have had everything that money could buy, and you owe me nothing but an occasional sight of your face. If you are not tied to some woman's apron-string, why can't you come West and grow up with your native State?
It was characteristic of Richard Gantry, light-handed juggler of friendly phrases, but none the less a careful and methodical official of a great railway company, that he folded the telegram in the original creases before he passed it back.
"Well?" said Blount, when the pause had grown over-abundantly long.
"I was just thinking," was the reflective rejoinder. "We used to be fairly chummy in the old Ann Arbor days, Evan, and yet I never, until a few days ago, knew or guessed that Senator Blount was your father."
"He was and is," was the quiet reply. "I supposed everybody knew it."
"I didn't," Gantry denied, adding: "You may not realize it, but what you don't tell people about yourself would make a pretty big book if it were printed."
Blount's smile was altogether friendly.
"What's the use, Richard?" he asked. "The world has plenty of banalities and commonplaces without the adding of any man's personal contribution. Why should I bore you or anybody?"
"Oh, of course, if you put it on that ground," said the railroad traffic manager. "Just the same, there's another side to it. In an unguarded moment, back in the college days, as I have said, you admitted to me that you were Western-born. I always supposed afterward that you regretted either the fact or the mention of it, since you never told me any more."
"Perhaps I didn't tell more because there was so little to tell. I had a boyhood like other boys—or, no, possibly it wasn't quite the usual. I was born on the 'Circle-Bar,' when the ranch was—as it still is, I believe—a hard day's drive for a bunch of prime steers distant from the nearest shipping-corral on the railroad. At twelve I could 'ride line,' 'cut out,' and 'rope down' like any other healthy ranch-bred youngster, and since the capital was at that time only in process of getting itself surveyed and boomed into existence I had never seen a town bigger than Painted Hat."
"And what happened when you were twelve?" queried Gantry. He was not abnormally curious, but Blount's communicative mood was unusual enough to warrant a quickening of interest.
"The greatest possible misfortune that can ever come to a half-grown boy, Dick—my mother died."
Gantry's own boyhood was not so deeply buried in the past as to make him forgetful of its joys and sorrows. "That was hard—mighty hard," he assented. Then: "And pretty soon your father married again?"
"Not for some years," Blount qualified. "But for me the heavens were fallen. I was sent away to school, to college, to Europe; then I came here to the Law School. In all that time I've never seen the 'Circle-Bar' or my native State—in fact, I have never been west of Chicago."
Gantry was astonished and he admitted it in exclamatory phrase. As a railroad man, continent-crossing travel was to him the merest matter of course. Though he might Sunday-over at the Winnebasset Country Club on the North Shore, it was well within the possibilities that the following week-end might find him sweltering in New Orleans or buttoning his overcoat against the raw evening fogs of San Francisco.
"Never been west of Chicago?" he echoed. "Never been—" He stopped short, beginning to realize vaguely that there must be strong reasons; reasons which might lie beyond the pale of a college friendship, and the confidences begotten thereby, in the rendering of them.
"No," said Blount.
"Then the senator's—that is—er—your father's political life has never touched you."
The friendly smile rippled again at the corners of Blount's steady gray eyes, but this time it was shot through with a faint suggestion of the Blount grimness.
"It has touched me on the sympathetic side, Dick. I saw a large-hearted, open-handed old cattle-king wading good-naturedly into the muddy stream of politics to gratify an ambition that wasn't at all his own—a woman's ambition. In order that the woman might mix and mingle in Washington society for a brief minute or two, he got himself elected to fill out an unexpired term of two months in the United States Senate—bought the election, some said. That was three years ago, wasn't it?—a long time, as political incidents or accidents go. But Washington hasn't forgotten. When I was down there last winter the five-o'clock-tea people were still recalling Mrs. Blount's gowns and the wild-Western naivete of 'The Honorable Senator Sage-Brush.'"
Gantry was chuckling softly when the half-bitter admission had got itself fully made.
"Land of love, Evan!" he said, "you may be an educated post-graduate all right, with the proper Boston degree of culture laid on and rubbed down to a hard-glaze finish, but you've got a lot to learn yet—about the senator and his politics, I mean. Why, Great Snipes, man! he isn't in it a little bit for the social frills and furbelows; he never was. Let me intimate a few things: Politically speaking, David Blount is by long odds the biggest man in his State to-day. He can have anything he wants, from the head of the ticket down. You spoke rather contemptuously just now of his two months in the Senate; you probably didn't know that he might have gone back if he had wanted to; that he actually did a much more difficult thing—named his successor."
David Blount's son stood up and put his shoulders against one of the veranda pillars. From the new view-point he could look through the reading-room windows and on into the assembly-room where the dancers were keeping time to the measures of a two-step. But he was not thinking of the dancers when he said:
"It's a sheer miracle, Dick, your dropping down here to-night like the deus ex machina of the old Greek plays. You've read this telegram"—holding up the folded message—"it is just possible that you can tell me what lies behind it. Why has my father sent it at this particular time and in those words? He knows perfectly well that my plans for settling here in Boston were definitely made more than a year ago."
"I can tell you the situation out in the greasewood country, if that's what you want to know," said Gantry after a thoughtful pause.
"Make it simple," was Blount's condition, adding: "What I don't know about the business or the political situation in the West would fill a much larger book than the one you were speaking of a few minutes ago."
"'Business or political,' you say; they are Siamese twins nowadays," returned the railroad man, with a short laugh. Then: "The outlook for us out yonder in the greasewood hills is precisely what it is in a dozen other States this year—east, west, north and south—everything promising a renewal of the unreasoning, bull-headed legislative fight against the railroads. I suppose our own case is typical. As everybody knows, the Transcontinental Railway has practically created two-thirds of the States through which it passes—made them out of whole cloth. Where you left sage-brush and bare hills and unfenced cattle ranges a dozen years ago you will now find irrigation, tilled farms, orchards, rich mines—development everywhere, with a rapidly growing population to help it along. To make all this possible, the railroad took a chance; it was a mighty long chance, and somebody has to pay the bills."
"I know," smiled Blount; "the bill-paying is summed up in some railroad man's clever phrase, 'all the tariff the traffic will stand.' I can remember one year when my father rose up in his wrath and drove his beef cattle one hundred and fifty miles across the Transcontinental tracks to the Overland Central."
"That was in the old days," protested Gantry, who was loyal to his salt. "As the State has filled up, we've tried to meet the situation half-way, as a straight business proposition. Fares and tariffs have been lowered from time to time, and—"
"You are not making it simple enough by half," warned Blount quizzically. "You are getting further away from my telegram every minute."
Gantry paused to relight his cigar.
"I don't know how your telegram figures in it specially, but I do know this: the legislature to be elected this fall in our State will be chosen entirely without regard to the old party lines. There is only one issue before the people and that is the Transcontinental Railway. The 'Paramounters,' as they call themselves, taking the name from the assumption that it is the paramount duty of the voter to pinch any business interest bigger than his own, would like to legislate us out of existence; as against that we shall beat the tomtom and do our level best to stay on top of earth."
"Naturally," Blount agreed, then half-absently, and with his eyes still resting upon the merrymakers twirling like paired automatons in the distant assembly-room: "And my father—how does he stand?"
"The idea of your having to ask me how the senator stands in his own State!" exclaimed Gantry. "But really, Evan, I'd give a good bit of hard cash to be able to tell you in so many words just where he does stand. There are a good many people in our neck of woods who would like mighty well to know. It will make all the difference in the world when it comes to a show-down."
"Why will it?"
"Because, apart from the railroad and the anti-railroad factions, there is a very complete and smoothly running machine organization."
"And my father is identified with the machine?"
Again Gantry choked over the singular lack of information discovering itself in Blount's question.
"Land of glory!" he ejaculated. "Where have you been burying yourself, Evan? Didn't I just tell you that he is the biggest man in the State? Oh, no"—with heavy irony—"he isn't identified with the machine—not at all; he merely owns it and runs it. We may think we can swing a safe majority in the legislature, and the 'antis' may be just as firmly convinced that they can. But before either side can turn a wheel it will have to walk up to the captain's office and get its orders."
"Ah," said Blount, and a little later: "Thank you, Dick, I am pretty badly out of touch with the Western political situation, as you've discovered." Then he changed the subject abruptly. "How long will your traffic meeting last?"
"We practically finished to-day. An hour or two on Monday will wind it up."
"After which you'll go West?"
"After which I shall go West by the Monday noon train if I can make it. You couldn't hire me to stay in Boston an hour longer than I have to."
Silence for a time until Blount broke in upon Gantry's tapping of the dance-music rhythm with: "If I can close up a few unfinished business matters and get ready I may go with you, Dick. Would you mind?"
"Yes; I should mind so much that I'd willingly miss a train or so and worry out a few more of the chilly Boston hours rather than lose the chance of having you along."
"That is good of you, I'm sure. I should bore myself to death if I had to travel alone."
Blount's rejoinder might have passed for a mere friendly commonplace if it had not been for the rather curiously worded telegram. But it was a goodly portion of Gantry's business in life to put two and two together, and that phrase in the senator's message about a woman's apron-string interested him. Moreover, it was subtly suggestive.
"Ever meet your father's—er—the present Mrs. Blount, Evan?" he asked.
"No." Blount may have been Western-born, but the chilling discouragement he could crowd into the two-letter negation spoke eloquently of his Eastern training.
Gantry was rebuffed but not disheartened.
"She is a mighty fine woman," he ventured.
"So I have been given to understand." This time Blount's reply was icy. But now Gantry's eyes were twinkling and he pressed his advantage.
"You'll have to reckon pretty definitely with her if you go out to the greasewood country, Evan. Next to your father, she is the court of last resort; indeed, there are a good many people who insist that she is the court—the power behind the throne, you know."
There is one ditch out of which the most persistent and gladsome mocker may not drive his victim, and that is the ditch of silence. Blount said nothing. Nevertheless, Gantry tried once more.
"Not interested, Evan?"
Blount turned and looked his companion coldly in the eyes.
"Not in the slightest degree, Dick. Will you take that for your answer now, and remember it hereafter?"
"Sure," laughed the railroad man. And then, to round out the forbidden topic by adding worse to bad: "I didn't know it was a sore spot with you. How should I know? But, as I say, you'll have to reckon with her sooner or later, and—"
"Let's talk of something else," snapped Blount.
Gantry found a match and relighted his cigar. When he began again he was still thinking of the "apron-string" clause in the senator's telegram.
"I can't understand how any man with Western blood in his veins could ever be content to marry and settle down in this over-civilized neck of woods," he remarked, looking down upon the parked automobiles and around at the country-club evidences of the civilization.
"Can't you?" smiled Blount, with large lenience. One of the things the civilization had done for him was to make him good-naturedly tolerant of the crudeness of the outlander.
"No, I can't," asserted the Westerner. Then he added: "Of course, I don't know the Eastern young woman even by sight. She may be all that is lovely, desirable, and enticing—if a man could hope to live long enough to get really well acquainted with her."
"She is," declared Blount, with the air of one who had lived quite long enough to know.
Once more Gantry was putting two and two together. Blount's determination to go West and grow up with the country—his father's country—was apparently a very sudden one. Had the decision turned entirely upon the senator's telegram? Gantry, wise in his generation, thought not.
"You say that as if you'd been taking a few lessons," he laughed. Then, with the friendly impudence which only a college comradeship could excuse: "Is she here to-night?"
"No," said Blount, unguardedly making the response which admitted so much more than it said.
"Tell me about her," Gantry begged. "I don't often read a love story, but I like to hear 'em."
If it had been any one but Gantry, Blount would probably have had a sharp attack of reticence, with outward symptoms unmistakable to the dullest. But the time, the surroundings, and the exceeding newness of Patricia's "No" combined to break down the barriers of reserve.
"There isn't much to tell, Dick," he began half humorously, half in ill-concealed self-pity. "I've known her for a year, and I've loved her from the first day. That is Chapter One; and Chapter Two ends the story with one small word. She says 'No.'"
"The dickens she does!" said Gantry, in hearty sympathy. Then: "But that's a good sign, isn't it? Haven't I heard somewhere that they always say 'No' at first?"
Blount laughed in spite of himself. Gantry, the Dick Gantry of the college period, had always been a man's man, gay, light-hearted, and care-free to the outward eye, but in reality one who was carrying burdens of poverty and distress which might well have crushed an older and a stronger man. There had been no time for sentiment then, and Blount wondered if there had been in any later period.
"I am afraid I can't get any comfort out of that suggestion," he returned. "When Miss Patricia Anners says 'No,' I am quite sure she means it."
"Think so?" said Gantry, still sympathetic. "Well, I suppose you are the best judge. Tough, isn't it, old man? What's the obstacle?—if you can tell it without tearing the bandages off and saying 'Ouch!'"
"It is Miss Anners's career."
"H'm," was the doubtful comment; "I'm afraid you'll have to elaborate that a little for me. I'm not up in the 'career' classification."
"She has been studying at home and abroad in preparation for social-settlement work in the large cities. Of course, I knew about it; but I thought—I hoped—"
"You hoped it was only a young woman's fad—which it probably is," Gantry cut in.
"Y-yes; I'm afraid that was just what I did hope, Dick. But I couldn't talk against it. Confound it all, you can't go about smashing ideals for the people you love best!"
"Rich?" queried Gantry.
"Oh, no. Her father has the chair of paleontology, and never gets within speaking distance of the present century. The mother has been dead many years."
"And you say the girl has the Hull House ambition?"
"The social-betterment ambition. It's an ideal, and I can't smash it. You wouldn't smash it, either, Dick."
"No; I guess that's so. If I were in your fix I should probably do what you are doing—say 'Good-by, fond heart,' and hie me away to the forgetful edge of things. And it's simply astonishing how quickly the good old sage-brush hills will help a man to forget everything that ever happened to him before he ducked."
Blount winced a little at that. It was no part of his programme to forget Patricia. Indeed, for twenty-four hours, or the waking moiety of that period, he had been assuring himself of the utter impossibility of anything remotely approaching forgetfulness. This thought made him instantly self-reproachful; regretful for having shown a sort of disloyalty by opening the door of the precious and sacred things, even to so good a friend as Dick Gantry; and from regretting to amending was never more than a step for Evan Blount. There were plenty of reminiscences to be threshed over, and Blount brought them forward so tactfully that Gantry hardly knew it when he was shouldered away from the open door of the acuter personalities.
It was quite late, and the talk had again drifted around to a one-sided discussion of practical politics in the Western definition of the term, when Gantry, pleading weariness on the score of his hard week's work at the railroad meeting, went to bed. The summer night was at its perfect best, and Blount was still wakeful enough to refill his pipe and well-balanced enough to be thankful for a little solitude in which to set in order his plans for the newly struck-out future. In the later talk with Gantry he had learned many things about the political situation in his native State, things which were enlightening if not particularly encouraging. Trained in the ethics of a theoretical school, he knew only enough about practical politics to be very certain in his own mind that they were all wrong. And if Gantry's account could be trusted, there were none but practical politics in the State where his father was reputed to be the dictator.
Hitherto his ambition had been to build up a modest business practice in some Eastern city, and, like other aspiring young lawyers, he had been filling out the perspective of the picture with the look ahead to a possible time when some great corporation should need his services in permanence. He was of the new generation, and he knew that the lawyer of the courts was slowly but surely giving place to the lawyer of business. Without attempting to carry the modern business situation bodily over into the domain of pure ethics, he was still young enough and enthusiastic enough to lay down the general principle that a great corporation, being itself a creation of the law, must necessarily be law-abiding, and, if not entirely ethical in its dealings with the public, at least equitably just. Therefore his ideal in his own profession was the man who could successfully safeguard large interests, promote the beneficent outreachings of corporate capital, and be the adviser of the man or men to whom the greater America owes its place at the head of the civilized nations.
Oddly enough, though Gantry's attitude had been uncompromisingly partisan, Blount had failed to recognize in the railroad official a skilful pleader for the special interests—the interests of the few against those of the many. Hence he was preparing to go to the new field with a rather strong prepossession in favor of the defendant corporation. In their later conversation Gantry had intimated pretty broadly that there was room for an assistant corporation counsel for the railroad, with headquarters in the capital of the Sage-brush State. Blount assumed that the requirements, in the present crisis at least, would be political rather than legal, and in his mind's eye he saw himself in the prefigured perspective, standing firmly as the defender of legitimate business rights in a region where popular prejudice was capable of rising to anarchistic heights of denunciation and attack.
The picture pleased him; he would scarcely have been a true descendant of the fighting Blounts of Tennessee if the prospect of a conflict had been other than inspiring. If there were to be no Patricia in his future, ambition must be made to fill all the horizons; and since work is the best surcease for any sorrow, he found himself already looking forward in eager anticipation to the moment when he could begin the grapple, man-wise and vigorously, in the new environment.
It was after the ashes had been knocked from the bedtime pipe that Blount left his chair and the secluded corner of the veranda to go down among the parked automobiles on the lawn. His one recreation—and it was the only one in which he found the precious fillip of enthusiasm—was motoring. There was a choice collection of fine cars in the grouping on the lawn, and Blount had just awakened a sleepy chauffeur to ask him to uncover and exhibit the engine of a freshly imported Italian machine, when a stir at the veranda entrance told him that at least a few of the dancing guests were leaving early.
Being more curious at the moment about the mechanism of the Italian motor than he was about people, he did not realize that he was an intruder until the chauffeur hastily replaced the engine bonnet and began to get his car ready for the road. Blount stepped back when the little group on the veranda came down the steps preceded by a club footman who was calling the number of the car. And it was not until he was turning away that he found himself face to face with a very beautiful and very clear-eyed young woman who was buttoning an automobile dust-coat up under her chin.
"Patricia!" he burst out. And then: "For Heaven's sake! you don't mean to tell me that you have been here all evening?"
Her slow smile gave the impression, not quite of frigidity perhaps, but of that quality of serene self-possession which strangers sometimes mistook for coldness.
"Why shouldn't I be here?" she asked. "Didn't you know that the Cranfords—the people who are entertaining—are old friends of ours?"
Blount shook his head. "No, I didn't know it; and because I didn't, I have lost an entire evening."
"Oh, no; you shouldn't say that," she protested. "The evening was yours to use as you chose. Mrs. Beverley told me you were here, and she added that you had particularly requested not to be introduced to the Cranfords or their guests. Besides, you know you don't care anything about dancing."
The chauffeur had placed his other passengers in the tonneau, and was trying to crank the motor. Blount was thankful that the new Italian engine was refusing to take the spark. The delay was giving him an added moment or two.
"No, I don't care much for dancing; and you know very well why I couldn't, or wouldn't, be anybody's good company to-night," he said. Then: "It was cruel of you to deny me this last evening by not letting me know that you were here."
"'This last evening'?" she echoed. "Why 'last'?"
"Because I am leaving Boston and New England to-morrow—or rather, Monday. It is the only thing to do."
"I am sorry you are taking it this way, Evan," she deprecated, in the sisterly tone that always made him hotly resentful. "It hurts my sense of proportion."
"Sometimes I think you haven't any sense of proportion, Patricia," he retorted half-morosely. "If you have, I am sure it is frightfully distorted."
The recalcitrant motor had given a few preliminary explosions, and a white-haired old gentleman in the tonneau was calling impatiently to Patricia to come and take her place so that he might close the door.
"It is you who have the distorted perspective, Evan," she countered. "But I refused to quarrel with you last night, and I am refusing to quarrel with you now. It pleases you to believe that a woman's place in this twentieth-century world is inevitably at the fireside—her own fireside. I don't agree with you; I am afraid I shall never agree with you. Where are you going?"
"I am going West, Monday."
"How odd!" she commented. "We are going West, too—father and I—though not quite so soon as Monday."
"You are?" he queried. "Whereabout in the West?"
She did not tell him where. The car motor was whirring smoothly now, the chauffeur was sliding into his seat behind the pilot-wheel, and the old gentleman in the tonneau was growing quite violently impatient.
"If we are both going in the same direction we needn't say good-by," she said hastily, giving him her hand at parting. "Let it be auf wiedersehen." Then the clang of the closing tonneau door and the outgoing rush of the big car coincided so accurately that Blount had to spring nimbly aside to save himself from being run down.
It is a far cry from Boston to the land of broken mountain ranges, lone buttes, and irrigated mesas, and a still farther one from the veranda of an exclusive North Shore club to a private dining-room in the Inter-Mountain Hotel, whose entrance portico faces the Capitol grounds in the chief city of the Sage-brush State, whose eastern windows command a magnificent view of the Lost River Range, and from whose roof, on a clear day, one may see the snowy peaks of the Sierras notching the distant western horizon.
Allowing for the difference between Eastern and Mountain time, the dinner for two in the private dining-room of the Inter-Mountain synchronized very fairly with the threshing out of college reminiscences by the two young men whose apparently fortuitous meeting on the veranda of the far-away North Shore club-house one of them, at least, was ascribing to the good offices of the god of chance.
On the guest-book of the Inter-Mountain one of the men at the table in the private dining-room had registered from Chicago. The name was illegible to the cursory eye, but since it was the signature of a notable empire-builder, it was sufficiently well known in all the vast region served by the Transcontinental Railway System. The owner of the name had finished his ice, and was sitting back to clip the end from a very long and very black cigar. He was a man past middle-age, large-framed and heavy, with the square, resolute face of a born master of circumstances. Like the younger generation, he was clean shaven; hence there was no mask for the deeply graven lines of determination about the mouth and along the angle of the strong, leonine jaw. In the region traversed by the great railway system the virile face with the massive jaw was as familiar as the illegible signature on the Inter-Mountain's guest-book. Though he figured only as the first vice-president of the Transcontinental Company, Hardwick McVickar was really the active head of its affairs and the dictator of its policies.
Across the small round table sat the railway magnate's dinner-guest, a man who was more than McVickar's match in big-boned, square-shouldered physique, and whose half-century was written only in the thick, grizzled hair and heavy, graying mustaches. Like McVickar, he had the lion-like face of mastership, but the fine wrinkles at the corners of the wide-set eyes postulated a sense of humor which was lacking in his table companion. His mouth, half hidden by the drooping mustaches, needed the relieving wrinkles at the corners of the eyes; it was a grim, straight-lined inheritance from his pioneer ancestors—the mouth of a man who may yield to persuasion but not easily to opposition.
"I wish I could convince you that it isn't worth while to hold me at arm's-length, Senator," McVickar was saying, as he clipped the end from his cigar. "You know as well as I do that under the present law in this State we are practically bankrupt. We are not making enough to pay the fixed charges. We do a losing business from the moment we cross your State line."
"Yes; it seems to me I have heard something that sounded a good deal like that before," was the noncommittal rejoinder.
"You have heard the simple truth, then. And it is a bald injustice, not only to the railroad company, but to the people it serves. We can't give adequate service when the cost exceeds the earnings. That is the simplest possible proposition in any business undertaking."
"And you can't make out to convince the members of the State Railroad Commission of the simpleness?" asked the man whom the vice-president addressed as "Senator."
"You know well enough that we can't hope to convince a rabidly anti-railroad commission," was the half-angry retort.
"Yet you are still running your railroad," suggested the other. "We don't hear anything about your shutting down and tearing up the track."
"No; luckily, the Transcontinental System does not lie wholly within your State boundaries. If it did, we might as well surrender our charter and go out of business—shut down and tear up the track, as you put it."
"All of which has come to be a pretty old and well-worn story with us, McVickar," said the listener quietly. "I'm sure you didn't make me motor thirty miles to hear you tell it all over again. What do you want?"
"We want a square deal," was the curt reply.
"So do the people of this State," asserted the man across the table. "You bled us, Hardwick—bled us to the queen's taste—while you had the chance; and the chance lasted a blamed long time. You are equitably, if not legally, in debt to every man in this State who had ever shipped a car-load of freight or paid a passenger fare over your line before the present rate law went into effect. You can shuffle and side-step all you want to, but that is the plain fact of the matter."
The vice-president sat up and braced his arms on the edge of the table.
"You are too much for me, Blount—you hold out too many cards; and I'm no apprentice at the game, either. In all these years we've been dickering together you've always been a hard-bitted and consistent fighter for your own hand. What's happened to you lately? Have you acquired a new set of convictions? Or have you been figuring out a different way of whipping the devil around the stump?"
"Oh, I don't know," returned the guest, with large good-nature. "We are all growing older—and wiser, perhaps. You don't deny the debt you owe us, do you?"
"Do we owe you anything, Blount?" asked the magnate pointedly, and with a definite emphasis upon the personal pronoun. "If we do, we are willing to pay it in spot cash, on demand."
The big man on the other side of the table was leaning back in his chair with his hands in his pockets, and the smile wrinkling at the corners of his eyes was half-genial, half-satirical.
"It's lucky we're alone, McVickar," he remarked. "A third fellow standing around and hearing you talk might imagine that you are trying to bribe me."
"That's all right, Blount; this is between us two, and we understand each other. Nothing for nothing is the accepted rule the world over, and we both recognize it. You are figuring on something; I know you are. Name it. If it is anything less than a mortgage on the earth and one or two of the planets I'll get it for you."
"I'm afraid we are a good deal more than a mile or two apart yet, McVickar," said the man who was not smoking, after a long minute. "Let's ride back to the beginning and get us a fresh start. I said that Gordon is going to be the next governor of the State."
"I know you did; and I said—and I say it again—he isn't going to be—not if we can help it," declared the railway magnate, with emphatic determination.
"The methods you will take to defeat him will insure his election, McVickar. You fellows are mighty slow to learn your lesson; mighty slow and obstinate, Hardwick. You don't know anything but wire-pulling and crookedness and bribery. The times have changed, and you haven't had the common-sense or the courage or the business shrewdness to change with them. I say Gordon will be the next governor."
Again there was a strained silence like that which follows the hand-shake in the prize-ring when the two antagonists have drawn apart and are warily watching each for his opening. After the pause the vice-president said:
"If we had the safest kind of a majority in both houses of the legislature, we couldn't be sure of accomplishing anything worth while with Gordon in the governor's office; you know that, Blount. If Gordon runs and is elected, his platform will be flatly anti-railroad."
"Oh, I don't know," was the calm rejoinder. "Gordon is a mighty square fellow; an honest man and a fair one. If you could stay out of the fight and go to him with clean hands—but you couldn't do that, McVickar; you're too badly out of practice."
"We needn't go into that phase of it. We are so savagely handicapped in this State that we can't afford to take a divided chance; can't afford to pass our case up to a man who has been elected by an unfriendly opposition. If we should wash our hands of the fight, as you suggest, we might just as well throw up our franchises and quit, so far as any prospect of earning a reasonable return upon our investment here is concerned."
"I know; that is what you always say, and you have said it so often—you and your fellow railroad string-pullers—that you have lost the straightforward combination completely. If you ever knew how to make a clean fight you've forgotten the moves, and it's your own fault."
Once more the man with the fierce eyes and the dominating jaw took time to consider. Like others of his class, he was partisan only in the sense of one fighting hardily for the side upon which he had happened to be drawn in the great world battle. If he had not long ago parted with his convictions, the heat and smoke of the battle had obscured them, and he chose his weapons now with little regard for anything beyond their possible efficacy.
"You are sparring with me, Blount," he said finally. "You are talking to me as you might talk to a committee of the Good Government League—and possibly for the same reason. Let's get together. You control the political situation in your State, and we frankly recognize that fact. It's a matter of business, and we can settle it on a business basis. I have been outspoken and above-board with you and have told you what we want. Meet me halfway and tell me what you want."
"I want a square deal all around, Hardwick; that's all. You've got to take the same ground and make a clean fight if you want me with you. I can't make it any plainer than that, can I?"
"I don't know yet what you are driving at," frowned the vice-president, "nor just why you have taken this particular occasion to read me a kindergarten lecture on political methods. In times past I suppose we have both done some things that we would like to have decently buried and forgotten, but—"
"But right there we break apart, McVickar," cut in the other, setting his jaw with a peculiar hardening of the facial muscles that gave him the appearance of a fierce old viking attacking at the head of his squadrons. "I'm telling you over again that a new day has dawned in American politics; I and my kind recognize it, and you and your kind don't seem to be big enough to recognize it. That is the difference between us. In the present instance it comes down to this: you are going to fight for a railroad majority in the legislature, and you want Reynolds for the head of the ticket because you know that you can depend upon his veto if you don't get your majority in the House and Senate. You are not going to get Reynolds, or the majority either, without the help of the party organization."
"We can put it much more elementally than that," supplemented the railroad man. "We get nothing without your say-so as the head of the party organization. That is precisely why I have come a couple of thousand miles to ask you to eat dinner with me here to-night."
"I reckon I ought to feel right much set up and biggitty over that, Hardwick," smiled the veteran spoilsman, relapsing, as he did now and then, into the speech of his Southern boyhood. And then half-quizzically: "Are you tolerably well satisfied that you've got around to the place where you are willing to tote fair with me? You recollect, I gave you a straight pointer two years ago; you wouldn't take it, and we did you up. Are you right certain you are ready now to holler 'enough'?"
Once again the vice-president refused to be hurried into making a capitulative admission. When he spoke, the militant second thought of the fighting corporation commander chose the words.
"There is a limit to all things, Senator, and you are pushing us pretty well up to it. I suppose you can crack the whip and swing the vote on the legislature, and you can take it and be damned. But, by God, we'll have our governor and our attorney-general!"
"You are betting confidently on that, are you?" said the veteran mildly. "Is that your declaration of war?"
"Call it anything you like. We are not going to be legislated off the map if we can help it. Strong as your machine is, you can't swing Gordon in against Reynolds if we concede your bare majority in the legislature and put up the right kind of a fight. And when it comes to Rankin, our candidate for attorney-general, you simply haven't another man in the party to put up against him. You'd have to run in a dummy, and even you are not big enough to do that, Blount, and put it over."
"You've settled this definitely in your own mind, have you, Hardwick?" was the placable rejoinder. "I'm sorry—right sorry. I've been hoping that you had learned your lesson—you and your tribe. I came to town this evening prepared to show you a decent way out of your troubles, so far as this State is concerned; but since you have posted your 'de-fi,' as we cow-punchers say, I reckon it isn't worth while to wade any deeper into the creek."
Again the railroad magnate rested his arms on the table-edge. "What was your 'decent way,' Senator?" he asked, fixing his gaze upon the shrewd old eyes of the other, which, for the first time in the conference, seemed to be losing a little of their grimly good-natured aggressiveness.
"I don't mind telling you, though you will likely call it an old man's foolishness. I have a grown son, McVickar. Did you know that?"
The vice-president nodded, and the big man opposite went on half-reminiscently:
"He is a lawyer, and a mighty bright one, so they tell me. As I happen to know, he is pretty well up on the corporation side of the argument, and the one thing I've been afraid of is that he would marry and settle down somewhere in the East, where the big corporations have their home ranches. I'm getting old, Hardwick, and I'd like mighty well to have the boy with me. Out of that notion grew another. I said to myself this: Now, here's McVickar; if he could have a good, clean-cut young man in this State representing his railroad—a man who not only knew his way around in a court-room, but who might also know how to plead his client's case before the public—if McVickar could have such a young fellow as that for his corporation counsel, and would agree to make his railroad company live somewhere within shouting distance of such a young fellow's ideals, we might all be persuaded to bury the hatchet and live together in peace and amity."
A slow smile was spreading itself over the strong face of the railway magnate as he listened.
"Say, David," he retorted mildly, "it isn't much like you to go forty miles around when there is a short way across. Why didn't you tell me plainly in the beginning that you wanted a place for your boy?"
"Hold on; don't let's get too far along before we get started; I'm not saying it now," was the sober protest. "You forget that you've just been telling me that you don't intend to comply with the one hard-and-fast condition to such an arrangement as the one I've been pipe-dreaming about."
"That you turn over a brand-new leaf and meet the people of this State half-way on a proposition of fair play for everybody."
"There isn't any half-way point in a fight for life, David. You know that as well, or better, than I do. But let that go. We'll give your son the place you want him to have, and do it gladly."
The man who had once been his own foreman of round-ups straightened himself in his chair and smote the table with his fist.
"No, by God, you won't—not in a thousand years, McVickar! Maybe you could buy me—maybe you have bought me in times past—but you can't buy that boy! Listen, and I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I telegraphed the boy this afternoon, telling him to throw up his job in Boston and come out here. If he comes within a reasonable time he will be legally a citizen of the State before election. You said we didn't have anybody but Rankin to run for attorney-general. By Heavens, Hardwick, I'll show you if we haven't!"
Mr. Hardwick McVickar was not of those who fight as one beating the air. While the deft waiter was clearing the table and serving the small coffees he kept silence. But when the time was fully ripe he said what there was to be said.
"You've got us by the nape of the neck, as usual, Blount. Name your terms."
"I have named them. Get in line with the new public opinion and we'll do what we can for you."
During the long pause following this curt ultimatum the masterful dictator of railroad policies deliberated thoughtfully upon many things. With the ex-senator as the all-powerful head of the machine in this State of many costly battle-fields, it would have been a weakness inexcusable on the part of so astute a commander as McVickar if David Blount's history, political and personal, had not been known to him in all its details. As a contingency to be met sooner or later, the vice-president had anticipated the thing which had now come to pass. That Blount should wish to push the fortunes of his son was perfectly natural; and it was no less natural that he should push them by making the railroad company's pay-roll furnish the motive-power. The magnate smiled inwardly when he remembered that he had given Gantry, the division traffic manager of the Transcontinental, a quiet hint to look up one Evan Blount, a young lawyer, on his next visit to Boston. By all odds it would be better to wait for Gantry's report before taking any irrevocable steps in the bargaining with Evan Blount's father; but unhappily the crisis had arrived, and in all probability it could not be postponed. None the less, the vice-president tried craftily for the postponement.
"You're asking a good deal, Blount, and you don't seem to realize it. You are practically demanding that we lay down our arms and put a possible enemy in the saddle on the eve of a battle. If we should agree to meet the people of this State half-way, as you suggest, what guarantee have we that we won't be compelled to go all the way?"
The fine-lined wrinkles were appearing again at the corners of the hereditary Blount eyes.
"You can't quite rise to the occasion, can you, Hardwick?" smiled the boss. "You'd like to behave yourself and be good, of course; but you want to be cocksure beforehand that it isn't going to cost too much."
"Well, anyway, I'm going to ask for a little time in which to consider it," was the vice-president's final word.
"Sure! You have all the time there is between now and the election. Go on and do your considering. I've told you what I'm going to do."
"You know very well that we can't allow you to do what you propose. With an unfriendly attorney-general we might as well throw up our hands first as last."
"All right; it's right pointedly up to you," was the calm reply.
The vice-president rose and dusted the cigar-ash from his coat-sleeve with the table-napkin. When he looked up, the heavy frown was again furrowing itself between his eyes.
"Let me know when your son is coming and I'll try to make it possible to meet him here," he said rather gratingly.
And thus, at the precise moment when Richard Gantry, some three thousand miles away to the eastward, was declaring his weariness and his intention of going to bed, the two-man conference in the Inter-Mountain private dining-room was closed.
A FALSE GALLOP OF MEMORIES
As a churlish fate decreed, it turned out that Evan Blount was not to have Gantry for a travelling companion beyond Chicago. On the second day of westward faring the railroad traffic manager, whose business followed him like an implacable Nemesis wherever he went, had wire instructions to stop and confer with his vice-president in the Illinois metropolis. Hence, on the morning of the following day, Blount continued his journey alone.
Twenty-odd hours later the returning expatriate had crossed his Rubicon; in other words, his train had rolled through the majestic steel bridge spanning the clay-colored flood of the Missouri River at Omaha, and he was entering upon scenes which ought to have been familiar—which should have been and were not, so many and striking were the changes which had been wrought during his fourteen years of absence.
Though he was far enough from realizing it, his education and the Eastern environment had given him a touch of Old-World insularity. The through sleeper in which he had his allotment of space was well filled, and there were the usual opportunities for the making of passing acquaintanceships in the smoking-compartment. But it was not until the second day, after the dining-car luncheon and its aftermath of a well-chosen cigar had broken down some of the barriers of the acquired reserve, that he fell into talk with the prosperous-looking gentleman who had seized upon the only chair in the smoking-compartment—a man whose thin, hawk-like face, narrowly set eyes, and uneasy manner were singularly out of keeping with the fashionable cut of his clothes, with his liberal tips, and with the display of jewelry on his watch-fob.
At first the conversation was baldly desultory, as it was bound to be, with an escaped lover, whose disappointment was still rasping him like a newly devised Nessus shirt, to sustain an undivided half of it. The hawk-faced one, who had boarded the train at Omaha and whose section was directly opposite Blount's, defined himself as a mine-owner whose property, vaguely located as somewhere "in the mountains," was involved in litigation.
It was the reference to the litigation which first drew Blount beyond the boundaries of the commonplaces. Oddly enough, considering the fact that his planned-for Eastern career would have given him little occasion to dip into the mining codes, he had specialized somewhat in mining law. Hence, when the hawk-faced man had told his story, Blount found himself thawing out sufficiently to be suggestively helpful to the man who had apparently purchased more trouble than profits in his mining ventures.
Into the cleft thus opened by the axe of human sympathy the man in the wicker chair presently inserted a wedge of cautious inquiry touching another matter. In addition to his mining ventures he had been making investments in timber-lands, or, rather, in certain lumber companies operating "in the mountains"—bad investments, he feared, since the Government had lately taken such a decided stand against the cutting of timber in the mountain-land reserves and water-sheds. Was it likely, he asked, that the talk would materialize in restraining action? If so, he was in the hole again—worse off than he should be if his mining lawsuits should go against him.
Again Blount, good-naturedly charitable and not a little amused by the nervous anxiety of the gentleman of many troubles, gave an opinion.
"Conservation, in timber as well as in other remaining resources of the country, has come to be a word which is in everybody's mouth," was the form the opinion took. "The plain citizen who isn't familiar with the methods of the timber sharks would do well to keep his money out of their hands if he doesn't wish to be held as particeps criminis with them in the day of reckoning."
"Say!" ejaculated the thin man, wriggling nervously in his chair. "If you were a Government agent yourself you could hardly put the case stronger for the conservation crowd!"
Now, in ordinary circumstances, nothing was ever farther from Blount's normal attitude toward his fellow-men than a disposition to yield to the sudden joking impulse. But the hawk-faced man's perturbation was so real, or so faultlessly simulated, that he could not resist the temptation.
"How do you know that I am not a Government agent?" he demanded, with a decent show of gravity.
"Because you are not travelling on Government transportation," was the shrewd retort.
At another time Blount might have wondered why a casual fellow-traveller should have taken the trouble to make the discovery. But at the moment he was intent only upon keeping the small misunderstanding alive.
"I suppose you have seen my ticket, but you can't tell anything by that," he countered, laughing. "A good many civilian employees of the Government travel nowadays on regular tickets, like other people."
"I know damned well they do," admitted the anxious one; and then, with a swift eye-shot which Blount missed: "Especially if they happen to be travelling on the quiet to catch some poor devil napping on the job."
"You needn't be alarmed; you haven't told me anything that the department could make use of," returned Blount, carrying the jest the one necessary move farther along.
It was precisely at this point, as Blount remembered afterward, that the timber-thieving subject was dropped. Later on, after the talk had drifted back to mining, and from mining to politics, the nervous gentleman pleaded weariness and declared his intention of going to his section to take a nap, and presently disappeared to carry it out.
Blount was not sorry to be left alone. In response to a vague stirring of something within him—a thing which might have been the primitive underman yawning and stretching to its awakening—he had been trying in the window-facing intervals to reconstruct the passing panorama of mountain and plain upon the recollections of his boyhood. As yet there was little familiarity save in the broader outlines. Where he remembered only the fallow-dun prairie, dotted with dog-mounds, there were now vast ranches planted to sod corn; and upon the hills the cattle ranges were no longer open. The towns, too, at which the train made its momentary stops, were changed. The straggling shack hamlets of the cattle-shipping period, with the shed-roofed railroad station, the whitewashed loading-corral, and the towering water-tank—all backgrounded by a thin line of saloons and dance-halls—had disappeared completely, and the window-watcher found himself looking in vain for the flap-hatted, cigarette-smoking horsemen with which the West of his boyhood had been chiefly peopled.
Farther along toward evening the great range, which had been visible for hours in the westward vista, began to define itself in peaks and high, bald shoulderings of wind-swept mesas. Here was something definite and tangible for the stirring underman to lay hold upon. Blount, the sober-minded, the self-contained, found a curious transformation working itself out in quickened pulses and exhilarating nerve-tinglings. Boston, the Law School, the East of the narrow walk-ways and the still narrower rut of custom and convention, were fading into a past which already seemed age-old and half forgotten. He threw open the window at his elbow and drank in deep inspirations of the hill-sweeping blast. It was sweet in his nostrils, and the keen crispness of it was as fine wine in his blood. After all, he had been but a sojourner in the other world, and this was his homeland.
At the dining-car dinner, which was served while the higher peaks of the main range were as vast islands floating in a sea of crimson and gold, Blount missed the man of many troubles. The dining-car was well filled, and, though the faces of the diners were all unfamiliar, the hum of talk, the hurrying of the waiters, and the subdued clamor drowning itself in the under-drone of the drumming wheels answered well enough for companionship. There are times when even the voice of a friend is an intrusion, and the returning exile had happed upon one of them. Largeness, the inspiring breadth of the immensities, was what he craved most; and when he had cut the many-coursed dinner short, he hurried back to his Pullman window, hoping that he might have the smoking-compartment to himself again.
The unspoken wish was granted. When he entered the smoking-room he found it empty; and, filling his cutty pipe, he drew the cushioned wicker chair out to face the open window. Fresh glimpses of the northward landscape shortly brought a renewal of the heart-stirrings; and when he finally had the longed-for sight of a bunch of grazing cattle, with the solitary night-herd hanging by one leg in the saddle to watch the passing of the train, the call of the homeland was trumpeting in his ears, and he would have given anything in reason to be able to changes places, temporarily at least, with the care-free horseman whose wiry, muscular figure was struck out so artistically against the dun-colored hillside.
"Would I really do such a thing as that?" he asked himself half incredulously, when the night-herd and his grazing drove had become only a picturesque memory; and out of the heart-stirrings and pulse-quickenings came the answer: "I more than half believe that I would—that I'd jump at the chance." Then he added regretfully: "But there isn't going to be any chance."
"Any chance to do what?" rumbled a mellow voice at his elbow, and Blount turned quickly to find that a big, bearded man, smoking an abnormally corpulent cigar, had come in to take his seat on the divan.
At another time Blount, the conventional Blount, would have been self-conscious and embarrassed, as any human being is when he is caught talking to himself. But with the transformation had come a battering down of doors in the house of the broader fellowship, and he laughed good-naturedly.
"You caught me fairly," he acknowledged. "I thought I still had the place to myself."
"But the chance?" persisted the big man, looking him over appraisively. "You don't look like a man who has had to hang round on the aidges hankerin' after things he couldn't get."
"I guess I haven't had to do that very often," was the reflective rejoinder. "But a mile or so back we passed a bunch of cattle, with the night man riding watch; I was just saying to myself that I'd like to change places with that night-herd—only there wasn't going to be any chance."
The bearded man's laugh was a deep-chested rumbling suggestive of rocks rolling down a declivity.
"Lordy gracious!" he chuckled. "If you was to get a leg over a bronc', and the bronc' should find it out—Say, I've got a li'l' blue horse out on my place in the Antelopes that'd plumb give his ears to have you try it; he shore would. You take my advice, and don't you go huntin' a job night-ridin' in the greasewood hills. Don't you do it!"
"I assure you I hadn't thought of doing it for a permanency. But just for a bit of adventure, if the chance should offer while I'm in the notion. I believe I'd take it. I haven't ridden a cow-pony for fourteen years, but I don't believe I've lost the knack of it."
"Ho!" said the big man. "Then you ain't as much of a tenderfoot as you look to be. Shake!" and he held out a hand as huge as a bear's paw. Following the hand-grip he grew confidential. "'Long in the afternoon I stuck my head in at the door and saw you chewin' the rag with a thin-faced old nester that couldn't set still in his chair while he talked. Know him?"
"Not at all," said Blount promptly. "He has the section opposite mine, and he got on at Omaha."
"Well, I wouldn't want to know him if I was you," was the bearded man's comment. Then: "Tryin' to get you to invest in some o' his properties?"
"Well, he will, if he gets a chance. He'd go furder'n that; he'd nail you up to the cross and skin you alive if there was any money in it for him. His name's Simon Peter, and it ort to be Judas. I know him down to the ground!"
"Simon Peter?" said Blount inquiringly.
"Ya-as; Simon Peter Hathaway. And my name's Griggs; Griggs, of the Antelopes, back o' Carnadine—if anybody should ask you who give you your pointer on Simon Peter Judas. I don't blacklist no man in the dark, and I've said a heap more to that old ratter's face than I've ever said behind his back. Ump! him a-wrigglin' in that chair you're settin' in and tryin' to fix up some way to skin you! Don't tell me! I know blame' well what he was tryin' to do."
Blount listened and was interested, not so much in the bit of gossip as in the big, red-faced ranchman, who so evidently had a grudge to pay off.
"I am not likely to have any dealings with Mr. Hathaway," he rejoined. "And I must do him the bare justice of saying that he wasn't trying to sell me anything. The shoe was on the other foot. He seemed to be afraid he was in danger of losing out, and he was asking my advice."
"S.P. Hathaway lose out? Not on your life, my young friend! You say he was askin' for advice? You've done stirred up my curiosity a whole heap, and I reckon you'll have to tell me who you are before it'll ca'm down again."
Blount laughed. "Mr. Hathaway thinks I am a special agent for the Government, travelling on business for the Forest Service."
"The hell he does!" exploded the big man. Then he reached over and laid a swollen finger on Blount's knee. "Say, boy, before you or him ever gets off this train—Sufferin' Moses! what was that?"
The break came upon a thunderous crash transmitting itself from car to car, and the long, heavy train came to a juggling stop. The ranchman sprang to his feet with an alacrity surprising in so huge a body and ducked to look out of the open window.
"Twin Buttes!" he gurgled. "And, say, it's a wreck! We've hit something right slap in the middle of the yard! Let's make a break for the scene of the confliggration till we see who's killed!"
Blount followed the ranchman's lead, but shortly lost sight of the burly figure in the crowd of curious passengers pouring from the hastily opened vestibules. Seen at closer range, the accident appeared to be disastrous only in a material sense. The heavy "Pacific-type" locomotive had stumbled over the tongue of a split switch, leaving the rails and making a blockading barrier of itself across the tracks. Nobody was hurt; but there would be a delay of some hours before the track could be cleared.
Finding little to hold him in the spectacle of the derailed locomotive, Blount strolled on through the railroad yard to the station and the town. He remembered the place chiefly by its name. In his boyhood it had been the nearest railroad forwarding-point for the mines at Lewiston, thirty miles beyond the Lost Hills. Now, as it appeared, it had become a lumber-shipping station. To the left of the railroad there were numerous sawmills, each with its mountain of waste dominated by a black chimney, screen-capped. For the supply of logs an enormous flume led down from the slopes of the forested range on the south, a trough-like water-chute out of which, though the working-day was ended, the great logs were still tumbling in an intermittent stream.
North of the town the valley broke away into a region of bare mesas dotted with rounded, butte-like hills, with the buttressing ranges on either side to lift the eastern and western horizons. The northern prospect enabled Blount to place himself accurately, and the tide of remembrance swept strongly in upon him. Some forty-odd miles away to the northeast, just beyond the horizon-lifting lesser range, lay the "short-grass" region in which he had spent the happy boyhood. An hour's gallop through the hills to the westward the level rays of the setting sun would be playing upon the little station of Painted Hat, the one-time shipping-point for the home ranch. And half-way between Painted Hat and the "Circle-Bar," nestling in the hollowed hands of the mountains, were the horse-corrals of one Debbleby, a true hermit of the hills, and the boy Evan's earliest school-master in the great book of Nature.
Blount's one meliorating softness during the years of exile had manifested itself in an effort to keep track of Debbleby. He knew that the old horse-breeder was still alive, and that he was still herding his brood mares at the ranch on the Pigskin. The young man, fresh from the well-calculated East, threw up his head and sniffed the keen, cool breeze sweeping down from the northern hills. He was not given to impulsive plan-changing. On the contrary, he was slow to resolve and proportionately tenacious of the determination once made. But the stirring of boyish memories accounted for something; and in the sanest brain there are sleeping cells of irresponsibility ready to spring alive at the touch of suggestion. What if he should—
He sat down upon the edge of the station platform and thought it out deliberately. Since it would be hours before the tracks could be cleared and the rail journey resumed, what was to prevent him from taking an immediate and delightful plunge into the region of the heart-stirring recollections? Doubtless old Jason Debbleby was at this moment sitting on the door-step of his lonely ranch-house in the Pigskin foot-hills, smoking his corn-cob pipe and, quite possibly, wondering what had become of the boy whom he had taught to "rope down" and saddle and ride. Blount estimated the distance as he remembered it. With a hired horse he might reach Debbleby's by late bedtime; and after a night spent with the old ranchman he could ride on across the big mesa to the capital.
Another ineffectual attempt to find out how soon the relief train from the capital might be expected decided Blount. Arranging with the Pullman conductor to have his hand-luggage left in Gantry's office at the capital, the man in search of his boyhood crossed quickly to a livery-stable opposite the station, bargained for a saddle-horse, borrowed a poncho and a pair of leggings, and prepared to break violently, for the moment at least, with all the civilized traditions. He would go and see Debbleby—drop in upon the old horse-breeder without warning, and thus get his first revivified impression of the homeland unmixed with any of the disappointing changes which were doubtless awaiting him at the real journey's end.
Now it chanced that the livery-stable was an adjunct to the single hotel in the small sawmill town, and as Blount was mounting to ride he saw the thin-faced man, whom the ranchman, Griggs, had named for him, standing on the porch of the hotel in earnest talk with three others who, from their appearance, might have figured either as "timber jacks" or cowboys. Blount was on the point of recognizing his companion of the Pullman smoking-compartment as he rode past the hotel to take the trail to the northward, but a curious conviction that the gentleman with the bird-of-prey eyes was making him the subject of the earnest talk with the three men of doubtful occupation restrained him. A moment later, when he looked back from the crossing of the railroad track, he saw that all four of the men on the porch were watching him. This he saw; and if the backward glance had been prolonged for a single instant he might also have seen a big, barrel-bodied man with a red face stumbling out of the side door of the shack hotel to make vigorous and commanding signals to stop him. But this he missed.
There was an excuse for the oversight as well as for the speedy blotting out of the picture of the four men watching him from the porch of the hotel. With a fairly good horse under him, with the squeak of the saddle-leather in his ears and the smell of it in his nostrils, and with the wide world of the immensities into which to ride unhampered and free, the lost boyhood was found. Not for the most soul-satisfying professional triumph the fettered East could offer him would he have curtailed the free-reined flight into the silent wilderness by a single mile.
For the first half-hour of the invigorating gallop the fugitive from civilization had the sunset glow to help him find the trail. After that the moon rose, and the landmarks, which had seemed more or less familiar in daylight, lost their remembered featurings. During the first few miles the trail had led broadly across the table-land, with the eastern mountains withdrawing and the Lost River Range looming larger as its lofty sky-line was struck out sharply against the sunset horizon. Farther on, in the transition darkness between sunset and moon-rise, the trail disappeared entirely; but so long as he was sure of the general direction, Blount held on and gave the tireless little bronco a loose rein. The Debbleby ranch lay among the farther foot-hills of the western range, with the broad gulch of the Pigskin cutting a plain highway through the mountains. If he could find one of the head-water streams of the Pigskin, all of which took their rise in the gulches of the mesa, there could be no danger of losing the way.
It was some little time after he had left the shoulderings of the eastern range behind that a singular thing happened. Far away on his right he heard the sound of galloping hoofs. Though the moon was nearly full and the treeless landscape was bare of any kind of cover, he could not make out the horseman who was evidently passing him and going in the same direction. At first he thought it was some one who was making a detour to avoid him. Then he smiled at the absurdity of the guess and concluded that he himself was off the trail. This conclusion was confirmed a little later when two other travellers, announcing themselves to the ear as the first one had, and also, like the first, invisible to the sharpest eye-sweep of the moonlit plain, passed him at speed.
After that Blount had the solitudes and vastnesses to himself, and it was not until after the mesa-land had been crossed without a sign of a water-leading gulch to guide him to the Pigskin, and the bronco was patiently picking its way through the hogback of the western range, that the boyish thing he had been led to do took shape as an adventure which might have discomforting consequences.
For, after the hired bronco had wandered aimlessly through many gulches and had climbed a good half-score of the hogback hills, the young man from the East admitted that the boyhood memories were hopelessly and altogether at fault in the deceptive moonlight. Blount gave the horse a breathing halt on one of the hogbacks and tried to reconstruct the puzzling hills into some featuring that he could remember. The effort was fruitless. He was very thoroughly and painstakingly lost.
When the three men who had pulled him from his horse and tied him hand and foot had withdrawn to the farther side of the tiny camp-fire to wrangle morosely over what should be done with him, Evan Blount found it simply impossible to realize that they were actually discussing, as one of the expedients, the propriety of knocking him on the head and flinging his body into the near-by canyon.
The difficulty of comprehension lay in the crude grotesqueness of the thing that had happened. Five minutes earlier he had been riding peacefully up the trail in the moonlight, wondering how thoroughly he was lost and how much farther it was to Debbleby's. Then, at a sudden sharp turn in the canyon bridle-path, he had stumbled upon the camp-fire, had heard an explosive "Hands up!" and had found himself confronted by three men, with one of the three covering him with a sawed-off Winchester. From that to the unhorsing and the binding had been merely a rough-and-tumble half-minute, inasmuch as he was unarmed and the surprise had been complete; but the grotesquery remained.
Since his captors had as yet made no attempt to rob him, he could only surmise that some incredibly foolish mistake had been made. But when he remembered the three invisible horsemen who had passed him on the broad mesa he was not so certain about the mistake. Most naturally, his thoughts went back to the little episode on the hotel porch. The passing glance he had given to the three men with whom the fourth man, Hathaway, had been talking did not enable him to identify them with the three who were sourly discussing his fate at the near-by fire; none the less, the conclusion was fairly obvious. Thus far he had been either too busy or too bewildered to break in; but when the more murderous of the expedients was apparently about to be adopted, he decided that it was high time to try to find out why he was to be effaced. Whereupon he called across to the group at the fire.
"Without wishing to interfere with any arrangements you gentlemen are making, I shall be obliged if you will tell me why you think you have found it necessary to murder me."
"You know mighty good and well why there's one too many of you on Lost River, jest at this stage o' the game," growled the hard-faced spokesman who had held the Winchester while his two accomplices were doing the unhorsing and the binding.
"But I don't," insisted Blount good-naturedly. "So far as I know, there is only one of me—on Lost River or anywhere else."
"That'll do for you; it ain't your put-in, nohow," was the gruff decision of the court; but Blount was too good a lawyer to be silenced thus easily.
"Perhaps you might not especially regret killing the wrong man, but in the present case I am very sure I should," he went on. And then: "Are you quite sure you've got the right man?"
"The boss knows who you are—that's enough for us."
"The boss?" questioned Blount.
"Yas, I said the boss; now hold your jaw!"
Blount caught at the word. In a flash the talk with Gantry on the veranda of the Winnebasset Club flicked into his mind.
"There is only one boss in this State," he countered coolly. "And I am very sure he hasn't given you orders to kill me."
"What's that?" demanded the spokesman.
Blount repeated his assertion, adding jocularly: "Perhaps you'd better call up headquarters and ask your boss if he wants you to kill the son of his boss."
At this the gun-holder came around the fire to stand before his prisoner.
"Say, pal—this ain't my night for kiddin', and it hadn't ort to be your'n," he remarked grimly. "The boss didn't say you was to be rubbed out—they never do. But I reckon it would save a heap o' trouble if you was rubbed out."
"On the contrary, I'm inclined to think it would make a heap of trouble—for you and your friends, and quite probably for the man or men who sent you to waylay me. But, apart from all that, you've got hold of the wrong man, as I told you a moment ago."
"No, by grapples! I hain't. I saw you in daylight. If there's been any fumblin' done, I hain't done it. So you see it ain't any o' my funeral."
"Think not?" said Blount.
"I know it ain't. Orders is orders, and you don't git over into them woods on Upper Lost Creek with no papers to serve on nobody: see?"
It was just here that the light of complete understanding dawned upon Blount; and with it came the disconcerting chill of a conviction overthrown. As a theorist he had always scoffed at the idea that a corporation, which is a creature of the law, could afford to be an open law-breaker. But here was a very striking refutation of the charitable assumption. His smoking-room companion of the Pullman car was doubtless one of the timber-pillagers who had been cutting on the public domain. To such a man an agent of the National Forest Service was an enemy to be hoodwinked, if possible, or, in the last resort, to be disposed of as expeditiously as might be, and Blount saw that he had only himself to blame for his present predicament, since he had allowed the man to believe that he was a Government emissary. Having this clew to the mystery, his course was a little easier to steer.
"I have no papers of the kind you think I have, as you can readily determine by searching me," he said. "My name is Blount, and I am the son of ex-Senator David Blount, of this State. Now what are you going to do with me?"
"What's that you say?" grated the outlaw.
"You heard what I said. Go ahead and heave me into the canyon if you are willing to stand for it afterward."
The hard-faced man turned without replying and went back to the other two at the fire. Blount caught only a word now and again of the low-toned, wrangling argument that followed. But from the overheard word or two he gathered that there were still some leanings toward the sound old maxim which declares that "dead men tell no tales." When the decision was finally reached, he was left to guess its purport. Without any explanation the thongs were taken from his wrists and ankles, and he was helped upon his horse. After his captors were mounted, the new status was defined by the spokesman in curt phrase.
"You go along quiet with us, and you don't make no bad breaks, see? I more'n half believe you been lyin' to me, but I'm goin' to give you a chance to prove up. If you don't prove up, you pass out—that's all. Now git in line and hike out; and if you're countin' on makin' a break, jest ricollect that a chunk o' lead out of a Winchester kin travel a heap faster thern your cayuse."
If Blount had not already lost all sense of familiarity with his surroundings, the devious mountain trail taken by his captors would soon have convinced him that the boyhood memories were no longer to be trusted. Up and down, the trail zigzagged and climbed, always penetrating deeper and deeper into the heart of the mountains. At times Blount lost even the sense of direction; lost it so completely that the high-riding moon seemed to be in the wrong quarter of the heavens.
For the first few miles the trail was so difficult that speed was out of the question; but later, in crossing a high-lying valley, the horses were pushed. Beyond the valley there were more mountains, and half-way through this second range the trail plunged into a deep, cleft-like canyon with a brawling torrent for its pathfinder. Once more Blount lost the sense of direction, and when the canyon trail came out upon broad uplands and became a country road with bordering ranches watered by irrigation canals, into which the mountain torrent was diverted, there were no recognizable landmarks to tell him whither his captors were leading him.
As he was able to determine by holding his watch, face up, to the moonlight, it was nearly midnight when the silent cavalcade of four turned aside from the main road into an avenue of spreading cottonwood trees. At its head the avenue became a circular driveway; and fronting the driveway a stately house, with a massive Georgian facade and colonnaded portico, flung its shadow across the white gravel of the carriage approach.
There were lights in one wing of the house, and another appeared behind the fan-light in the entrance-hall when the leader of the three highbinders had tramped up the steps and touched the bell-push. Blount had a fleeting glimpse of a black head with a fringe of snowy wool when the door was opened, but he did not hear what was said. After the negro serving-man disappeared there was a little wait. At the end of the interval the door was opened wide, and Blount had a gruff order to dismount.
What he saw when he stood on the door-mat beside his captor merely added mystery to mystery. Just within the luxuriously furnished hall, where the light of the softly shaded hall lantern served to heighten the artistic effect of her red house-gown, stood a woman—a lady, and evidently the mistress of the Georgian mansion. She was small and dark, with brown eyes that were almost childlike in their winsomeness; a woman who might be twenty, or thirty, or any age between. Beautiful she was not, Blount decided, comparing her instantly, as he did all women, with Patricia Anners; but—He was not given time to add the qualifying phrase or to prepare himself for what was coming.