Francis Lynde.

The City of Numbered Days



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"I know Gene," said the web spinner cryptically, and this was the word that Brouillard took with him when he went back to his offices in the Niquoia Building.

XIII
Flood Tide

Public opinion, skilfully formed upon models fashioned in Mayor Cortwright's municipal laboratory, dealt handsomely with the little group of widely heralded visitors – the "Congressional committee" – penetrating to the Wonder City, not by special train, to be sure, but still with creditable circumstance in President Ford's private car "Nadia," attached to the regular express from Brewster.

For example, when it was whispered about, some days before the auspicious arrival, that the visiting lawmakers wished for no public demonstration of welcome, it was resolved, both in the city council and in the Commercial Club, that the wish should be rigidly respected.

Later, when there filtered out from the same secret source of information a hint to the effect that the committee of investigation, for the better forming of an unbiassed opinion, desired to be regarded merely as a body of representative citizens and the guests of Mayor Cortwright, and not as national legislators, this desire, too, was respected; and even Harlan, itching to his finger-tips for something definite to print in the Spot-Light, denied himself the bare, journalistic, bread-and-butter necessity of interviewing the lawmakers.

Safeguarded, then, by the loyal incuriosity of an entire city, the visitors went about freely, were f?ted, dined, banqueted, and entertained as distinguished citizens of the Greater America; were personally conducted over the government work, and were autoed to the Quadjen?? placers, to the upper valley, and to the canal diggers' camps in the Buckskin, all without prejudice to the official incognito which it was understood they wished to preserve.

Hence, after the farewell banquet at the Commercial Club, at which even the toasts had ignored the official mission of Mayor Cortwright's guests, when the "Nadia," reprovisioned and tastefully draped with the national colors, was coupled to the outgoing train in the Chigringo yards, tingling curiosity still restrained itself, said nothing and did nothing until the train had stormed out on the beginning of its steep climb to War Arrow Pass. Then the barriers went down. In less than half an hour after the departure of the visitors, the Spot-Light office was besieged by eager tip hunters, and the Metropole caf? and lobby were thronged and buzzing like the compartments of an anxious beehive.

Harlan stood the pressure at the newspaper office as long as he could. Then he slipped out the back way and prevailed upon Bongras to smuggle him up to Mr. Cortwright's rooms. Here there was another anxious deputation in waiting, but Harlan's card was honored at once.

"News!" gasped the editor, when he had broken into the privacies. "They're about to mob us over at the office, and the town will go crazy if it can't be given at least a hint of what the committee's report is likely to be.

I tell you, Mr. Cortwright, it's panic, or the biggest boom we ever dreamed of!"

"Sit down, Harlan," said the great man calmly, pushing the open box of cigars across the desk to the editor; "sit down and get a fresh grip on your nerves. There will be no panic; of that you can be absolutely certain. But, on the other hand, we mustn't kick the fat into the fire when everything is going our way. Naturally, I am under bonds to keep my mouth shut until after the committee has made its report. I can't even give you the hint you want. But I will say this – and you can put it in an interview if you like: I'm not refusing anything in the shape of Mirapolis realty at ruling prices. That's all I can say at present."

Harlan was hustled out, as he had been hustled in, half dazed and wholly in despair. There was a light in Brouillard's office on the sixth floor of the Niquoia Building, and thither he went, hoping against hope, for latterly the chief of the Reclamation Service had been more than usually reticent.

"What do you know, Brouillard?" was the form his demand took when, finding that the elevator had stopped, he had dragged himself up the five flights of stairs. "I'm up against it good and hard if I can't print something in to-morrow's paper."

"Go to Cortwright," suggested the engineer. "He's your man."

"Just come from him, and I couldn't get a thing there except his admission that he is buying instead of selling."

"Well, what more do you want? Haven't you any imagination?"

"Plenty of it, and, by Gad, I'm going to use it unless you put it to sleep! Tell me a few correlative things, Brouillard, and I'll make a noise like going away. Is it true that you've had orders from Washington within the past few days to cut your force on the dam one half?"

The engineer was playing with the paper-knife, absently marking little circles and ellipses on his desk blotter, and the ash on his cigar grew a full quarter of an inch before he replied:

"Not for publication, Harlan, I'm sorry to say."

"But you have the order?"

"Yes."

"Do you know the reason why it was given?"

"I do."

"Is it a good reason?"

"It is a very excellent reason, indeed."

"Does the order cover more than the work on the dam?"

"Yes; it extends to the canal diggers in the Buckskin."

"Good. Then I'll ask only one more question, and if you answer it at all I know you'll tell me the truth: are you, individually, buying or selling on the Real Estate Exchange? Take your time, Brouillard, but, for God's sake, don't turn me down."

Brouillard did take time, plenty of it. Over and over the point of the paper-knife traced the creased circles and ellipses, and the ash on the slowly burning cigar grew longer. Harlan was a student of men, but his present excitement was against him. Otherwise he could not have stared so long and so intently at Brouillard's face without reading therein the record of the soul struggle his final question had evoked. And if he had read, he would have interpreted differently the quick flinging down of the paper-cutter, and the sudden hardening of the jaw muscles when Brouillard spoke.

"I'm buying, Harlan; when I sell it is only to buy again."

The newspaper man rose and held out his hand.

"You're a man and a brother, Brouillard, and I'm your friend for life. With only a fraction of your chance at inside information, I've stayed on the up-hill side, straight through, myself. And I'll tell you why. I've banked on you. I've said to myself that it was safe for me to wade around in the edges if you could plunge out in the sure-enough swimming-hole. I'm going to stay until you give me the high sign to crawl out on the bank. Is that asking too much?"

"No. If the time ever comes when I have anything to say, I'll say it to you. But don't lose sight of the 'if,' and don't lean too hard on me. I'm a mighty uncertain quantity these days, Harlan, and that's the truest thing I've told you since you butted in. Good-night."

Mirapolis awoke to a full sense of its opportunities on the morning following the departure of its distinguished guests. Though the Spot-Light was unable to say anything conclusively definite, Harlan had made the most of what he had; and, trickling in from a dozen independent sources, as it seemed, came jubilant confirmation of the Spot-Light's optimistic editorials.

In such a crisis all men are liars. Now that the visiting delegation was gone, there were scores of witnesses willing to testify that the Honorable Tom, Dick, or Harry had dropped the life-giving word; and though each fictionist knew that his own story was a fabrication, it was only human to believe that of the man with whom he exchanged the whispered confidence.

To the lies and the exaggerations was presently added a most convincing truth. By ten o'clock it was the talk of the lobbies, the club, and the exchanges that the Reclamation Service was already abandoning the work on the great dam. One half of the workmen were to be discharged at once, and doubtless the other half would follow as soon as the orders could come from Washington.

Appealed to by a mob of anxious inquirers, Brouillard did not deny the fact of the discharges, and thereupon the city went mad in a furor of speculative excitement in comparison with which the orgy of the gold discoverers paled into insignificance. "Curb" exchanges sprang into being in the Metropole lobby, in the court of the Niquoia Building, and at a dozen street corners on the Avenue. Word went to the placers, and by noon the miners had left their sluice-boxes and were pouring into town to buy options at prices that would have staggered the wildest plunger otherwhere, or at any other time.

Brouillard closed his desk at one o'clock and went to fight his way through the street pandemonium to Bongras's. At a table in the rear room he found David Massingale, his long, white beard tucked into the closely buttoned miner's coat to be out of the way of the flying knife and fork, while he gave a lifelike imitation of a man begrudging every second of time wasted in stopping the hunger gap.

Brouillard took the opposite chair and was grimly amused at the length of time that elapsed before Massingale realized his presence.

"Pity a man has to stop to eat on a day like this, isn't it, Mr. Massingale?" he laughed; and then: "I wouldn't hurry. There's another day coming; or if there isn't, we'll all be in the same boat. How is Steve?"

Massingale nodded. "The boy's comin' along all right now; he allows to be out in another week 'r two." Then the inevitable question: "They're sayin' on the street that you're lettin' out half o' your men – that so?"

Brouillard laughed again.

"I've heard it so often that I've come to believe it myself," he admitted, adding: "Yes, it's true." After which he asked a question of his own: "Have you been doing something in real estate this morning, Mr. Massingale?"

"All I could," mumbled the old man between mouthfuls. "But I cayn't do much. If it ain't one thing, it's another. 'Bout as soon as I got that tangle with the Red Butte smelter straightened out, the railroad hit me."

"How was that?" queried Brouillard, with quickening interest coming alive at a bound.

"Same old song, no cars; try and get 'em to-morruh, and to-morruh it'll be next day, and next day it'll be the day after. Looks like they don't want to haul any freight out o' here."

"I see," said Brouillard, and truly he saw much more than David Massingale did. Then: "No shipments means no money for you, and more delay; and delay happens to be the one thing you can't stand. When do those notes of yours fall due?"

"Huh?" said Massingale. He was a close-mouthed man, by breeding and by habit, and he was quite sure he had never mentioned the "Little Susan" entanglement to the young engineer.

Brouillard became more explicit. "The notes covering your indebtedness to the bank for the money you've been putting into development work and improvements – I asked when they would become due."

The old man's heavy white eyebrows bent themselves in a perplexed frown.

"Amy hadn't ort to talk so much," he objected. "Business is business."

Brouillard's smile was a tacit denial of the implication.

"You forget that there were several other parties to the transaction and that any man's business is every man's in this crazy town," he suggested. "But you haven't answered my question about the due date. I didn't ask it out of idle curiosity, I assure you."

Massingale was troubled, and his fine old face showed it plainly.

"I ain't much of a man to holler when I've set the woods afire myself," he answered slowly. "But I don't know why I shouldn't yip a little to you if I feel like it. To-day is the last day on them notes, and I'd about made up my mind that I was goin' up the spout on a sure thing for the fourth time since I hit the mount'ins, when this here new excitement broke out."

"Go on," said Brouillard.

"I saw a chance – about a one-to-a-hundred shot. I'd been to see Hardwick at the bank, and he gave me the ultimaytum good and cold; if I couldn't lift the paper, the bank'd have to go back on my indorser, John Wes. I had a little over five thousand left out o' the borray, and I took it and broke for the Real Estate Exchange. Been there for three solid hours, turnin' my little stake over like a flapjack on a hot griddle; but it ain't any use, I cayn't turn it fast enough, 'r often enough, betwixt now and three o'clock."

One of Bongras's rear-room luxuries was a portable telephone for every group of tables. Brouillard made a sign to the waiter, and the desk set was brought to him. If David Massingale recognized the number asked for, he paid no attention; and, since a man may spend his life digging holes in the ground and still retain the instincts of a gentleman – if he happens to have been born with them – he was equally oblivious to the disjointed half of the telephone conversation he might have listened to.

"Hello! Is that Boyer – Niquoia National?.. This is Brouillard. Can you give me my present figure?.. Not more than that?.. Oh, yes; you say the Hillman check is in; I had overlooked it. All right, thank you."

When the waiter had removed the desk set, the engineer leaned toward his table companion:

"Mr. Massingale, I'm going to ask you to tell me frankly what kind of a deal it was you made with Cortwright and the bank people."

"It was the biggest tom-fool razzle that any livin' live man out of a lunatic 'sylum ever went into," confessed the prisoner of fate. "I was to stock the 'Susan' for half a million – oh, she's worth it, every dollar of it; you might say the ore's in sight for it right now" – this in deference to Brouillard's brow-lifting of surprise. "They was to put in a hundred thousand cash, and I was to put in the mine and the ore on the dump, just as she stood."

The engineer nodded and Massingale went on.

"I was to have two thirds of the stock and they was to have one third. The hundred thousand for development we'd get at the bank, on my notes, because I was president and the biggest stockholder, with John Wes. as indorser. Then, to protect the bank accordin' to law, they said, we'd put the whole bunch o' stock – mine and their'n – into escrow in the hands of Judge Williams. When the notes was paid, the judge'd hand the stock back to us."

"Just a moment," interrupted Brouillard. "Did you sign those notes personally, or as president of the new company?"

"That's where they laid for me," said the old man shamefacedly. "We made the money turn before we was a company – while we was waitin' for the charter."

"Of course," commented Brouillard. "And they rushed you into it on the plea of saving time. But you say the stock was to be released when the notes were paid – what was to happen if they were not paid?"

"Right there is where John Wes.'s ten-dollar-a-bottle sody-pop stuff we was soppin' up must 'a' foolished me plumb silly; I don't just rightly recollect what the judge was to do with the stock if I fell down. I know it was talked all 'round Robin Hood's barn, up one side and down the other, and they made it look like I couldn't slip up if I tried to. And they made the borray at the bank look fair enough, too."

"Well, why wasn't it fair?" Brouillard wanted to know.

"Why, sufferin' Moses! don't you see? It hadn't ort to 've been needed. They was to put in a hundred thousand, and they wasn't doin' it. It figgered out this-a-way in the talk: they said, what's the use o' takin' the money out o' one pocket and puttin' it into the other? Let the bank carry the development loan and let the mine pay it. Then we could even up when it come to the dividends."

"So it amounts to this: you have given them a clean third of the 'Susan' for the mere privilege of borrowing one hundred thousand dollars on your own paper. And if you don't pay, you lose the remaining two thirds as well."

"That's about the way it stacks up to a sober man. Looks like I needed a janitor to look after my upper story, don't it? And I reckon mebby I do."

"One thing more," pressed the relentless querist. "Did you really handle the hundred-thousand-dollar development fund yourself, Mr. Massingale?"

"Well, no; not exactly. Ten thousand dollars of what they called a 'contingent fund' was put in my name; but the treasurer handled most of it – nachurly, we bein' a stock company."

"Who is your treasurer?"

"Feller with just one share o' stock – Parker Jackson."

"Humph! Cortwright's private secretary. And he has spent ninety thousand dollars on the 'Little Susan' in sixty days? Not much! What has your pay-roll been?"

"'Bout five hundred a week."

"That is to say between three and four thousand dollars for the two months – call it five thousand. Now, let's see – " Brouillard took out his pencil and began to make figures on the back of the menu card. He knew the equipment of the "Little Susan," and his specialty was the making of estimates. Hence he was able to say, after a minute or two of figuring:

"Thirty thousand dollars will amply cover your new equipment: power drills, electric transfers, and the cheap telpherage plant. Have you ever seen any vouchers for the money spent?"

"No. Had I ort to?"

"Well, rather – as president of the company."

Massingale tucked the long white beard still farther into the buttoned coat. "I been tellin' you I need a mule-driver to knock a little sense into me," he offered.

"It's a bad business any way you attack it," said Brouillard after a reflective pause. "What you have really got for yourself out of the deal is the ten-thousand-dollar deposit to your personal account, and nothing more; and they'll probably try to make you a debtor for that. Taking that amount and a fair estimate of the company's expenditures to date – say thirty-five thousand in round numbers, which is fairly chargeable to the company's assets as a whole – they still owe you about fifty-five thousand of the original hundred thousand they were to put in. If there were time – but you say this is the last day?"

"The last half o' the last day," Massingale amended.

"I was going to say, if there were time, this thing wouldn't stand the light of day for a minute, Mr. Massingale. They wouldn't go within a hundred miles of a court of law with it. Can't you get an extension on the notes? – but of course you can't; that is just the one thing Cortwright doesn't want you to have – more time."

"No; you bet he don't."

"That being the case, there is no help for it; you'll have to take your medicine and pay the notes. Do that, take an iron-clad receipt from the bank – I'll write it out for you – and get the stock released. After that, we'll give them a whirl for the thirty-three and a third per cent they have practically stolen from you."

The old man's face, remindful now of his daughter's, was a picture of dismayed incertitude.

"I reckon you're forgettin' that I hain't got money enough to lift one edge o' them notes," he said gently.

Brouillard had found a piece of blank paper in his pocket and was rapidly writing the "iron-clad" receipt.

"No, I hadn't forgotten. I have something over a hundred thousand dollars lying idle in the bank. You'll take it and pay the notes."

It was a bolt out of a clear sky for the old man tottering on the brink of his fourth pit of disaster, and he evinced his emotion – and the tense strain of keyed-up nerves – by dropping his lifted coffee-cup with a crash into his plate. The little accident was helpful in its way, – it made a diversion, – and by the time the wreck was repaired speech was possible.

"Are you – are you plumb sure you can spare it?" asked the debtor huskily. And then: "I cayn't seem to sort o' surround it – all in a bunch, that way. I knowed J. Wesley had me down; knowed it in less 'n a week after he sprung his trap. He wanted the 'Little Sue,' wanted it worse 'n a little yaller dog ever wanted his supper. Do you know why? I can tell you. After you get your dam done, and every dollar of the make-believe money this cussed town's built on has gone to the bottom o' the Dead Sea, the 'Susan' will still be joggin' along, forty dollars to the ton. It's the only piece o' real money in this whole blamed free-for-all, and J. Wes. knows it."

Brouillard looked at his watch. "When you're through we'll go around to the bank and fix it up. There's no hurry. I've got to ride down to the Buckskin camps, but I don't care to start much before two."

Massingale nodded, but his appetite was gone, and speech with it, the one grateful outburst having apparently drained the well. But after they had made their way through the excited sidewalk exchanges to the bank, and Brouillard had written his check, the old man suddenly found his voice again.

"You say you're goin' down to the Buckskin right away? How 'm I goin' to secure you for this?"

"We can talk about that later on, after I come back. The thing to do now is to get those notes cancelled and that stock released before bank-closing time."

Still David Massingale, with the miraculously sent bit of rescue paper in his hand, hesitated.



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