Francis Lynde.

The City of Numbered Days



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"There's one other thing – and I've got to spit it out before it's everlastedly too late. See here, Victor Brouillard – Amy likes you – thinks a heap of you; a plumb blind man could see that. But say, that little girl o' mine has just natchurly got to have a free hand when it comes to pairin' up, and she won't never have if she finds out about this. You ain't allowin' to use it on her, Victor?"

Brouillard laughed.

"I'll make a hedging bet and break even with you, Mr. Massingale," he said. "That check is drawn to my order, and I have indorsed it. Let me have it again and I'll get the cash for you. In that way only the two of us need know anything about the transaction; and if I promise to keep the secret from Miss Amy, you must promise to keep it from Mr. J. Wesley Cortwright. Will you saw it off with me that way? – until you've made the turn on the ore sales?"

David Massingale shook hands on it with more gratitude, colored this time with a hearty imprecation. "Dad burn you, Victor Brouillard, you're a man – ever' single mill-run of you!" he burst out. But Brouillard shook his head gravely.

"No, Mr. Massingale, I'm the little yellow dog you mentioned a while back," he asserted, and then he went to get the money.

The check cashed and the transfer of the money made, Brouillard did not wait to see Massingale astonish the Niquoia National cashier. Nor did he remark the curious change that came into the old man's face at the pocketing of the thick sheaf of bank-notes. But he added a word of comment and another of advice before leaving the bank.

"The day fits us like a glove," was the comment. "With all the money that is changing hands in the street, Hardwick won't wonder at your sudden raise or at my check." Then he put in the word of warning: "I suppose you'll be dabbling a little in Mirapolis options after you get this note business out of the way? It's all right – I'd probably do it myself if I didn't have to leave town. But just one word in your ear, Mr. Massingale: buy and sell – don't hold. That's all. Good-by, and good luck to you."

Left alone in the small retiring room of the bank where the business had been transacted, David Massingale took the sheaf of bank-notes from his pocket with trembling hands, fondling it as a miser might. The bills were in large denominations, and they were new and stiff. He thumbed the end of the thick packet as one runs the leaves of a book, and the flying succession of big figures seemed to dazzle him. There was an outer door to the customers' room giving upon the side street; it was the one through which Brouillard had passed. Twice the old man made as if he would turn toward the door of egress, and the light in his gray-blue eyes was the rekindling flame of a passion long denied. But in the end he thrust the tempting sheaf back into the inner pocket and went resolutely to the cashier's counter window.

Expecting to have to do with Hardwick, the brusque and business-like cashier, Massingale was jarred a little aside from his own predetermined attitude by finding Schermerhorn, the president, sitting at the cashier's desk.

But from the banker's first word the change seemed to be altogether for the better.

"How are you, Mr. Massingale? Glad to see you. How is the boy getting along? First rate, I hope?"

Massingale was looking from side to side, like a gray old hawk disappointed in its swoop. It would have been some satisfaction to buffet the exacting Hardwick with the fistful of money. But with Schermerhorn the note lifting would figure as a mere bit of routine.

"I've come to take up them notes o' mine with John Wes.'s name on 'em," Massingale began, pulling out the thick sheaf of redemption money.

"Oh, yes; let me see; are they due to-day?" said the president, running over the note portfolio.

Massingale nodded.

"H'm, yes, here they are. Brought the cash, did you? The 'Little Susan' has begun to pan out, has it? I didn't know you had commenced shipping ore yet."

"We haven't." David Massingale made the admission and regretted it in one and the same breath.

"You've borrowed to meet these notes?" queried the president, looking up quickly. "That won't do, Mr. Massingale; that won't do at all. We can't afford to lose an old customer that way. What's the matter with our money? Doesn't it look good to you any more?"

Massingale stammered out something about Cashier Hardwick's peremptory demand of a few hours earlier, but he was not permitted to finish.

"Of course, that is all right from Hardwick's point of view. He was merely looking out for the maturing paper. How much more time will you need to enable you to get returns from your shipments? Sixty days? All right, you needn't make out new notes; I'll indorse the extension on the back of these, and I'll undertake to get Cortwright's approval myself. No; not a word, Mr. Massingale. As long as you're borrowing, you must be loyal and borrow of us. Good afternoon. Come again when we can help you out."

David Massingale turned away, dazed and confused beyond the power of speech. When the mists of astoundment cleared he found himself in the street with the thick wad of bank-notes still in his pocket. Suddenly, out of the limbo into which two years of laborious discipline and self-denial had pushed it stalked the demon of the ruling passion, mighty, overpowering, unconquerable. The familiar street sights danced before Massingale's eyes, and there was a drumming in his ears like the fall of many waters. But above the clamor rose the insistent voice of the tempter, and the voice was at once a command and an entreaty, a gnawing hunger and a parching thirst.

"By Gash! I'd like to try that old system o' mine jest one more time!" he muttered. "All it takes is money enough to foller it up and stay. And I've got the money. Besides, didn't Brouillard say I was to get an extension if I could?"

He grabbed at his coat to be sure that the packet was still there, took two steps toward the bank, stopped, turned as if in the grasp of an invisible but irresistible captor, and moved away, like a man walking in his sleep, toward the lower Avenue.

It was the doorway of Haley's Place, the Monte Carlo of the Niquoia, that finally halted him. Here the struggle was so fierce that the bartender, who knew him, named it sickness and led the stricken one to a card-table in the public bar-room and fetched him a drink. A single swallow of whiskey turned the scale. Massingale rose, tossed a coin to the bar, and passed quickly to the rear, where a pair of baize doors opened silently and engulfed him.

XIV
The Abyss

It was at early candle-lighting in the evening of the day of renewed and unbridled speculation in Mirapolis "front feet" that Brouillard, riding the piebald range pony on which he had been making an inspection round of the nearer Buckskin ditchers' camps, topped the hill in the new, high-pitched road over the Chigringo shoulder and looked down upon the valley electrics.

The immediate return to Mirapolis was no part of the plan he had struck out when he had closed his office in the Niquoia Building at one o'clock and had gone over to Bongras's to fall into the chance encounter with David Massingale. He had intended making a complete round of all the ditch camps, a ride which would have taken at least three days, and after parting from Massingale at the bank he had left town at once, taking the new road which began on the bench of the railroad yard. But almost immediately a singular thing had happened. Before he had gone a mile a strange reluctance had begun to beset him.

At first it was merely a haunting feeling of loss, as if he had left something behind, forgetting when he should have remembered; a thing of sufficient importance to make him turn and ride back if he could only recall what it was. Farther along the feeling became a vague premonition of impending disaster, growing with every added mile of the Buckskin gallopings until, at Overton's Camp, a few miles short of the Triangle-Circle Ranch headquarters, he had yielded and had set out for the return.

If the curious premonition had been a drag on the outward journey it became a spur to quicken the eastward faring. Even the piebald pony seemed to share the urgency, needing only a loose rein and an encouraging word. Across the yellow sands of the desert, through the lower ford of the Niquoia, and up the outlet gorge the willing little horse tossed the miles to the rear, and at the hill-topping moment, when the electric lights spread themselves in the valley foreground like stars set to illuminate the chess-board squares of the Wonder City, a record gallop had been made from Overton's.

Brouillard let the pony set its own pace on the down-hill lap to the finish, and it was fast enough to have jolted fresh road weariness into a less seasoned rider than the young engineer. Most curiously, the premonition with its nagging urgency seemed to vanish completely as soon as the city's streets were under hoof. Brouillard left the horse at the reservation stables, freshened himself at his rooms in the Niquoia Building, and went to the Metropole to eat his dinner, all without any recurrence of the singular symptoms. Further, when he found himself at a table with Murray Grislow as his vis-?-vis, and had invented a plausible excuse for his sudden return, he was able to enjoy his dinner with a healthy wayfarer's appetite and to talk over the events of the exciting day with the hydrographer with few or none of the abstracted mental digressions.

Afterward, however, the symptoms returned, manifesting themselves this time in the form of a vague and undefined restlessness. The buzzing throngs in the Metropole caf? and lobby annoyed him, and even Grislow's quiet sarcasm as applied to the day's bubble-blowing failed to clear the air. At the club there was the same atmosphere of unrest; an exacerbating overcharge of the suppressed activities impatiently waiting for another day of excitement and opportunity. Corner lots and the astounding prices they had commanded filled the air in the lounge, the billiard room, and the buffet, and after a few minutes Brouillard turned his back on the hubbub and sought the quiet of the darkened building on the opposite side of the street.

He was alone in his office on the sixth floor and was trying, half absently, to submerge himself in a sea of desk-work when the disturbing over-thought suddenly climaxed in an occurrence bordering on the supernatural. As distinctly as if she were present and at his elbow, he heard, or seemed to hear, Amy Massingale say: "Victor, you said you would come if I needed you: I need you now." Without a moment's hesitation he got up and made ready to go out. Skeptical to the derisive degree of other men's superstitions, it did not occur to him to doubt the reality of the mysterious summons, or to question in any way his own broad admission of the supernatural in the prompt obedience.

The Massingale town house was one of a row of stuccoed villas fronting on the main residence street, which beyond the city limits became the highroad to the Quadjen?? bend and the upper valley. Brouillard took a cab at the Metropole, dismissed it at the villa gate, and walked briskly up the path to the house, which was dark save for one lighted room on the second floor – the room in which Stephen Massingale was recovering from the effects of Van Bruce Cortwright's pistol-shot.

Amy Massingale was on the porch – waiting for him, as he fully believed until her greeting sufficiently proved her surprise at seeing him.

"You, Victor?" she said, coming quickly to meet him. "Murray Grislow said you had gone down to the Buckskin camps and wouldn't be back for two or three days!"

"Grizzy told the truth – as it stood a few hours ago," he admitted. "But I changed my mind and came back. How is Steve this evening?"

"He is quite comfortable, more comfortable than he has been at all since the wound began to heal. I have been reading him to sleep, and when the night nurse came I ran down to get a breath of fresh air in the open."

"No, you didn't come down for that reason," Brouillard amended gravely. "You came to meet me."

"Did I?" she asked. "What makes you think that?"

"I don't think; I know. You called me, and I heard you and came at once."

"How absurd!" she protested. "I knew, or thought I knew, that you were miles away, over in the Buckskin; and how could I call you?"

Brouillard pulled out his watch and scanned its face by the light of the roadway electric.

"It is exactly twenty minutes since I left my office. What were you doing twenty minutes ago?"

"As if I could tell! I don't believe I have looked at a clock or a watch all evening. After Stevie had his supper I read to him – one of the creepy Kipling stories that he is so fond of. You would say that 'Bimi' would be just about the last thing in the world to put anybody to sleep, wouldn't you? But Stevie dropped off, and I think I must have lost myself for a minute or two, because the next thing I knew the nurse was in the room."

"I know what happened," said Brouillard, speaking as soberly as if he were stating a mathematical certainty. "You left that room up-stairs and came to me. I didn't see you, but I heard you as plainly as I can hear you now. You spoke to me and called me by name."

"What did I say? Can you remember the words?"

"Indeed I can. The room was perfectly still, and I was working at my desk. Suddenly, and without any warning, I heard your voice saying: 'Victor, you said you would come if I needed you: I need you now.'"

She shook her head, laughing lightly.

"You have been overwrought about something, or maybe you are just plain tired. I didn't say or even think anything like that; or if I did, it must have been the other I, or one of the others, that Herr Freiborg writes about – and I don't believe in. This I that you are talking to doesn't remember anything about it."

"You are standing me off," he declared. "You are in trouble of some sort, and you are trying to hide it from me."

"No, not exactly trouble; only a little worry."

"All right, call it worry if you like and share it with me. What is it?"

"I think you know without being told – or you will know when I say that to-day was the day when the big debt to the bank became due. I am afraid we have finally lost the 'Little Susan.' That is one of the worries and the other I've been trying to call silly. I don't know what has become of father – as if he weren't old enough to go and come without telling me every move he makes!"

"Your father isn't at home?" gasped Brouillard.

"No; he hasn't been here since nine o'clock this morning. Murray Grislow saw him going into the Metropole about one o'clock, but nobody that I have been able to reach by 'phone seems to have seen him after that."

"I can bring the record down to two o'clock," was the quick reply. "He ate with me at Bongras's, and afterward I walked with him as far as the bank. And I can cure part of the first worry – all of it, in fact; he had the money to take up the Cortwright notes, and when I left him he was on his way to Hardwick's window to do it."

"He had the money? Where did he get it?"

Brouillard put his back against a porch post, a change of position which kept the light of the street electric from shining squarely upon his face.

"It has been another of the get-rich-quick days in Mirapolis," he said evasively. "Somebody told me that the corner opposite Poodles's was bought and sold three times within a single hour and that each time the price was doubled."

"And you are trying to tell me that father made a hundred thousand dollars just in those few hours by buying and selling Mirapolis lots? You don't know him, Victor. He is totally lacking the trading gift. He has often said that he couldn't stand on a street corner and sell twenty-dollar gold pieces at nineteen dollars apiece – nobody would buy of him."

"Nevertheless, I am telling you that he had the money to take up those notes," Brouillard insisted. "I saw it in his hands."

She left him abruptly and began to pace back and forth on the porch, with her hands behind her, an imitative trait unconsciously copying her father in his moments of stress. When she stopped she stood fairly in the beam of the street light. The violet eyes were misty, and in the low voice there was a note of deeper trouble.

"You say you saw the money in father's hands; tell me, Victor, did you see him pay it into the bank?"

"Why, no; not the final detail. But, as I say, when I left him he was on his way to Hardwick's window."

Again she turned away, but this time it was to dart into the house. A minute later she had rejoined him, and the minute had sufficed for the donning of a coat and the pinning on of the quaint cow-boy riding-hat.

"I must go and find him," she said with quiet resolution. "Will you go with me, Victor? Perhaps that is why I – the subconscious I – called you a little while ago. Let's not wait for the Quadjen?? car. I'd rather walk, and we'll save time."

They set out together, walking rapidly townward, and there was no word to go with the brisk footing. Brouillard respected his companion's silence. That the thing unspeakable, or at least unspoken, was something more than a woman's undefined fears was obvious; but until she should see fit to tell him what it was, he would not question her.

From the moment of outsetting the young woman's purpose seemed clearly defined. By the shortest way she indicated the course to the Avenue, and at the Metropole corner she turned unhesitatingly to the northward – toward the region of degradation.

As was to be expected after the day of frantic speculation and quick money changing, the lower Avenue was ablaze with light, the sidewalks were passes of peril, and the saloons and dives were reaping a rich harvest. Luckily, Brouillard was well known, and his position as chief of the great army of government workmen purchased something like immunity for himself and his companion. But more than once he was on the point of begging the young woman to turn back for her own sake.

The quest ended unerringly at the door of Haley's Place, and when David Massingale's daughter made as if she would go in, Brouillard protested quickly.

"No, Amy," he said firmly. "You mustn't go in there. Let me take you around to the Metropole, and then I'll come back alone."

"I have been in worse places," she returned in low tones. And then, with her voice breaking tremulously: "Be my good friend just a little longer, Victor!"

He took her arm and walked her into the garishly lighted bar-room, bracing himself militantly for what might happen. But nothing happened. Dissipation of the Western variety seldom sinks below the level of a certain rude gallantry, quick to recognize the good and pure in womankind. Instantly a hush fell upon the place. The quartets at the card-tables held their hands, and a group of men drinking at the bar put down their glasses. One, a Tri'-Circ' cow-boy with his back turned, let slip an oath, and in a single swift motion his nearest comrade garroted him with a hairy arm, strangling him to silence.

As if guided by the same unerring instinct which had made her choose Haley's out of a dozen similar hells, Amy Massingale led Brouillard swiftly to the green baize doors at the rear of the bar-room. At her touch the swinging doors gave inward, and her goal was reached.

Three faro games, each with its inlaid table, its impassive dealer, its armed "lookout," and its ring of silent players, lay beyond the baize doors. At the nearest of the tables there was a stir, and the dealer stopped running the cards. Somebody said, "Let him get out," and then an old man, bearded, white-haired, wild-eyed, and haggard almost beyond recognition, pushed his chair away from the table and stumbled to his feet, his hands clutching the air like those of a swimmer sinking for the last time.

With a low cry the girl darted across the intervening space to clasp the staggering old man in her arms and draw him away. Brouillard stood aside as they came slowly toward the doors which he was holding open for them. He saw the distorted face-mask of a soul in torment and heard the mumbling repetition of the despairing words, "It's all gone, little girl; it's all gone!" and then he removed himself quickly beyond the range of the staring, unseeing eyes.

For in the lightning flash of revealment he realized that once again the good he would have done had turned to hideous evil in the doing, and that this time the sword thrust of the blind-passion impulse had gone straight to the heart of love itself.



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