Francis Lynde.

The City of Numbered Days



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XV
The Setting of the Ebb

Contrary to the most sanguine expectations of the speculators – contrary, perhaps, even to those of Mr. J. Wesley Cortwright – the upward surge in Mirapolis values, following the visit of the "distinguished citizens," proved to be more than a tidal wave: it was a series of them.

The time was fully ripe for the breaking down of the final barriers of prudence and common-place sanity. Day after day the "curb" markets were reopened, with prices mounting skyward; and when the news of how fortunes could be made in a day in the Miracle City of the Niquoia got abroad in the press despatches there was a fresh influx of mad money hunters from the East, and the merry game of buying and selling that which, inferentially at least, had no legal existence, went on with ever-increasing activity and an utterly reckless disregard of values considered as a basis for future returns on the investment.

Now, if never before, the croaker was wrathfully shouted down and silenced. No one admitted, or seemed to admit, the possible impermanence of the city. So far from it, the boast was made openly that Mirapolis had fairly out-stripped the Reclamation Service in the race for supremacy, and that among the first acts passed by Congress on its reassembling would be one definitely annulling the Buckskin Desert project, or, at any rate, so much of it as might be threatening the existence of the great gold camp in the Niquoia Valley.

To the observer, anxious or casual, there appeared to be reasonable grounds for the optimistic assertion. It was an indubitable fact that Brouillard's force had been cut down, first to one half, and later to barely enough men to keep the crushers and mixers moving and to add fresh layers of concrete to the huge wall of sufficient quantities to prevent the material – in technical phrase – from "dying."

True, in the new furor of buying and selling and booming it was not remarked that the discharged government employees uniformly disappeared from the city and the valley as soon as they were stricken from the time rolls. True, also, was the fact that Brouillard said nothing for publication, and little otherwise, regarding the successive reductions in his working force. But in such periods of insanity it is only the favorable indications which are marked and emphasized. The work on the great dam was languishing visibly, as every one could see. The Navajos had been sent home to their reservation, the tepees were gone, and two thirds of the camp shacks were empty.

Past these material facts, plainly to be seen and weighed and measured by any who would take the time to consider them, there was a strictly human argument which was even more significant. It was known to everybody in the frenzied marketplace that Brouillard himself was, according to his means, one of the most reckless of the plungers, buying, borrowing, and buying again as if the future held no threat of a possible d?b?cle.

It was an object-lesson for the timid. Those who did not themselves know certainly argued that there must be a few who did know, and among these few the chief of the Reclamation Service must be in the very foremost rank.

"You just keep your eye on Brouillard and steer your own boat accordingly," was the way Editor Harlan put it to one of the timid ones. "He knows it all, backward and forward, and from the middle both ways; you can bet your final dollar on that. And you mustn't expect him to talk. In his position he can't talk; one of the things he is drawing his salary for is to keep his mouth shut. Besides, what a man may say doesn't necessarily count for much. It is what he does."

Thus Harlan, speaking, as it were, in his capacity of a public dispenser of the facts. But for himself he was admitting a growing curiosity about the disappearing workmen, and this curiosity broke ground one evening when he chanced to meet Brouillard at the club.

"Somebody was telling me that you let out another batch of your Buckskin ditch diggers to-day, Brouillard," he began. And then, without any bush beating, the critical question was fired point-blank: "What becomes of all these fellows you are dropping? They don't stay in town or go to the mines – not one of them."

"Don't they?" said Brouillard with discouraging brevity.

"You know mighty well they don't. And they don't even drift out like other people; they go in bunches."

"Anything else remarkable up your sleeve?" was the careless query.

"Yes; Conlan, the railroad ticket agent, started to tell me yesterday that they were going out on government transportation – that they didn't buy tickets like ordinary folks; started to tell me, I say, because he immediately took it back and fell all over himself trying to renege."

"You are a born gossip, Harlan, but I suppose you can't help it. Did no one ever tell you that a part of the government contract with these laborers includes transportation back to civilization when they are discharged?"

"No, not by a jugful!" retorted the newspaper man. "And you're not telling me so now. For some purpose of your own you are asking me to believe it without being told. I refuse. This is the closed season, and the fish are not biting."

Brouillard laughed easily.

"You are trying mighty hard to make a mountain out of a mole-hill. You say the men clear out when they are discharged – isn't that about what you'd do if you were out of a job?"

"Not with such unfailing unanimity if there were several hundred of me. Mirapolis isn't such an infernally good place to go away from – not yet."

Brouillard's smile matched the easy-going laugh which had been its forerunner.

"You are a most persistent gadfly, Harlan. If I tell you one small, trifling, and safely uninflammable fact, can I trust you not to turn it into a house afire in the columns of the Spot-Light?"

"You know well enough you can!" was the eager protest. "When have I ever bleated when I should have kept still?"

"Well, then, the fact is this: the men leaving the Niquoia are not discharged from the service. They are merely transferred to the Escalante project, which the department is trying to push through to completion before the northern winter sets in and freezes the concrete in the mixers."

"Ah!" said Harlan with a quick indrawing of his breath. "That brings on more talk – about a thousand miles of it, doesn't it?"

"For example?" suggested the engineer.

"To put it baldly, is the government really quitting on the Niquoia project, or is it merely transferring its force from a job that can wait to one that can't wait?"

Brouillard smiled again. "You see," he said; "it is second nature for you pencil-pushers to try to make two facts grow where only one grew before. Honestly, now, Harlan, what do you think about it yourself? You don't need any kindergartner of a construction man to help you solve a little problem like that, do you?"

"I'm doing a little sum in simple equations," was the thoughtful answer – "putting this bit of information which you have just given me against what I have been believing to be a pretty straight tip from Washington."

"What is your tip?"

"It's this: that Congress does really propose to interfere in behalf of Mirapolis."

"How can any one predict that when Congress is not in session?"

"The tip asserts that the string-pulling is all done. It will be a quiet bit of special legislation smuggled through, I suppose, like the bills for private relief. All it will need will be the recommendation and backing of a handful of Western members and senators. Nobody else is very vitally interested, outside of your own department, and there are always plenty of clubs at hand for killing off department opposition – threats of cutting down the appropriations and so on. Properly engineered, the Mirapolis bill will go through like a greased pig under a gate. You know it will."

"You say nobody else is vitally interested – that's a mistake big enough to be called a crime," said Brouillard with emphasis. "The reclamation of the Buckskin Desert is a matter of moment to the entire nation. Its failure would be a public disaster."

Harlan laughed derisively.

"You are talking through your hat now – the salaried government engineer's hat. Let your topographers go out and find some other stream to dam up. Let them hunt up some other desert to reclaim. The supply of arid lands isn't exhausted yet by a good bit."

Brouillard appeared to be silenced even if he were not fully convinced. After a time, however, he dropped in another query.

"How straight is your tip, Harlan?"

"So straight that I'd print it in to-morrow's Spot-Light if I wasn't afraid of queering the deal by being too previous. The necessary backing has been secured, and the bill is already prepared. If you don't believe it, ask your own big bosses in Washington."

"You are certain that your information didn't originate right here in Mirapolis – in Mr. Cortwright's office, to locate it more exactly?"

"It didn't; it came from a purely personal source and direct from Washington."

"And the source couldn't possibly have become contaminated by the Cortwright germs?"

Harlan's smile was the face-wrinkling of seasoned wisdom.

"You are pushing me too hard," he protested. "I know that there are wheels within wheels. You'd say it would be a foxy move to have the local newspaper in Mirapolis get such a tip from a strictly unprejudiced source. I'll have to admit that myself."

Brouillard looked at his watch and reached for his hat.

"It's all right, Harlan," he said at the leave-taking. "Believe as much as you like, but take my advice in just one small matter. Don't buy Mirapolis dirt to hold; buy it to sell – and sell the minute you see your profit. I told you I'd give you a pointer if I didn't forget; you've got it."

For the better part of a fortnight the tidal waves of prosperity, as evinced by increasing speculative values, kept on rolling in, each one apparently a little higher than its immediate predecessor. Then the flood began to subside, though so slowly that at first it was only by a careful comparison of the daily transfers that the recession could be measured.

Causes and consequences extraneous to the city itself contributed to the almost imperceptible reactionary tendency. For one, the Buckskin Mining and Milling Company reluctantly abandoned its pastime of ploughing barren furrows on Jack's Mountain, and a little later went into liquidation, as the phrase ran, though the Eastern bondholders probably called it bankruptcy. About the same time the great cement plant, deprived of the government market by the slackening of the work on the dam, reduced its output to less than one fourth of its full capacity. Most portentous of all, perhaps, was the rumor that the placers at Quadjen?? were beginning to show signs of exhaustion. It was even whispered about that the two huge gold dredges recently installed were not paying the expenses of operating them.

Quite naturally, the pulse of the Wonder City beat sensitive to all these depressive rumors and incidents, responding slowly at first but a little later in accelerated throbbings which could no longer be ignored by the most optimistic bidder at the "curb" exchanges.

Still there was no panic. As the activities in local sales fell off and the Mirapolitans themselves were no longer crowding the curbs or standing in line at the real estate offices for their turn at the listings, the prudent ones, with Mr. Cortwright and his chosen associates far in advance of the field, were placing Mirapolis holdings temptingly on view in distant markets; placing them and selling them with a blazonry of advertising worthy of the envy of those who have called themselves the suburb builders of Greater New York.

It was after this invasion of the distant market was fully in train that Cortwright once more sent for Brouillard, receiving the engineer this time in the newest offices of the power company, on the many-times-bought-and-sold corner opposite Bongras's.

"Hello, Brouillard!" said the magnate jocosely, indicating a chair and the never-absent open box of cigars in the same gesture. "You're getting to be as much of a stranger as a man might wish his worst enemy to be. Gene says you are neglecting her shamefully, but she seems to be making a pretty good Jack-at-a-pinch of the English lord."

"You sent for me?" Brouillard broke in tersely. More and more he was coming to acknowledge a dull rage when he heard the call of his master.

"Yes. What about the dam? Is your work going to start up again? Or is it going off for good?"

Brouillard bit his lip to keep back the exclamation of astoundment that the blunt inquiry threatened to evoke. To assume that Mr. Cortwright did not know all there was to be known was to credit the incredible.

"I told you a good while ago that I was only the government's hired man," he replied. "You doubtless have much better information than any I can give you."

"You can tell me what your orders are – that's what I want to know."

The young chief of construction frowned first, then he laughed.

"What has given you the impression that you own me, Mr. Cortwright? I have often wondered."

"Well, I might say that I have made you what you are, and – "

"That's true; the truest thing you ever said," snapped Brouillard.

"And, I was going to add, I can unmake you just as easily. But I don't want to be savage with you. All I'm asking is a little information first, and a little judicious help afterward. What are your orders from the department?"

Brouillard got up and stood over the stocky man in the office chair, with the black eyes blazing.

"Mr. Cortwright, I said a moment ago that you have made me what I am, and you have. I am infinitely a worse man than you are, because I know better and you don't. It is no excuse for me that I have had a motive which I haven't explained to you, because, as I once told you, you couldn't understand it in a thousand years. The evil has been done and the consequences, to you, to me, and to every one in this cursed valley are certain. Facing them as I am obliged to face them, I am telling you – but what's the use? You can't make a tool of me any longer – that's all. You must cook your meat over your own fire. I'm out of it."

"I can smash you," said the man in the chair, quite without heat.

"No, you can't even do that," was the equally cool retort. "No man's fate is in another man's hands. If you choose to set in motion the machinery which will grind me to a small-sized villain of the county-jail variety, it is I myself who will furnish every foot-pound of the power that is applied."

He was moving toward the door, but Cortwright stopped him.

"One more word before you go, Brouillard. It is to be war between us from this on?"

"I don't say that: It would be awkward for Miss Genevieve. Let it be armed neutrality if you like. Don't interfere with me and I won't interfere with you."

"Ah!" said the millionaire. "Now you have brought it around to the point I was trying to reach. You don't want to have anything more to do with me, but you are not quite ready to cash in and pull out of the game. How much money have you got?"

The cool impudence of the question brought a dull flush to the younger man's face, but he would give the enemy no advantage in the matter of superior self-control.

"That is scarcely a fair question – even between armed neutrals," he objected. "Why do you want to know?"

"I'm asking because you have just proposed the non-interference policy, and I'd like to know how fairly you mean to live up to it. A little while back you interfered in a small business matter of mine very pointedly. What became of the one hundred thousand dollars you gave old David Massingale?"

"How do you know I gave him a hundred thousand dollars?"

"That's dead easy," laughed the man in the pivot chair, once more the genial buccaneer. "You drew a check for that amount and cashed it, and a few minutes later Massingale, whose account had been drawn down to nothing, bobs up at Schermerhorn's window with exactly the same amount in loose cash. What did he do with it – gamble it?"

"That is his own affair," Brouillard countered briefly.

"Well, the future – next month's future – is my affair. If you've got money enough to interfere again – don't. You'll lose it, the same as you did before. And perhaps I sha'n't take the second interference as good-naturedly as I did the first."

"Is that all you have to say?" Brouillard asked impatiently.

"Not quite. I don't believe you were altogether in earnest a minute ago when you expressed your desire to call it all off. You don't want the Mirapolis well to go dry right now, not one bit more than I do."

"I have been trying pretty hard to make you understand that it is a matter of utter indifference to me."

"But you haven't succeeded very well; it isn't at all a matter of indifference to you," the magnate insisted persuasively. "As things are shaping themselves up at the present speaking, you stand to lose, not only the hundred thousand you squandered on old David, but all you've made besides. I keep in touch – it's my business to keep in touch. You've been buying bargains and you are holding them – for the simple reason that with the present slowing-down tendency in the saddle you can't sell and make any money."

"Well?"

"I've got a proposition to make that ought to look good to you. What we need just now in this town is a little more activity – something doing. You can relieve the situation if you feel like it."

"How?"

"If I tell you, you mustn't go and use it against me. That would be a low-down welcher's trick. But you won't. See here, your bureau at Washington is pretty well scared up over the prospect here. It is known in the capital that when Congress convenes there is going to be a dead-open-and-shut fight to kill this Buckskin reclamation project. Very well; the way for you fellows to win out is to hurry – finish your dam and finish it quick, before Congress or anybody else can get action."

For a single instant Brouillard was puzzled. Then he began to understand.

"Go on," he said.

"What I was going to suggest is this: you prod your people at Washington with a hot wire; tell 'em now's the time to strike and strike hard. They'll see the point, and if you ask for an increase of a thousand men you'll get it. Make it two thousand, just for the dramatic effect. We'll work right along with you and make things hum again. We'll start up the cement plant, and I don't know but what we might give the Buckskin M. & M. folks a small hypodermic that would keep 'em alive while we are taking a few snapshot pictures of Mirapolis on the jump again."

"Let me get it straight," said Brouillard, putting his back against the door. "You fully believe you've got us down; that eventually, and before the water is turned on, Congress will pass a bill killing the Niquoia project. But in the meantime, to make things lively, you'd like to have the Reclamation Service go ahead and spend another million or so in wages that can be turned loose in Mirapolis. Is that it?"

"You've surrounded it very neatly," laughed the promoter. "Once, some little time ago, I might have felt the necessity of convincing your scruples, but you've cut away all that foolishness. It's a little tough on our good old Uncle Samuel, I'll admit, but it'll be only a pin-prick or so in comparison to the money that is thrown away every time Congress passes an appropriation bill. And, putting it upon the dead practical basis, Brouillard, it's your one and only salvation – personally, I mean. You've got to unload or go broke, and you can't unload on a falling market. You think about it and then get quick action with the wire. There is no time to lose."

Brouillard was looking past Cortwright and out through the plate-glass window which commanded a view of the great dam and its network of forms and stagings.

"It is a gambler's bet and a rather desperate one," he said slowly. "You stand to win all or to lose all in making it, Mr. Cortwright. The town is balancing on the knife-edge of a panic at this moment. Would it go up, or down, with a sudden resumption of work on the dam?"

"The careless thinker would say that it would yell 'Fire!' and go up into the air so far that it could never climb down," was the prompt reply. "But we'll have the medicine dropper handy. In the first place, everybody can afford to stay and boost while Uncle Sam is spending his million or so right here in the middle of things. Nobody will want to pull out and leave that cow unmilked. In the second place, we've got a mighty good antidote to use in any sure-enough case of hydrophobia your quick dam building may start."

"You could let it leak out that, in spite of all the hurrah and rush on the dam, Congress is really going to interfere before we are ready to turn the water on," said Brouillard musingly and as if it were only his thought slipping into unconscious speech.

"Precisely. We could make that prop hold if you were actually putting the top course on your wall and making preparations to drop the stop-gate in your spillway."



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