Francis Lynde.

The City of Numbered Days



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The chance did not materialize. The lights in a certain upper office in the Niquoia Building were still turned on long after M. Poudrecaulx had given up the hope of the deep-sea sounding for that night. Some time after the lobby crowd had melted, and before the lower avenue had begun to order small-hour suppers of Bongras, the two high windows in the Niquoia Building went dark and a few minutes later the man who had spent half the night tramping the floor or sitting with his head in his hands at the desk in the upper room came out of the street archway and walked briskly to the telegraph office across the plaza.

"How is the line to-night, Sanford – pretty clear?" he asked of the night manager, killing time while the sleepy night receiving clerk was making his third attempt to count the words in the closely written, two-page government cipher.

"Nothing doing; a little A. P. stuff drizzling in now and then," said the manager; adding: "But that's like the poor – always with us."

"All right; there is no particular rush about this matter of mine, just so it is sure to be in the secretary's hands at the opening of business in the morning. But be careful that it goes straight – you'd better have it checked back before it is put on the through wire from Denver."

"Sure, Mr. Brouillard. What you say in this little old shack goes as it lays. We'll look out and not bull your message. Good-night."

XIX
The Sunset Gun

Notwithstanding the preliminary rumors which Bongras and many others had sought so anxiously to verify, the Mirapolitan awakening to a realization that once more the tide had turned to bring new billows of prosperity tumbling into the valley of the Niquoia came with a sudden and triumphant shock.

The first of the quickening waves fell upon the government reservation. Between sunrise and nightfall, on a day when the cloud of depression had grown black with panic threatenings, the apathy which had lately characterized the work on the great dam disappeared as if by magic. The city found its bill-boards posted with loud calls for labor; the idle mixers were put in commission; the quarries and crushers began to thunder again; and the stagings once more shook and trembled under the feet of a busy army of puddlers.

While the revival was as yet only in the embryonic period, fresh labor began to come in gangs and in car loads and presently by special trains. Swarming colonies of Greeks, Italians, and Bulgarians were dumped upon the city through the gate of the railroad station, and once more Chigringo Avenue at night became a cheerful Midway answering to the speech of all nations.

Change, revivification, reanimation instantly became the new order of the day; and again Mirapolis flung itself joyously into the fray, reaping where it had not sown and sowing only where the quickest crop could be gathered. For now the dullest of the reapers saw that the government work was really the Mirapolitan breath of life.

Neither the quickening of the city's industries nor the restarting of the gold dredges in the Quadjen?? canals, the reopening of the Real Estate Exchange nor the Buckskin Company's sudden resumption of the profitless prospecting on Jack's Mountain served to obscure the principal fact – that without the money the Reclamation Service was disbursing the new prosperity structure would collapse like a house of cards.

This new and never-mentioned conviction wrought an eager change in men and in methods. Credit vanished and spot cash was tacitly acknowledged to be the only way to do business in a live community. Fortunes changed hands swiftly, as before, but now there was little bargaining and, with hot haste for the foreword, little time for it. To the Western motto of "Go to it and get the money" was added: "And don't come back without it." It was said with a laugh, but behind the laugh there was a menace.

Among the individual transformations wrought by the new conditions, the young chief of the Reclamation Service afforded the most striking example. From the morning when he had summarily cancelled the lease for the offices in the Niquoia Building and had returned his headquarters to the old log buildings on the government reservation and thence had issued his first series of orders for the resumption of full-force work on the dam and canals, those who had known him best discovered that they had not known him at all. Even to Grislow and the men of his staff he was curt, crisply mandatory, almost brutal. For one and all there was rarely anything beyond the shot-like sentence: "Drive it, men; drive it; that's what you're here for —drive it!"

The time he took to eat his hurried meals at Bongras's could be measured in minutes, and what hours he gave to sleep no man knew, since he was the last to leave the headquarters at night and the first on the work in the morning. Twice, after the renewed activities on the great wall had become a well-ordered race against time, and the concrete was pouring into the high forms in steady streams from the ranked batteries of mixers, Mr. Cortwright had sent for Brouillard, and on each occasion the messenger had gone back with the brief word: "Too busy during working hours." And when a third messenger came to inquire what Mr. Brouillard's working hours were, the equally blunt answer returned was: "All the time."

In the face of such discouragements Mr. Cortwright was constrained to pocket his dignity as mayor, as the potentate of the exchanges, and as the unquestionable master of the surly young industry captain who refused to come when he was called, and to go in person. Choosing the evening hour when he had been assured that he was likely to find Brouillard alone and at work, he crossed the boundaries of the sacred reservation and made his way to the door of the log-built mapping room.

"I came around to see what is eating you these days," was the pudgy tyrant's greeting for the young man sitting under the shaded desk lamp. "Why don't you drop in once in a while and give me the run of things?"

"I gave your clerk the reason," said Brouillard laconically. "I'm too busy."

"The devil you are!" snapped the great man, finding the only arm chair in the room and dropping heavily into it. "Since when?"

"Since the first time you sent for me – and before."

Mr. Cortwright recovered his working geniality only with a palpable effort.

"See here, Brouillard, you know you never make any money by being short with me. Let's drop it and get down to business. What I wanted to say is that you are overdoing it; you are putting on too much steam. You've brought the boom, all right, but at the pace you're setting it won't last long enough. Are you catching on?"

"I'm listening," was the non-committal reply.

"Well, enough's enough, and too much of a good thing scalds the hog before you're ready to dress it and cut it up. It's all right for you to run men in here by the train load and scatter 'em out over your scaffolding – the more the merrier, and it's good for the town – but you needn't sweat the last shovelful of hurry out of them the way you're doing. It won't do to get your job finished too soon."

"Before Congress convenes, you mean?" suggested Brouillard.

"That's just what I mean. String it out. Make it last."

Brouillard sat back in his pivot chair and began to play with the paper-knife.

"And if I don't choose to 'string it out' – if I even confess that I am straining every nerve to do this thing that you don't want me to do – what then, Mr. Cortwright?"

The quiet retort jolted the stocky man in the arm chair as if it had been a blow. But he recovered quickly.

"I've been looking for that," he said with a nervous twinkling of the little gray eyes. "You've no business being out of business, Brouillard. If you'd quit puddling sand and cement and little rocks together and strike your gait right in ten years you'd be the richest man this side of the mountains. I'll be open-handed with you: this time you've got us where we can't wiggle. We've got to have more time. How much is it going to cost us?"

Brouillard shook his head slowly.

"Odd as it may seem to you, I'm out of your market this time, Mr. Cortwright – quite out of it."

"Oh, no, you're not. You've got property to sell – a good bit of it. We can turn it for you at a figure that will – "

"No; you are mistaken," was the quick reply. "I have no property in Mirapolis. I am merely a squatter on government land, like every one else in the Niquoia valley."

"For Heaven's sake!" the promoter burst out. "What's got into you? Don't you go around trying to stand that corpse on its feet; it's a dead one, I tell you! The Coronida titles are all right!"

"There are no Coronida titles. You have known it all along, and I know it – now. I have it straight from the bureau of land statistics, in a letter from a man who knows. The nearest boundary of the old Spanish grant is Latigo Peak, ten miles south of Chigringo. The department knows this and is prepared to prove it. And in the very beginning you and your associates were warned that you could not acquire homestead or other rights in the Niquoia."

"Let it go!" snapped the gray-eyed king of the pack. "We've got to get out alive and we're going to get out alive. What's your price?"

"I have answered that question once, but I'll make it a little plainer if you wish. It is beyond your reach; if you should turn your money-coining soul into cash you couldn't pay it this time, Mr. Cortwright."

"That's guff – boy-talk – play-ranting! You want something – is it that damned Massingale business again? I don't own the railroad, but if you think I do, I'll sign anything you want to write to the traffic people. Let Massingale sell his ore and get the money for it. He'll go gamble it as he did yours."

Brouillard looked up under the shaded electric globe and his handsome face wrinkled in a sour smile.

"You are ready to let go, are you?" he said. "You are too late. Mr. Ford returned from Europe a week ago, and I have a wire saying that to-night's through freight from Brewster is chiefly made up of empty ore-cars for the 'Little Susan.'"

The sandy-gray eyes blinked at this, but Mr. Cortwright was of those who die hard.

"What I said still holds good. Massingale or his son, or both of them, will gamble the money. And if they don't, we've got 'em tied up in a hard knot on the stock proposition."

"I was coming to that," said Brouillard quietly. "For a long time you have been telling me what I should do and I have done it. Now I'll take my turn. You must notify your associates that the 'Little Susan' deal is off. There will be a called meeting of the directors here in this room to-morrow evening at eight o'clock, and – "

"Who calls it?" interrupted the tyrant.

"The president."

"President nothing!" was the snorted comment. "An old, drunken gambler who hasn't got sense enough to go in when it rains! Say, Brouillard, I'll cut that pie so there'll be enough to go around the table. Just leave Massingale out of it and make up your mind that you're going to sit in with us. We've bought the mine and paid for it. I've got the stock put away where it's safe. Massingale can't touch a share of it, or vote it, either."

Brouillard shook his head.

"You are stubbornly hard to convince, Mr. Cortwright, but I'll try one more time. You will come here to-morrow evening, with your confederates in the deal, prepared to take the money you have actually spent in betterments and prepared to release the stock. If you fail to do so you will get nothing. Is that explicit enough?"

"You're crazy!" shouted the promoter. "You talk as if there wasn't any law in this country!"

"There isn't – for such men as you; you and your kind put yourselves above the law. But that is neither here nor there. You don't want to go into court with this conspiracy which you have cooked up to beat David Massingale out of his property. It's the last thing on earth you want to do. So you'd better do the other thing – while you can."

Mr. Cortwright sat back in his chair, and once more Brouillard saw in the sandy-gray eyes the look which had been in the son's eyes when the derelict fought for freedom to finish killing Stephen Massingale.

"It's a pretty dangerous thing to try to hold a man up unless you've got the drop on him, Brouillard," he said significantly. "I've got you covered from my pocket; I've had you covered that way ever since you began to buck and rear on me a couple of months ago. One little wire word to Washington fixes you for good and all. If I say the word, you'll stay on your job just as long as it will take another man to get here to supersede you."

Brouillard laughed.

"The pocket drop is never very safe, Mr. Cortwright. You are likely to lose too much time feeling for the proper range. Then, too, you can never be sure that you won't miss. Also, your assumption that I'm taking an unarmed man's chance is wrong. I can kill you before you can pull the trigger of the pocket gun you speak of – kill you so dead that you won't need anything but a coroner's jury and a coffin. How long would it take you to get action in the Washington matter, do you think?"

"I've told you; you'd have just about a week longer to live, at the furthest."

"I can better that," was the cool reply. "I have asked you to do a certain thing to-morrow night. If you don't do it, the Spot-Light will print, on the following morning, that letter I spoke of – the letter from my friend in the bureau of land statistics. When that letter is printed everybody in Mirapolis will know that you and your accomplices are plain swindlers, amenable to the criminal law, and from that moment there will never be another real-estate transfer in the Niquoia valley."

The promoter rose slowly out of his chair and stood leaning heavily with his fat hands, palms downward, on the flat-topped desk. His cheeks were puffed out and the bitten mustaches bristled like the whiskers of a gray old leader of the timber-wolves.

"Brouillard," he grated huskily, "does this mean that you're breaking with us, once for all?"

"It means more than that; it means that I have reached a point at which I am ashamed to admit that there was ever anything to break."

"Then listen: you've helped this thing along as much as, or more than, anybody else in this town; and there are men right here in Mirapolis – plenty of 'em – who will kill you like a rat in a hole if you go back on them as you are threatening to. Don't you know that?"

The younger man was balancing the paper-cutter across his finger.

"That is the least of my worries," he answered, speaking slowly. "I am all sorts of a moral coward, I suppose; I've proved that often enough in the past few months, God knows. But I'm not the other kind, Mr. Cortwright."

"Then I'll take a hand!" snarled the tyrant at bay. "I'll spend a million dollars, if I have to, blacklisting you from one end of this country to the other! I'll fix it so you'll never build anything bigger than a hog-pen again as long as you live! I'll publish your record wherever there is a newspaper to print it!" He pounded on the desk with his fist – "I'll do it – money can do it! More than that, you'll never get a smell of that Chigringo mine – you nor Dave Massingale!"

Brouillard tossed the paper-knife into a half-opened drawer and squared himself at the blotting-pad.

"That is your challenge, is it?" he said curtly. "So be it. Start your machinery. You will doubtless get me, not because you have money, but because for a time I was weak enough and wicked enough to climb down and stand on your level. But if you don't hurry, Mr. Cortwright, I'll get you first. Are you going? One thing more – and it's a kindness; get your son out of town before this Massingale matter comes up for adjustment. It will be safer."

"Is that all you have to say?"

"Pretty nearly all, except to tell you that your time is growing short, and you and those who are in with you had better begin to set your houses in order. If you'll come over here at eight o'clock to-morrow night prepared to do the square thing by David Massingale, I'll withhold the publication of that letter which will stamp you and your associates as criminals before the law; but that is the only concession I shall make."

"You've got to make at least one more!" stormed the outgoing magnate. "You don't have to set any dates or anything of that kind for your damned drowning act!"

"In justice to a good many people who are measurably innocent, I shall have to do that very thing," returned the engineer firmly. "The notice will appear in to-morrow's Spot-Light."

It was the final straw in the stocky promoter's crushing wrath burden. His fat face turned purple, and for a second or two he clawed the air, gasping for breath. Brouillard sat back in his chair, waiting for the volcanic upheaval. But it did not come. When he had regained a measure of self-control, Mr. Cortwright turned slowly and went out without a word, stumbling over the threshold and slamming the door heavily as he disappeared.

For a time after the promoter's wordless departure Brouillard sat at his desk writing steadily. When the last of the memorandum sheets was filled he found his hat and street coat and left the office. Ten minutes later he had penetrated to the dusty den on the second floor of the Spot-Light office where Harlan was grinding copy for his paper. Brouillard took a chair at the desk end and laid the sheets of pencilled government paper under the editor's eyes.

Harlan's lean, fine-lined face was a study in changing emotions as he read. But at the end there was an aggrieved look in his eyes, mirroring the poignant regret of a newsman who has found a priceless story which he dares not use.

"It's ripping," he sighed, "the biggest piece of fireworks a poor devil of a newspaper man ever had a chance to touch off. But, of course, I can't print it."

"Why 'of course'?"

"For the same reason that a sane man doesn't peek down the muzzle of a loaded gun when he is monkeying with the trigger. I want to live a little while longer."

Brouillard looked relieved.

"I thought, perhaps, it was on account of your investments," he said.

"Not at the present writing," amended Harlan with a grin. "I got a case of cold feet when we had that little let-up a while back, and when the market opened I cleaned up and sent the sure-enough little round dollars home to Ohio."

"And still you won't print this?"

"I'd like to; you don't know how much I'd like to. But they'd hang me and sack the shop. I shouldn't blame 'em. If what you have said here ever gets into cold type, it's good-by Mirapolis. Why, Brouillard, the whole United States would rise up and tell us to get off the map. You've made us look like thirty cents trying to block the wheels of a million dollars – and that is about the real size of it, I guess."

"Then it is your opinion that if this were printed it would do the business?"

"There isn't the slightest doubt about it."

"Thank you, Harlan, that is what I wanted to find out – if I had made it strong enough. It'll be printed. I'll put it on the wires to the Associated Press. I was merely giving you the first hack at it."

"Gee – gosh! hold on a minute!" exclaimed the newsman, jumping up and snapping his fingers. "If I weren't such a dod-gasted coward! Let me run in a few 'It is alleged's', and I'll chance it."

"No; it goes as it lies. There are no allegations. It is merely a string of cold facts, as you very well know. Print it if you like, and I'll see to it that they don't hang you or loot the office. I have two hundred of the safest men on my force under arms to-night, and we'll take care of you. I'm in this thing for blood, Harlan, and when I get through, this little obstruction in the way of progress that Cortwright and his crowd planned, and that you and I and a lot of other fools and knaves helped to build, will be cooling itself under two hundred feet of water."

"Good Lord!" said the editor, still unable to compass the barbaric suddenness of it. Then he ran his eye over the scratch sheets again. "Does this formal notice that the waste-gates will be closed three weeks from to-morrow go as it stands?" he inquired.

"It does. I have the department's authority. You know as well as I do that unless a fixed day is set there will be no move made. We are all trespassers here, and we've been warned off. That's all there is to it. And if we can't get our little belongings up into the hills in three weeks it's our loss; we had no business bringing them here."

The editor looked up with the light of a new discovery in his eyes. "You say 'we' and 'our.' That reminds me; Garner told me no longer ago than this afternoon that you are on record for something like a hundred thousand dollars' worth of choice Mirapolis front feet. How about that?"

Brouillard's smile was quite heart-whole.

"I've kept my salary in a separate pocket, Harlan. Besides that – well, I came here with nothing and I shall go away with nothing. The rest of it was all stage money."

"Say – by hen!" ejaculated the owner of the Spot-Light. Then, smiting the desk: "You ought to let me print that. I'd run it in red head-lines across the top of the front page. But, of course, you won't… Well, here goes for the fireworks and a chance of a soaped rope." And he pushed the bell button for the copy boy.



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