Francis Lynde.

The City of Numbered Days



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"We don't," was the short rejoinder.

"That won't hold water after we get things fairly in motion."

"It will have to hold water, so far as we are concerned, if I have to build a stockade around the camp," snapped Brouillard.

Hosford's heavy face wrinkled itself in a mirthless smile. "You're nutty," he remarked. "When I find a man bearing down hard on all the little vices, it always makes me wonder what's the name of the corking big one he is trying to cover up."

Since there was obviously no peaceful reply to be made to this, Brouillard bent lower over his work and said nothing. At every fresh step in the forced acquaintance the new-comer was painstakingly developing new antagonisms. Sooner or later, Brouillard knew, it would come to an open rupture, but he was hoping that the actual hostilities could be postponed until after Hosford had worn out his temporary welcome as a guest in the engineers' mess.

For a time the big man in the easy-chair smoked on in silence. Then he began again:

"Say, Brouillard, I saw one little girl to-day that didn't belong to your workmen's-family outfit, and she's a peach; came riding down the trail with her brother from that mine up on the south mountain – Massingale's, isn't it? By Jove! she fairly made my mouth water!"

Inasmuch as no man can read field-notes when the page has suddenly become a red blur, Brouillard looked up.

"You are my guest, in a way, Mr. Hosford; for that reason I can't very well tell you what I think of you." So much he was able to say quietly. Then the control mechanism burned out in a flash of fiery rage and he cursed the guest fluently and comprehensively, winding up with a crude and savage threat of dissection and dismemberment if he should ever venture so much as to name Miss Massingale again in the threatener's hearing.

Hosford sat up slowly, and his big face turned darkly red.

"Well, I'll be damned!" he broke out. "So you're that kind of a fire-eater, are you? Lord, Lord! I didn't suppose anything like that ever happened outside of the ten-cent shockers. Wake up, man; this is the twentieth century we're living in. Don't look at me that way!"

But the wave of insane wrath was already subsiding, and Brouillard, half ashamed of the momentary lapse into savagery, was once more scowling down at the pages of his note-book. Further along, when the succeeding silence had been undisturbed for five full minutes, he began to realize that the hot Brouillard temper, which he had heretofore been able to keep within prudent bounds, had latterly been growing more and more rebellious. He could no longer be sure of what he would say or do under sudden provocation. True, he argued, the provocation in the present instance had been sufficiently maddening; but there had been other upflashings of the murderous inner fire with less to excuse them.

Hosford finished his cigar, and when he tossed the butt out through the opened window, Brouillard hoped he was going.

But the promoter-manager made no move other than to take a fresh cigar from his pocket case and light it. Brouillard worked on silently, ignoring the big figure in the easy-chair by the window, and striving to regain his lost equilibrium. To have shown Hosford the weakness of the control barriers was bad enough, but to have pointed out the exact spot at which they were most easily assailable was worse. He thought it would be singular if Hosford should not remember how and where to strike when the real conflict should begin, and he was properly humiliated by the reflection that he had rashly given the enemy an advantage.

He was calling Hosford "the enemy" now and making no ameliorating reservations. That the plans of the boomers would speedily breed chaos, and bring the blight of disorder and lawlessness upon the Niquoia project and everything connected with it, he made no manner of doubt. How was he to hold a camp of several hundred men in decent subjection if the temptations and allurements of a boomers' city were to be brought in and set down within arm's reach of the work on the dam? It seemed blankly incredible that the department heads in Washington should sanction such an invasion if they knew the full meaning of it.

The "if" gave him an idea. What if the boomers were taking an unauthorized ell for their authorized inch? He had taken a telegraph pad from the desk stationery rack and was composing his message of inquiry when the door opened and Quinlan, the operator, came in with a communication fresh from the Washington wire. The message was an indirect reply to Hosford's telegraphed appeal to the higher powers. Brouillard read it, stuck it upon the file, and took a roll of blue-prints from the bottom drawer of his desk.

"Here are the drawings for your power installation, Mr. Hosford," he said, handing the roll to the man in the chair. And a little later he went out to smoke a pipe in the open air, leaving the message of inquiry unwritten.

V
Symptomatic

For some few minutes after the gray-bearded, absent-eyed old man who had been working at the mine forge had disappeared in the depths of the tunnel upon finishing his job of drill pointing, the two on the cabin porch made no attempt to resume the talk which had been broken by the blacksmithing. But when the rumbling thunder of the ore-car which the elder Massingale was pushing ahead of him into the mine had died away in the subterranean distances Brouillard began again.

"I do get your point of view – sometimes," he said. "Or perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say that I have had it now and then in times past. Civilization, or what stands for it, does have a way of shrinking into littleness, not to say cheapness, when one can get the proper perspective. And your life up here on Chigringo has given you the needful detached point of view."

The trouble shadows in the eyes of the young woman who was sitting in the fish-net hammock gave place to a smile of gentle derision.

"Do you call that civilization?" she demanded, indicating the straggling new town spreading itself, map-like, in the valley below.

"I suppose it is – one form of it. At least it is civilization in the making. Everything has to have some sort of a beginning."

Miss Massingale acquiesced in a little uptilt of her perfectly rounded chin.

"Just the same, you don't pretend to say that you are enjoying it," she said in manifest deprecation.

"Oh, I don't know. My work is down there, and a camp is a necessary factor in it. You'd say that the more civilized the surroundings become, the less need there would be for me to sit up nights to keep the lid on. That would be the reasonable conclusion, wouldn't it?"

"If you were really trying to make the fact fit the theory – which you are not – it would be a sheer, self-centred eye-shutting to all the greater things that may be involved," she continued. "Don't you ever get beyond that?"

"I did at first. When I learned a few weeks ago that the boomers had taken hold of us in earnest and that we were due to acquire a real town with all the trimmings, I was righteously hot. Apart from the added trouble a wide-open town would be likely to give us in maintaining order in the camp, it seemed so crudely unnecessary to start a pigeon-plucking match at this distance from Wall Street."

"But now," she queried – "now, I suppose, you have become reconciled?"

"I am growing more philosophical, let us say. There are just about so many pigeons to be plucked, anyway; they'd moult if they weren't plucked. And it may as well be done here as on the Stock Exchange, when you come to think of it."

"I like you least when you talk that way," said the young woman in the hammock, with open-eyed frankness. "Do you do it as other men do? – just to hear how it sounds?"

Brouillard, sitting on the top step of the porch, leaned his head against the porch post and laughed.

"You know too much – a lot too much for a person of your tender years," he asserted. "Which names one more of the charming collection of contradictions which your father or mother or somebody had the temerity to label 'Amy,' sweetest and most seraphic of diminutives."

"If you don't like my name – " she began, and then she went off at another tangent. "Please tell me why I am a 'collection of contradictions.' Tig never says anything like that to me."

"'Tig,'" said Brouillard, "'Tig' Smith. Speaking of names, I've often wondered how on earth our breezy friend of the Tri'-Circ' ever got such a handle as that."

"It's his own name – or a part of it. His father was a country preacher back in Tennessee, and I imagine he had the Smith feeling that the surname wasn't very distinctive. So he named the poor boy Tiglath-Pileser. Just the same, it is not to laugh," she went on in friendly loyalty. "Tig can't help his name, and, anyway, he's the vastest possible improvement on those old Assyrian gentlemen who were the first to wear it."

Brouillard's gaze went past the shapely little figure in the string hammock to lose itself in the far Timanyoni distances.

"You are a bundle of surprises," he said, letting the musing thought slip into speech. "What can you possibly know about the Assyrians?"

She made a funny little grimace at him. "It was 'contradictions' a moment ago and now it is 'surprises.' Which reminds me, you haven't told me why I am a 'collection.'"

"I think you know well enough," he retorted. "The first time I saw you – down at the Nick-wire ford with Tig, you remember – I tried to recall which Madonna it is that has your mouth and eyes."

"Well, did you succeed in placing the lady?"

"No. Somehow, I haven't cared to since I've come to know you. You're different – always different, and then – oh, well, comparisons are such hopelessly inadequate things, anyway," he finished lamely.

"You are not getting on very well with the 'contradictions,'" she demurred.

"Oh, I can catalogue them if you push me to it. One minute you are the Madonna lady that I can't recall, calm, reposeful, truthful, and all that, you know – so truthful that those childlike eyes of yours would make a stuttering imbecile of the man who should come to you with a lie in his mouth."

"And the next minute?" she prompted.

"The next minute you are a witch, laughing at the man's little weaknesses, putting your finger on them as accurately as if you could read his soul, holding them up to your ridicule and – what's much worse – to his own. At such times your insight, or whatever you choose to call it, is enough to give a man a fit of 'seeing things.'"

Her laugh was like a school-girl's, light-hearted, ringing, deliciously unrestrained.

"What a picture!" she commented. And then: "I can draw a better one of you, Monsieur Victor de Brouillard."

"Do it," he dared.

"It'll hurt your vanity."

"I haven't any."

"Oh, but you have! Don't you know that it is only the very vainest people who say that?"

"Never mind; go on and draw your picture."

"Even if it should give you another attack of the 'seeing things'?"

"Yes; I'll chance even that."

"Very well, then: once upon a time – it was a good while ago, I'm afraid – you were a very upright young man, and your uprightness made you just a little bit austere – for yourself, if not for others. At that time you were busy whittling out heroic little ideals and making idols of them; and I am quite sure you were spelling duty with a capital 'D' and that you would have been properly horrified if a sister of yours had permitted an unchaperoned acquaintance like – well, like ours."

"Go on," he said, neither affirming nor denying.

"Also, at that time you thought that a man's work in the world was the biggest thing that ever existed, the largest possible order that could be given, and the work and everything about it had to be transparently honest and openly aboveboard. You would cheerfully have died for a principle in those days, and you would have allowed the enemy to cut you up into cunning little inch cubes before you would have admitted that any pigeon was ever made to be plucked."

He was smiling mirthlessly, with the black mustaches taking the sardonic upcurve.

"Then what happened?"

"One of two things, or maybe both of them. You were pushed out into the life race with some sort of a handicap. I don't know what it was – or is. Is that true?"

"Yes."

"Then I'll hazard the other guess. You discovered that there were women in the world and that there was something in you, or about you, that was sufficiently attractive to make them sit up and be nice to you. For some reason – perhaps it was the handicap – you thought you'd be safer in the unwomaned wilderness and so you came out here to the 'wild and woolly.' But even here you're not safe. There is a passable trail over War Arrow Pass and at a pinch an automobile can cross the Buckskin."

When she stopped he nodded gravely. "It is all true enough. You haven't added anything more than a graceful little touch here and there. Who has been telling you all these things about me?"

She clapped her hands in delighted self-applause.

"You don't deny them?"

"I wouldn't be so impolite."

In the turning of a leaf her mood changed and the wide-open, fearless eyes were challenging him soberly.

"You can't deny them."

He tried to break away from the level-eyed, accusing gaze – tried and found it impossible.

"I asked you who has been gossiping about me; not Grizzy?"

"No, not Murray Grislow; it was the man you think you know best in all the world – who is also the one you probably know the least – yourself."

"Good Heavens! am I really such a transparent egoist as all that?"

"All men are egoists," she answered calmly. "In some the ego is sound and clear-eyed and strong; in others it is weak – in the same way that passion is weak; it will sacrifice all it has or hopes to have in some sudden fury of self-assertion."

She sat up and put her hands to her hair, and he was free to look away, down upon the great ditch where the endless chain of concrete buckets linked itself to the overhead carrier like a string of mechanical insects, each with its pinch of material to add to the deep and wide-spread foundations of the dam. Across the river a group of hidden sawmills sent their raucous song like the high-pitched shrilling of distant locusts to tremble upon the still air of the afternoon. In the middle distance the camp-town city, growing now by leaps and bounds, spread its roughly indicated streets over the valley level, the yellow shingled roofs of the new structures figuring as patches of vivid paint under the slanting rays of the sun. Far away to the right the dark-green liftings of the Quadjen?? Hills cut across from mountain to river; at the foot of the ridge the tall chimney-stacks of the new cement plant were rising, and from the quarries beyond the plant the dull thunder of the blasts drifted up to the Chigringo heights like a sign from the mysterious underworld of Navajo legend.

This was not Brouillard's first visit to the cabin on the Massingale claim by many. In the earliest stages of the valley activities Smith, the Buckskin cattleman, had been Amy Massingale's escort to the reclamation camp – "just a couple o' lookers," in Smith's phrase – and the unconventional altitudes had done the rest. From that day forward the young woman had hospitably opened her door to Brouillard and his assistants, and any member of the corps, from Leshington the morose, who commonly came to sit in solemn silence on the porch step, to Griffith, who had lost his youthful heart to Miss Massingale on his first visit, was welcome.

Of the five original members of the staff and the three later additions to it, in the persons of the paymaster, the cost-keeper, and young Altwein, who had come in as Grislow's field assistant, Brouillard was the one who climbed oftenest up the mountain-side trail from the camp – a trail which was becoming by this time quite well defined. He knew he went oftener than any of the others, and yet he felt that he knew Amy Massingale less intimately and was far and away more hopelessly entangled than – well, than Grislow, for example, whose visits to the mine cabin came next in the scale of frequency and whose ready wit and gentle cynicism were his passports in any company.

For himself, Brouillard had not been pointedly analytical as yet. From the moment when Amy and Smith had reined up at the door of his office shack and he had welcomed them both, it had seemed the most natural thing in the world to fall under the spell of enchantment. He knew next to nothing of the young woman's life story; he had not cared to know. It had not occurred to him to wonder how the daughter of a man who drilled and shot the holes in his own mine should have the gifts and belongings – when she chose to display them – of a woman of a much wider world. It was enough for him that she was piquantly attractive in any character and that he found her marvellously stimulating and uplifting. On the days when the devil of moroseness and irritability possessed and maddened him he could climb to the cabin on high Chigringo and find sanity. It was a keen joy to be with her, and up to the present this had sufficed.

"Egoism is merely another name for the expression of a vital need," he said, after the divagating pause, defining the word more for his own satisfaction than in self-defense.

"You may put it in that way if you please," she returned gravely. "What is your need?"

He stated it concisely. "Money – a lot of it."

"How singular!" she laughed. "I need money, too – a lot of it."

"You?"

"Yes, I."

"What would you do with it? Buy corner lots in Niqoyastc?djeburg?"

"No, indeed; I'd buy a farm in the Blue-grass – two of them, maybe."

"What an ambition for a girl! Have you ever been in the Blue-grass country?"

She got out of the hammock and came to lean, with her hands behind her, against the opposite porch post. "That was meant to humiliate me, and I sha'n't forget it. You know well enough that I have never been east of the Mississippi."

"I didn't know it. You never tell me anything about yourself."

Again the mood shutter clicked and her smile was the calm mask of discerning wisdom.

"Persons with well-developed egos don't care to listen to folk-stories," she rejoined, evading the tentative invitation openly. "But tell me, what would you do with your pot of rainbow gold – if you should find it?"

Brouillard rose and straightened himself with his arms over his head like an athlete testing his muscles for the record-breaking event.

"What would I do? A number of things. But first of all, I think, I'd buy the privilege of telling some woman that I love her."

This time her laugh was frankly disparaging. "As if you could!" she said, with a lip curl that set his blood afire – "as if any woman worth while would care two pins for your wretched pot of gold!"

"Oh, I didn't mean it quite that way," he hastened to explain. "I said: 'Buy the privilege.' If you knew the conditions you would understand me when I say that the money must come first."

She was silent for so long a time that he looked at his watch and thought of going. But at the deciding instant she held him with a low-spoken question.

"Does it date back to the handicap? You needn't tell me if you don't want to."

"It does. And there is no reason why I shouldn't tell you the simple fact. When my father died he left me a debt – a debt of honor; and it must be paid. Until it is paid – but I am sure you understand."

"Quite fully," she responded quickly, and now there was no trace of levity in the sweetly serious tone. "Is it much? – so much that you can't – "

He nodded and sat down again on the porch step. "Yes, it is big enough to go in a class by itself – in round numbers, a hundred thousand dollars."

"Horrors!" she gasped. "And you are carrying that millstone? Must you carry it?"

"If you knew the circumstances you would be the first to say that I must carry it, and go on carrying it to the end of the chapter."

"But – but you'll never be free!"

"Not on a government salary," he admitted. "As a matter of fact, it takes more than half of the salary to pay the premiums on – pshaw! I'm boring you shamelessly for the sake of proving up on my definition of the eternal ego. You ought not to have encouraged me. It's quite hopeless – the handicap business – unless some good angel should come along with a miracle or two. Let's drop it."

She was looking beyond him and her voice was quick with womanly sympathy when she said: "If you could drop it – but you can't. And it changes everything for you, distorts everything, colors your entire life. It's heart-breaking!"

This was dangerous ground for him and he knew it. Sympathy applied to a rankling wound may figure either as the healing oil or the maddening wine. It was the one thing he had hitherto avoided, resolutely, half-fearfully, as a good general going into battle marches around a kennel of sleeping dogs. But now the under-depths were stirring to a new awakening. In the ardor of young manhood he had taken up the vicarious burden dutifully, and at that time his renunciation of the things that other men strove for seemed the lightest of the many fetterings. But now love for a woman was threatening to make the renunciation too grievous to be borne.



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