The City of Numbered Days
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"How did you know?" he queried curiously. "It does change things; it has changed them fiercely in the past few weeks. We smile at the old fable of a man selling his soul for a ready-money consideration, but there are times when I'd sell anything I've got, save one, for a chance at the freedom that other men have – and don't value."
"What is the one thing you wouldn't sell?" she questioned, and Brouillard chose to discover a gently quickened interest in the clear-seeing eyes.
"My love for the – for some woman. I'm saving that, you know. It is the only capital I'll have when the big debt is paid."
"Do you want me to be frivolous or serious?" she asked, looking down at him with the grimacing little smile that always reminded him of a caress. "A little while ago you said 'some woman,' and now you say it again, making it cautiously impersonal. That is nice of you – not to particularize; but I have been wondering whether she is or isn't worth the effort – and the reservation you make. Because it is all in that, you know. You can do and be what you want to do and be if you only want to hard enough."
He looked up quickly.
"Do you really believe that? What about a man's natural limitations?"
"Poof!" she said, blowing the word away as if it were a bit of thistle-down. "It is only the woman's limitations that count, not the man's. The only question is this: Is the one only and incomparable she worth the effort? Would you give a hundred thousand dollars for the privilege of being able to say to her: 'Come, dear, let's go and get married'?"
He was looking down, chiefly because he dared not look up, when he answered soberly: "She is worth it many times over; her price is above rubies. Money, much or little, wouldn't be in it."
"That is better – much better. Now we may go on to the ways and means; they are all in the man, not in the things, 'not none whatsoever,' as Tig would say. Let me show you what I mean. Three times within my recollection my father has been worth considerably more than you owe, and three time she has – well, it's gone. And now he is going to make good again when the railroad comes."
Brouillard got up, thrust his hands into the pockets of his working-coat, and faced about as if he had suddenly remembered that he was wasting the government's time.
"I must be going back down the hill," he said. And then, without warning: "What if I should tell you that the railroad is not coming to the Niquoia, Amy?"
To his utter amazement the blue eyes filled suddenly. But the owner of the eyes was winking the tears away and laughing before he could put the amazement into words.
"You shouldn't hit out like that when one isn't looking; it's wicked," she protested. "Besides, the railroad is coming; it's got to come."
"It is still undecided," he told her mechanically. "Mr. Ford is coming over with the engineers to have a conference on the ground with – with the Cortwright people.I am expecting him any day."
"The Cortwright people want the road, don't they?" she asked.
"Yes, indeed; they are turning heaven and earth over to get it."
"And the government?"
"The department is holding entirely aloof, as it should. Every one in the Reclamation Service knows that no good can possibly come of any effort to force the region ahead of its normal and natural development. And, besides, none of us here in the valley want to help blow the Cortwright bubble any bigger than it has to be."
"Then you will advise against the building of the Extension?"
Instead of answering her question he asked one of his own.
"What does it mean to you – to you, personally, and apart from the money your father might make out of it, Amy?"
She hesitated a moment and then met the shrewd scrutiny of his gaze with open candor.
"The money is only a means to an end – as yours will be. You know very well what I meant when I told you that three times we have been obliged to come back to the mountains to – to try again. I dreaded the coming of your camp; I dread a thousand times more the other changes that are coming – the temptations that a mushroom city will offer. This time father has promised me that when he can make his stake he will go back to Kentucky and settle down; and he will keep his promise. More than that, Stevie has promised me that he will go, too, if he can have a stock-farm and raise fine horses – his one healthy ambition. Now you know it all."
He reached up from the lower step where he was standing and took her hand.
"Yes; and I know more than that: I know that you are a mighty brave little girl and that your load is heavier than mine – worlds heavier. But you're going to win out; if not to-day or to-morrow, why, then, the day after. It's written in the book."
She returned his hand-grip of encouragement impulsively and smiled down upon him through quick-springing tears.
"You'll win out, too, Victor, because it's in you to do it. I'm sure of it – I know it. There is only one thing that scares me."
"Name it," he said. "I'm taking everything that comes to-day – from you."
"You are a strong man; you have a reserve of strength that is greater than most men's full gift; you can cut and slash your way to the thing you really want, and nothing can stop you. But – you'll forgive me for being plain, won't you? – there is a little, just the least little, bit of desperation in the present point of view, and – "
"Say it," he commanded when she hesitated.
"I hardly know how to say it. It's just a little shudder – inside, you know – as you might have when you see a railroad train rushing down the mountain and think what would happen if one single, inconsequent wheel should climb the rail. There were ideals in the beginning; you admitted it, didn't you? And they are not as distinct now as they used to be. You didn't say that, but I know… Stand them up again, Victor; don't let them fall down in the dust or in the – in the mud. It's got to be clean money, you know; the money that is going to give you the chance to say: 'Come, girl, let's go and get married.' You won't forget that, will you?"
He relinquished the hand of encouragement because he dared not hold it any longer, and turned away to stare absently at the timbered tunnel mouth whence a faint clinking of hammer upon steel issued with monotonous regularity.
"I wish you hadn't said that, Amy – about the ideals."
"Why shouldn't I say it? I had to say it."
"I can't afford to play with too many fine distinctions. I have accepted the one great handicap. I may owe it to myself – and to some others – not to take on any more."
"I don't know what you mean now," she said simply.
"Perhaps it is just as well that you don't. Let's talk about something else; about the railroad. I told you that President Ford is coming over to have a wrestle with the Cortwright people, but I didn't tell you that he has already had his talk with Mr. Cortwright in person – in Chicago. He hasn't decided; he won't decide until he has looked the ground over and had a chance to confer with me."
She bridged all the gaps with swift intuition. "He means to give you the casting vote? He will build the Extension if you advise it?"
"It is something like that, I fancy; yes."
"And you think – you feel – "
"It is a matter of absolute indifference to me, officially. But in any event, Ford would ask for nothing more than a friendly opinion."
"Then it will lie in your hand to make us rich or to keep us poor," she laughed. "Be a good god-in-the-car, please, and your petitioners will ever pray." Then, with an instant return to seriousness: "But you mustn't think of that – of course, you won't – with so many other and greater things to consider."
"On the contrary, I shall think very pointedly of that; pointedly and regretfully – because your brother has made it practically impossible for me to help."
"My brother?" with a little gasp.
"Yes. He offered to buy my vote with a block of 'Little Susan' stock. That wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't talked about it – told other people what he was going to do. But he did that, as well."
He felt rather than saw that she had turned quickly to face the porch post, that she was hiding her face in the crooking of an arm. It melted him at once.
"Don't cry; I was a brute to say such a thing as that to you," he began, but she stopped him.
"No," she denied bravely. "The truth may hurt – it does hurt awfully; but it can't be brutal. And you are right. Stevie has made it impossible."
An awkward little silence supervened and once more Brouillard dragged his watch from its pocket.
"I'm like the awkward country boy," he said with quizzical humor. "I really must go and I don't know how to break away." Then he went back to the closed topic. "I guess the other thing was brutal, too – what I said about your brother's having made it impossible. Other things being equal – "
Again she stopped him.
"When Mr. Ford comes, you must forget what Stevie said and what I have said. Good-by."
An hour later, when the afternoon shadow of Jack's Mountain was lying all across the shut-in valley and pointing like the angle of a huge gnomon to the Quadjen?? Hills, Brouillard was closeted in his log-built office quarters with a big, fair-faced man, whose rough tweeds and unbrushed, soft hat proclaimed him fresh from the dust-dry reaches of the Quesado trail.
"It is your own opinion that I want, Victor," the fair-faced man was saying, "not the government engineer's. Can we make the road pay if we bring it here? That is a question which you can answer better than any other living man. You are here on the ground and you've been here from the first."
"You've had it out with Cortwright?" Brouillard asked. And then: "Where is he now? in Chicago?"
"No. He is on his way to the Niquoia, coming over in his car from El Gato. Says he made it that way once before and is willing to bet that it is easier than climbing War Arrow. But never mind J. Wesley. You are the man I came to see."
"I can give you the facts," was the quiet rejoinder. "While the Cortwright boom lasts there will be plenty of incoming business – and some outgoing. When the bubble bursts – as it will have to when the dam is completed, if it doesn't before – you'll quit until the Buckskin fills up with settlers who can give you crops to move. That is the situation in a nutshell, all but one little item. There is a mine up on Chigringo – Massingale's – with a good few thousand tons of pay ore on the dump. Where there is one mine there may be more, later on; and I don't suppose that even such crazy boomers as the Cortwright crowd will care to put in a gold reduction plant. So you would have the ore to haul to the Red Butte smelters."
A smile wrinkled at the corners of the big man's eyes.
"You are dodging the issue, Victor, and you know it," he objected. "What I want is your personal notion. If you were the executive committee of the Pacific Southwestern, would you, or would you not, build the Extension? That's the point I'm trying to make."
Brouillard got up and went to the window. The gnomon shadow of Jack's Mountain had spread over the entire valley, and its southern limb had crept up Chigringo until its sharply defined line was resting upon the Massingale cabin. When he turned back to the man at the desk he was frowning thoughtfully, and his eyes were the eyes of one who sees only the clearly etched lines of a picture which obscures all outward and visual objects … the picture he saw was of a sweet-faced young woman, laughing through her tears and saying: "Besides, the railroad is coming; it's got to come."
"If you put it that way," he said to the man who was waiting, "if you insist on pulling my private opinion out by the roots, you may have it. I'd build the Extension."