The City of Numbered Days
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Not yet had the time arrived for selling before sunset that which had been bought since sunrise. On the contrary, a strange mania for holding on, for permanency, seemed to have become epidemic. Many of the working-men were securing homes on the instalment plan. A good few of the villas could boast parquetry floors and tiled bath-rooms. One coterie of Chicagoans refused an advance of fifty per cent on a quarter square of business earth and the next day decided to build a six-storied office-building, with a ground-floor corner for the Niquoia National Bank, commodious suites for the city offices of the power company, the cement company, the lumber syndicate, and the water company, and an entire floor to be set apart for the government engineers and accountants. And it was quite in harmony with the spirit of the moment that the building should be planned with modern conveniences and that the chosen building material should be nothing less permanent than monolithic concrete.
In harmony with the same spirit was the enterprise which cut great gashes across the shoulder of Jack's Mountain in the search for precious metal. Here the newly incorporated Buckskin Gold Mining and Milling Company had discarded the old and slow method of prospecting with pick and shovel, and power-driven machines ploughed deep furrows to bed-rock across and back until the face of the mountain was zigzagged and scarred like a veteran of many battles.
In keeping, again, was the energy with which Mr. Cortwright and his municipal colleagues laid water-mains, strung electric wires, drove the paving contractors, and pushed the trolley-line to the stage at which it lacked only the rails and the cars awaiting shipment by the railroad. Under other conditions it is conceivable that an impatient committee of construction would have had the rails freighted in across the desert, would have had the cars taken to pieces and shipped by mule-train express from Quesado. But with the railroad grade already in sight on the bare shoulders of the Hophra Hills and the thunder-blasts playing the presto march of promise the committee could afford to wait.
This was the situation on the day when Garner, sharp-eared listener at the keyhole of Opportunity, missing the dynamite rumblings, sent a cipher wire of inquiry to the East, got a "rush" reply, and began warily to unload his Mirapolitan holdings. Being a man of business, he ducked to cover first and talked afterward; but by the time his hint had grown to rumor size Mr. Cortwright had sent for Brouillard.
"Pull up a chair and have a cigar," said the great man when Brouillard had penetrated to the nerve-centre of the Mirapolitan activities in the Metropole suite and the two stenographers had been curtly dismissed. "Have you heard the talk of the street? There is a rumor that the railroad grading has been stopped."
Brouillard, busy with the work of setting the third series of forms on his great wall, had heard nothing.
"I've noticed that they haven't been blasting for two or three days.But that may mean nothing more than a delayed shipment of dynamite," was his rejoinder.
"It looks bad – devilish bad." The promoter was planted heavily in his pivot-chair, and the sandy-gray eyes dwindled to pin-points. "Three days ago the blasting stopped, and Garner – you know him, the little Kansas City shark across the street – got busy with the wire. The next thing we knew he was unloading, quietly and without making any fuss about it, but at prices that would have set us afire if he'd had enough stuff in his pack to amount to anything."
Brouillard tried to remember that he was the Reclamation Service construction chief, that the pricking of the Mirapolitan bubble early or late concerned him not at all, – tried it and failed.
"I am afraid you are right," he said thoughtfully. "We've had a good many applications from men hunting work in the past two days, more than would be accounted for by the usual drift from the railroad camps."
"You saw President Ford after I did; what did he say when he was over here?"
"He said very little to me," replied Brouillard guardedly. "From that little I gathered that the members of his executive committee were not unanimously in favor of building the Extension."
"Well, we are up against it, that's all. Read that," and the promoter handed a telegram across the desk.
The wire was from Chicago, was signed "Ackerman," and was still damp from the receiving operator's copying-press. It read:
"Work on P. S-W.'s Buckskin Extension has been suspended for the present. Reason assigned, shrinkage in securities and uncertainty of business outlook in Niquoia."
Brouillard's first emotion was that of the engineer and the economist. "What a bunch of blanked fools!" he broke out. "They've spent a clean million as it stands, and they are figuring to leave it tied up and idle!"
Mr. Cortwright's frown figured as a fleshly mask of irritability.
"I'm not losing any sleep over the P. S-W. treasury. It's our own basket of eggs here that I'm worrying about. Let it once get out that the railroad people don't believe in the future of Mirapolis and we're done."
Brouillard's retort was the expression of an upflash of sanity.
"Mirapolis has no future; it has only an exceedingly precarious present."
For a moment the sandy-gray eyes became inscrutable. Then the mask of irritation slid aside, revealing the face which Mr. J. Wesley Cortwright ordinarily presented to his world – the face of imperturbable good nature.
"You're right, Brouillard; Mirapolis is only a good joke, after all. Sometimes I get bamfoozled into the idea that it isn't – that it's the real thing. That's bad for the nerves. But about this railroad fizzle; I don't relish the notion of having our little joke sprung on us before we're ready to laugh, do you? What do you think?"
Brouillard shook himself as one who casts a burden.
"It is not my turn to think, Mr. Cortwright."
"Oh, yes, it is; very pointedly. You're one of us, to a certain extent; and if you were not you would still be interested. A smash just now would hamper the Reclamation Service like the mischief; the entire works shut down; no cement, no lumber, no power; everything tied up in the courts until the last creditor quits taking appeals. Oh, no, Brouillard; you don't want to see the end of the world come before it's due."
It was the consulting engineer of the power company rather than the Reclamation Service chief who rose and went to the window to look down upon the morning briskness of Chigringo Avenue. And it was the man who saw one hundred thousand dollars, the price of freedom, slipping away from him who turned after a minute or two of the absent street gazing and said: "What do you want me to do, Mr. Cortwright? I did put my shoulder to the wheel when Ford was here. I told him if I were in his place I'd take the long chance and build the Extension."
"Did you? – and before you had a stake in the game? That was a white man's boost, right! Have another cigar. They're 'Poodles's Pride,' and they're not half bad when you get used to the near-Havana filler. Think you could manage to get Ford on the wire and encourage him a little more?"
"It isn't Ford; it is the New York bankers. You can read that between the lines in your man Ackerman's telegram."
The stocky gentleman in the pivot-chair thrust out his jaw and tilted his freshly lighted cigar to the aggressive angle.
"Say, Brouillard, we've got to throw a fresh piece of bait into the cage, something that will make the railroad crowd sit up and take notice. By George, if those gold hunters up on Jack's Mountain would only stumble across something big enough to advertise – "
Brouillard started as if the wishful musing had been a blow. Like a hot wave from a furnace mouth it swept over him – the sudden realization that the means, the one all-powerful, earth-moving lever the promoter was so anxiously seeking, lay in his hands.
"The Buckskin people, yes," he said, making talk as the rifleman digs a pit to hold his own on the firing-line. "If they should happen to uncover a gold reef just now it would simplify matters immensely for Mirapolis, wouldn't it? The railroad would come on, then, without a shadow of doubt. All the bankers in New York couldn't hold it back."
Now came Mr. Cortwright's turn to get up and walk the floor, and he took it, tramping solidly back and forth in the clear space behind the table-topped desk. It was not until he had extended the meditative stump-and-go to one of the windows that he stopped short and came out of the inventive trance with a jerk.
"Come here," he called curtly, with a quick finger crook for the engineer, and when Brouillard joined him: "Can you size up that little caucus over yonder?"
The "caucus" was a knot of excited men blocking the sidewalk in front of Garner's real-estate office on the opposite side of the street. The purpose of the excited ones was not difficult to divine. They were all trying to crowd into the Kansas City man's place of business at once.
"It looks like a run on a bank," said Brouillard.
"It is," was the crisp reply. "Garner has beaten everybody else to the home plate, but he couldn't keep his mouth shut. He's been talking, and every man in that mob is a potential panic breeder. That thing has got to be nipped in the bud, right now!"
"Yes," Brouillard agreed. He was still wrestling with his own besetment – the prompting which involved a deliberate plunge where up to the present crisis he had been merely wading in the shallows. A little thing stung him alive to the imperative call of the moment – the sight of Amy Massingale walking down the street with Tig Smith, the Triangle-Circle foreman. It was of the death of her hopes that he was thinking when he said coolly: "You have sized it up precisely, Mr. Cortwright; that is a panic in the making, and the bubble won't stand for very much pricking. Give me a free hand with your check-book for a few minutes and I'll try to stop it."
It spoke volumes for the millionaire promoter's quick discernment and decision that he asked no questions. "Do it," he snapped. "I'll cover you for whatever it takes. Don't wait; that crowd is getting bigger every minute."
Brouillard ran down-stairs and across the street. It was no part of his intention to stop and speak to Amy Massingale and the ranchman, but he did it, and even walked a little way with them before he turned back to elbow his way through the sidewalk throng and into Garner's dingy little office.
"You are selling Mirapolis holdings short to-day, Garner?" he asked when he had pushed through the crowd to the speculator's desk. And when Garner laughed and said there were no takers he placed his order promptly. "You may bid in for me, at yesterday's prices, anything within the city limits – not options, you understand, but the real thing. Bring your papers over to my office after banking hours and we'll close for whatever you've been able to pick up."
He said it quietly, but there could be no privacy at such a time and in such a place.
"What's that, Mr. Brouillard?" demanded one in the counter jam. "You're giving Garner a blank card to buy for your account? Say, that's plenty good enough for me. Garner, cancel my order to sell, will you? When the chief engineer of the government water-works believes in Mirapolis futures and bets his money on 'em, I'm not selling."
The excitement was already dying down and the crowd was melting away from Garner's sidewalk when Brouillard rejoined Mr. Cortwright in the second-floor room across the street.
"Well, it's done," he announced shortly, adding: "It's only a stop-gap. To make the bluff good, you've got to have the railroad."
"That's the talk," said the promoter, relighting the cigar which the few minutes of crucial suspense had extinguished. And then, without warning: "You're carrying something up your sleeve, Brouillard. What is it?"
"It is the one thing you need, Mr. Cortwright. If I could get my own consent to use it I could bring the railroad here in spite of those New Yorkers who seem to have an attack of cold feet."
Mr. J. Wesley Cortwright's hesitation was so brief as to be almost imperceptible. "I suppose that is your way of saying that your share in the table stakes isn't big enough. All right; the game can't stop in the middle of a bet. How much is it going to cost us to stay in?"
"The cost isn't precisely in the kind of figures that you understand best, Mr. Cortwright. And as to my share in the profits … well, we needn't mince matters; you may remember that you were at some considerable pains to ascertain my price before you made the original bid – and the bid was accepted. You've just been given a proof that I'm trying to earn my money. No other man in Mirapolis could have served your turn over there at Garner's as I did a few minutes ago. You know that."
"Good Lord, man, I'm not kicking! But we are all in the same boat. If the railroad work doesn't start up again within the next few days we are all due to go to pot. If you've got the odd ace up your sleeve and don't play it, you stand to lose out with the rest of us."
The door was open into the anteroom where the stenographers' desks were, and Brouillard was staring gloomily into the farther vacancies.
"I wonder if you know how little I care?" he said half musingly. Then, with sudden vehemence: "It is altogether a question of motive with me, Mr. Cortwright; of a motive which you couldn't understand in a thousand years. If that motive prevails, you get your railroad and a little longer lease of life. If it doesn't, Mirapolis will go to the devil some few weeks or months ahead of its schedule – and I'll take my punishment with the remainder of the fools – and the knaves."
He was on his feet and moving toward the door of exit when the promoter got his breath.
"Here, hold on, Brouillard – for Heaven's sake, don't go off and leave it up in the air that way!" he protested.
But the corridor door had opened and closed and Brouillard was gone.
Two hours later Mirapolis the frenetic had a new thrill, a shock so electrifying that the rumor of the railroad's halting decision sank into insignificance and was forgotten. The suddenly evoked excitement focussed in a crowd besieging the window of the principal jewelry shop – focussed more definitely upon a square of white paper in the window in the centre of which was displayed a little heap of virgin gold in small nuggets and coarse grains.
While the crowds in the street were still struggling and fighting to get near enough to read the labelling placard, the Daily Spot-Light came out with an extra which was all head-lines, the telegraph-wires to the East were buzzing, and the town had gone mad. The gold specimen – so said the placard and the news extra – had been washed from one of the bars in the Niquoia.
By three o'clock the madness had culminated in the complete stoppage of all work among the town builders and on the great dam as well, and gold-crazed mobs were frantically digging and panning on every bar in the river from the valley outlet to the power dam five miles away.