"It is, precisely," agreed the general counsel, rising and finding his hat. "And because it does strike me that way, I think I'll go down and do a little telegraphing to-night."
"Hold on a minute," said Ford, "and I'll give you a message to take down, if you don't mind. I must answer Adair, and it won't do any harm to prod him a little—on the secrecy side."
Kenneth waited, with his hand on the door-knob, as it chanced. Hence the opening of the door a minute or two later was quite without any preliminary stir of warning in the room of conference. That was possibly the reason why the lawyer almost fell over a man crouching in the corridor.
"Hello, there!" said Kenneth; "I beg your pardon."
The man got upon his feet, exhibiting all the signs of intoxication.
"Beg yoursh, I'm sure," he mumbled, and was lurching crookedly away when the lawyer suddenly came to his senses and grabbed at him. The clutching hand fell short, and there was an agile foot-race down the corridor, fruitless for Kenneth, since the fugitive suddenly developed sobriety enough to run like a deer. Beaten in the foot-race, Kenneth went back for a word with Ford.
"The battle is on," was the form the word took. "There was a man here, listening at the key-hole, when I opened the door. How much he overheard we'll be likely to find out to-morrow when we begin to pull the strings. Thought I'd give you the pointer. Good night, again."
THE AUTOMATIC AIR
Set out in cold type, Ford's itinerary for the four days following his conference with Kenneth would read like the abbreviated diary of a man dodging the sheriff. His "ticker" memorandum for that period is still in existence, but the notes are the hurried strokes of the pen of haste, intelligible, we may say, only to the man who made them. To quote:
"Thursday, nine a.m., Peoria—see Sedgwick; ten—make trackage contract with T.P. & W.; eleven a.m., Davenport—inventory motive power—see chief despatcher—get profiles and maps—get copies of yard contracts—get crossing rights—get total tonnage of grain cars. Three p.m., Hannibal—see Berdan and whip him into line—inspect shops—get contracts—get—"
But the string of "gets" fills the page, and is vital now to no living soul of man, least of all to us who are interested only in finding out if our young captain of industry actually did make good his boast of flogging the three short roads into some semblance of a through line in the brief interval at his disposal; and this without advertising to the railroad world at large who he represented and what he was doing.
He did it, and without a slip for which he could be held responsible. It was a wire from the chief office of the Transcontinental in New York, a telegram inspired by sundry leakages from Pacific Southwestern sources, that gave him a silent and observant follower in all of his dodgings. Of this, however, he was in blissful ignorance. Twice, indeed, he sat in the same Pullman section with his "shadow," quite without suspecting it; and once he was saved from disaster—also without suspecting it.
It was at a way station in Missouri, and the section-sharing traveling companion, who had paid only for an hour's ride in the Pullman, was leaving the train. His hand-bag chanced to be the exact counterpart of Ford's: what more natural than that he should make the mistake of taking the wrong one? Ford caught him in the vestibule, and there was a reexchange, accompanied by grateful acknowledgments and profuse apologies from the debarking one. Ford, immersed fathoms deep in his problems, thought nothing of it; but a moment lost would have been a cause lost, if he had guessed it. For the mistake was no mistake, and the hand-bag rescued contained documents for which the Transcontinental Company would have paid a month's salary of its board of vice-presidents, charging the amount, not to profit and loss, but rather to salvage.
It was on the fourth day of the campaign, while Ford was working his way on an inspection trip over the third link in the short-lines chain, that two telegrams overtook him.
One was from Adair, announcing the tardy, but now certain triumph of the expansionist faction in the board of P. S-W. directors, and begging pathetically for news of the option-getting. The other was signed "K," and Ford had a sharp attack of joy when he read it. The attorney had been successful at all points. The necessary stock majorities were secured and the certificates were safely on deposit in the Algonquin National Bank, in Chicago. What remained was only a matter of routine, provided the P. S-W. bidders would furnish the capital for the purchases.
Ford swamped the local operator at the next way station with a thick sheaf of "rush" telegrams, left the west-bound train at the first cross-road junction, and caught a night express on a fast line for Chicago. Kenneth was waiting for him at the hotel; and after breakfast there was another telegram from Adair. Matters were still progressing favorably, and President Colbrith, traveling in his private car, "Nadia," via the Lake Shore, would be in Chicago the following morning to take final action in the stock purchases.
Ford gave the message to Kenneth, and the attorney drummed softly on the table with his finger-tips when he read the announcement.
"We are in for it now," he said with a grimace of dismay. "If Mr. Colbrith doesn't manage to queer the whole deal, it will be because he has suffered a complete change of heart."
Ford answered the grimace with a scowl, and the masterful side of him came uppermost.
"What in the name of common sense were they thinking of to send him out here?" he gritted.
The general counsel laughed.
"You don't know Mr. Colbrith as well as I do, I fancy," he suggested. "He is rather hard to suppress. He'll be president until his successor is elected—or he'll know all the reasons why."
"Well, I hope you've got everything straight in the option business," said Ford. "If there is so much as a hair displaced, he will be sure to find it."
"It is all straight enough," was the confident rejoinder. "Only I had to bid five points over the market on odd lots of the stock. I'm not sure, but I think the Transcontinental people got wind of us during the last day or two and bid against us."
"But you have safe majorities?"
"Oh, yes; we are all in."
"Good," said Ford. "That puts it up to Mr. Colbrith, at all events. And now, while we have a clear day before us, I want to go over these C. P. & D. terminal contracts with you. Right here in Chicago is where the Transcontinental will try hardest to balk us. The C. P. & D. has trackage rights to the elevators; but I want to be sure that the contracts will hold water under a transfer of ownership."
Subjected to legal scrutiny, the contracts promised to be defensible, and Ford came through the day with his apprehensive burdens considerably lightened. After dinner he took his papers to Kenneth's room, and together they went carefully over all the legal points involved in the welding of the three local lines into the Pacific Southwestern system, Ford furnishing the data gathered by him during the four days.
Kenneth was shrewdly inquisitive, as his responsibilities constrained him to be, and it was deep in the small hours when Ford made his escape and went to bed. By consequence, he was scarcely more than half awake the next morning, when he dressed hurriedly and hastened over to the Van Buren Street station to see if the president's car had arrived.
The Nadia was in and side-tracked, with a sleepy porter on guard. Ford climbed to the platform and asked for the president.
"Yas, suh; dis is Mr. Colbrith's cyar; but he don't see no newspapuh men—no, suh. Besides, dey's just gettin' up," was the rebuff; but Ford ignored it.
"'They?' Then Mr. Colbrith isn't alone?"
"No, suh; got a pahty 'long with him—a young gentleman and two ladies; yes, suh. Mr. Colbrith nebber goes nowhah's 'dout he teks a pahty in de cyar."
"Heavens!" groaned Ford, under his breath; "as if the thing wasn't complicated enough without making a picnic of it!" Then aloud. "I wish to go in. My name is Ford, and Mr. Colbrith is expecting me."
"Sho' you isn't a newspapuh man?"
"Of course not," said Ford shortly.
"All right, suh," said the negro; and he made way and opened the door.
The Nadia was a commodious hotel on wheels, with a kitchen and buffet forward, four state-rooms opening upon a narrow side vestibule, and a large dining and lounging room looking out through full-length windows upon a deep, "umbrella-roofed" platform at the rear.
There was no one in the large compartment when Ford reached it; but a moment later a door opened and closed in the vestibule, and Adair made his appearance. Ford drew a breath of relief and shook hands with his backer.
"I'm glad it's you, Mr. Adair. I've been scenting all sorts of hindrances since the porter told me there was a party aboard."
The young man without an avocation dropped into the easiest of the wicker chairs and felt in his pockets for his cigarette case.
"Your prophetic soul didn't deceive you any," he laughed. "The hindrances are here in full force. It is one of Uncle Sidney's notions never to travel without a tail like a Highland chieftain's. I had a foreboding that he'd ask somebody, so I took it upon myself to fill up his passenger list with Aunt Hetty, my sister, and my uncle's nephew."
"I understand," said Ford, and would have plunged forthwith into the business pool; but Adair stopped him with a gesture of dismay.
"Not before breakfast, if you love me, my dear fellow!" he protested, with a little grimace that instantly set the reminiscent part of Ford's brain at work. "After I've had something to eat—"
The interruption was the noiseless entrance of a motherly little lady in gray, with kindly eyes and a touch of silver in the fair hair drawn smoothly back from her forehead.
"This is Mr. Stuart Ford, I am sure," she said, giving her hand to the young engineer before Adair could introduce him. "You look enough like your father to make me recognize you at once."
Ford was a little embarrassed by the gratefully informal greeting.
"Ought I to remember you, Mrs. Adair?" he asked ingenuously.
"Oh, no, indeed. I knew your father as a young man before he married and went to the farther West. The Fords and the Colbriths and the Stanbrooks are all from the same little town in central Illinois, you know."
"I didn't know it," said Ford, "though now I recall it, I used often to hear my father speak of Miss Hester Stanbrook." Then he was going on to say that trite thing about the smallness of the world when Adair broke in.
"I'd like to know what is keeping Uncle Sidney and Alicia. I haven't had breakfast yet."
As if his protest had evoked her, a young woman drew the portiere of the vestibule—a young woman with bright brown hair, eyes like dewy wood violets, and an adorable chin. Ford stared helplessly, and Adair laughed.
"Shocked, aren't you?" he jested. "But you needn't be alarmed. I have persuaded my sister not to prosecute in the case of the snatched purse. Alicia, this is Mr. Stuart Ford, and he desires me to say that he is not often reduced to the necessity of robbing unprotected young women for the sake of scraping an acquaintance."
Ford lost sight of the Pacific Southwestern exigencies for the moment, and surely the lapse was pardonable. If the truth must be told, this young woman, who had been discovered and lost in the same unforgetable evening, had stirred the neglected pool of sentiment in him to its profoundest depths, and thoughts of her had been dividing time pretty evenly with some parts of the strenuous business affair. Indeed, the hopelessness of any effort toward rediscovering her had been one of his reasons for hurrying away from New York. He knew himself—a little—and that quality of unreasoning persistence which other people called his strong point. The search he had been half-minded to make once begun—
"I hope you haven't forgotten me so soon, Mr. Ford," she was saying; and he recovered himself with a start.
"Forgotten you? No, indeed!"—this with almost lover-like emphasis. "I—I think I am just a trifle aghast at my good luck in finding you again. It seemed so utterly hopeless, you know. Don't you think—"
But now the president had stalked in, and his high querulous voice was marshaling the party breakfastward. Ford manoeuvered skilfully in the pairing off, and so succeeded in securing Miss Adair for a companion on the short walk across to the Grand Pacific.
"You were about to ask me something when Uncle Sidney interrupted you," she prompted, when they were clear of the throng in the station vestibule.
"Yes; I was going to ask if you don't think it was unnecessarily cruel to send me that note of thanks unsigned."
"Cruel?" she echoed, and her laugh was so exactly a replica of her brother's that Ford wondered why the reminiscent arrow had not gone at once to its mark. "How absurd! What possible difference could it make?"
"It made a lot of difference to me," said Ford, refusing to be brushed aside. "How did you expect I was ever going to be able to find you again, without even your name as a clue?"
She glanced up at him with unfeigned interest. The men of her world were not altogether unappreciative; neither were they so primitively straightforward as this young industry captain out of the West.
"It is not impossible that I never thought of your finding me again," she said, and only the tone saved it from being a small slap in the face.
Ford took the rebuff as a part of the day's work.
"Perhaps you didn't," he admitted. "But I mean to go on hoping that you did."
"The idea!" she scoffed; but this time she blunted the keen edge of the rebuke by adding: "I thought, perhaps, we might meet again, sometime. You see, we are all stock-holders in the Pacific Southwestern; my brother, Aunt Hetty and I; and Uncle Sidney had shown us a letter—it was from Mr. North, I think—saying that you were likely to come to New York with some kind of a plan of reorganization. So when you gave me your card, I knew at once who you were."
Ford made an immediate mental note of the bit of information implicating Mr. North, but did not allow himself to be diverted by the business affair.
"Yes, I know; but that didn't help me a little bit," he protested, wishing that the distance to the hotel were twice as far.
"That was just because it happened so; you ran away before my brother had a chance to offer you any hospitality," she explained. Then, before he could say any more straightforward things: "Tell me, Mr. Ford; are you really going to find something to interest brother?—something that will keep him actually and enthusiastically busy for more than a few days at a time?"
Ford laughed. "I fancy he hasn't been bored for the lack of work since I left New York, has he?"
"No; and it has made such a difference! Won't you please try and keep him going?"
"You may rest assured that I shall do what I can. But you see he has quit already."
"By coming to Chicago with us? Oh, no, indeed; you are quite mistaken. He is here to help you to—to 'minimize' Uncle Sidney; I think that is the word he used. He was afraid you had been finding Uncle Sidney rather difficult. Have you?"
"I have, for a fact," said Ford, out of the depths of sincerity. And, again out of a full heart: "Your brother is a brick, Miss Adair."
"Isn't he?" and she laughed in sheer good comradeship. "If you can only manage to make him rise to his capabilities—"
"He'll never be able to live the simple life for a single waking hour," said the engineer, finishing the sentence for her.
"Oh, but that is a mistake!" she objected. "The very first requirement is work; plenty of work of the kind one can do best."
The short walk to the hotel, where Kenneth was waiting to go to breakfast with the president's party, came to an end, and the social amenities died of inanition. For one thing, President Colbrith insisted upon learning the minutest ins and outs of the business matter, making the table-talk his vehicle; and for another, Miss Adair's place was on the opposite side of the table, and two removes from Ford's. Time and again the young engineer tried to side-track business in the interests of something a little less banal to the two women; but the president was implacable and refused to be pulled out of the narrow rut of details; was still running monotonously and raspingly in it when Kenneth glanced at his watch and suggested that the time for action was come.
After breakfast the party separated. Mrs. Adair and Miss Alicia were to spend the day with friends in South Chicago, and Mr. Colbrith carried the attorney off to his room to dig still deeper into the possible legal complications which might arise out of the proposed transfer of the three short roads. Ford and Adair sat in the lobby and smoked while they were waiting for the president and the general counsel to conclude their conference, and the young millionaire gave his companion the story of the fight in the directory.
"We have Brewster to thank for the lift which finally pulled our wheel out of the mud," said the young man, modestly effacing himself in the summing up. "Or rather I should say that we have the enemy to thank for stirring Brewster into action. Brewster's got some copper mines out in Utah that he nurses like a sick child. Just at the critical moment some of the people who control the Transcontinental began to worry his copper stock. In the hot part of it he came to me and said, 'Adair, will that western extension of yours be able to fry any fat out of Transcontinental?' I told him it would, most assuredly; that next to making money for ourselves, and, incidentally, saving the Pacific Southwestern from going smash, our chief object was to give the Transcontinental a wholesome drubbing."
"You are progressing rapidly," said Ford, with a grin of appreciation. "Did that fetch him?"
"It did, for a fact. He looked like one of those old bushy-bearded vikings when he said, 'By thunder, I'm with you, young man! And I'll answer for Scott and Magnus and Harding. Get your board together, and we'll settle it to-day."
Ford looked up quickly. "If Mr. Colbrith wasn't the chief of your family clan, Adair, I could wish that we had this Mr. Brewster at the head of things."
The rejoinder was heartily prompt. "You don't wish it any more fervently than I do, Ford. That is why I am here to-day. The board, in spite of all that our handful of revolutionaries could do, has armed Uncle Sidney with almost dictatorial powers in this stock-purchasing deal; and if he doesn't contrive to strangle things by the slow process, it will be simply and solely because you and Kenneth and I are here to see that he does not. Do you know what the men call him out on the main line? When they see the Nadia trundling in, they say, 'Here comes old Automatic Air-Brakes.' And it fits him."
"But I don't quite understand why he should want to put the brakes on here and now," Ford interposed. "I know he is against the scheme, personally; but he is here as the representative of a majority which has committed itself to the expansion measure, isn't he?"
"Oh, yes; and he has no thought of playing the traitor—you mustn't think that of him. But it isn't in his nature to facilitate things. In the present crisis he will feel that he is personally responsible for the expenditure of five million dollars. He will examine and investigate, and probe and pry, and will want to worry through every pen-scratch which has been made up to date."
"Well, there is one comfort; he can't take much time for his worrying," said Ford. "Some of the options expire to-morrow noon."
Adair sat up as one who suddenly takes notice.
"What?—to-morrow? Land of glory! but you two fellows took short chances! Why, any little hitch—"
"I know," said the engineer evenly. "But we took what we could get—and were thankful. Somebody was bidding against us, and prices began to jump. Incidentally, I may say that Kenneth deserves to be made a vice-president of the new company, at the very least. He has done ten men's work in the last three or four days."
"I don't doubt it. Neither do I suspect you of loafing. For that matter, I've been hustling a few lines, myself, since I sent you that first telegram."
"Do you find it exciting enough to keep you interested, as far as you've gone?" inquired Ford, mindful of Miss Alicia's longings.
"It's the best yet," declared the idler. "Only, you mustn't lean too heavily on me, you know. I'm the most uncertain quantity you ever experienced. But here comes Uncle Sidney, with a cowed and brow-beaten Kenneth in tow—say your prayers, and get ready for the battle royal."
THE RACE TO THE SLOW
Adair's prophecy that President Colbrith would prove himself an obstructor of the stubbornest was amply fulfilled during the short interval which remained for decisive action. Truly, in the battle for business celerity the odds were three to one against Mr. Colbrith; yet the three were as those who buffet the wind. The president must see and feel, know and fully understand; and at the very last moment, when the shortest of the options had no more than an hour to live, he was proposing to summon General Manager North from Denver to make a fifth in the council of discord.
It was Adair who took the bull by the horns when the president's caution was about to turn victory into defeat. What was said or done after the young man drew Mr. Colbrith into the private committee-room at the bank and shut the door, Ford and Kenneth, who were excluded, could only surmise. But whatever was done was well done. When the two, uncle and nephew, came out of the room of privacy, the old man was shaking his head and the young one was smiling serenely. So it came about that between eleven and twelve o'clock, when Ford, grimly battling to the last, fought as one without hope, a few strokes of the pen opened the doors upon the new creation; five million dollars, more or less, changed hands, and the Pacific Southwestern took the long leap eastward from the Missouri River to its new base in Chicago.
"It's you for the hustle now, Ford," said Adair, linking arms with the engineer when the quartet left the bank. "How soon do you think you can get that first train-load of grain in transit?"
"I wish I could tell you," said Ford.
"Why can't you?"
"Because it will depend very largely upon the authority Mr. Colbrith or the board sees fit to give me. At present, you will remember, I am still only a division superintendent—Mr. North's subordinate, in fact, and—"
"Say it out loud," encouraged Adair.
"I don't like to, but I suppose it can't be helped. Up to now I have been acting under special orders, as you may say, in a purely financial transaction. But my commission expired five minutes ago when the stock deal went through. When it comes to issuing orders in the operating and transportation department, I have no authority whatever. Mr. North is general manager, and I suppose his jurisdiction will now be extended to cover the new line, won't it?"
"Not much!" retorted the amateur promoter. "You are going to be given a free hand in this from the word go. From what I can learn, North has been an obstructor, all along, hasn't he?"
"I can't say that," said Ford, just, even to an enemy. "To be right honest about it, I shall have to confess that I slurred him entirely—went over his head."
"For good reasons, no doubt, only you are too charitable to give them. Never mind: as I say, you are going to have a free hand. This is your pie and nobody else is going to cut it for you." And when the party reached the hotel there was another conference of two behind closed doors, in which Ford and the general counsel did not participate.
An hour later, when Adair came down from the president's room, he thrust a sheaf of penciled printers' copy into Ford's hands.
"There you are," he said. "I've done the best I could for you on such short notice—with Uncle Sidney trying his level best to get a cross reference to the board before taking action. Get these circulars through a print shop and into the mails. You'll see that one of them announces your appointment, effective to-day, as Assistant to the President. That was as far as Uncle Sidney could be dragged. It doesn't give you a straight flush; but your hand will beat North's if it comes to a show-down between you. Just the same, I shouldn't quarrel with North, if I were you. Uncle Sidney thinks the sun rises and sets in him."
Ford nodded, and while he was reading hastily through the sheaf of pencilings a boy brought him a telegram. When he opened the envelope, Kenneth had turned away. But Adair was looking on, and he did not fail to remark the startling effect of the few typewritten words upon the engineer.
"Whereabouts does it hit us this time?" he inquired, lighting a fresh cigarette.
"In the neck," said Ford curtly. "The possibility occurred to me yesterday—Pacific Southwestern stock being so badly scattered among small holders. I wired a broker, a good friend of mine, to pick up a few shares on my account. Here is what he says: 'Market bone dry. No offerings of P. S-W. at any price.'"
Adair whistled softly. "That's getting next to us with a vengeance!" he commented. "And it can be done, too. Half a dozen of the small stock-holders have been to me since the fire was lighted, trying to get me to take their stock at market."
"How much do we control—that we are sure of?" Ford asked.
"I don't know—in figures. Not more than two-fifths, I should say. At the last board meeting I proposed that we make a safe majority pool among ourselves, but Uncle Sidney sat on me. Said his own personal constituency among the little people was big enough amply to secure us."
Ford swore pathetically.
"The one single instance when his caution might have steered him straight—and it went to sleep!" he raged.
"Exactly," laughed Adair. "And now the Transcontinental moguls are buying up a majority of their own, meaning to capture the main-line dog and leaving us to wag the extension tail which we have just acquired. Say, Ford; doesn't that appeal to your sense of humor?"
"No, it doesn't," said Ford savagely. To see one's air-castles crumbling at the very moment when they were to be transmuted into solid realities is apt to provoke a reversion to type; and Ford's type was Gothic.
"That's a pity," said Adair, absently rolling his cigarette between his thumb and finger. "Also, it's another pity that I am such a hopeless quitter. I believe I could pull this thing out yet, if I could only get up sufficient steam."
"For heaven's sake, tell me what you burn, and I'll furnish the fuel," said Ford desperately.
"Will you? I guess I need something pretty inflammatory."
"Lord of love! haven't you good and plenty, without calling upon me? Are you going to let these stock-jobbing land-pirates on 'Change gibbet you as a solemn warning to aspiring young promoters?"
Adair paused with the cigarette half way to his lips. "Ah," he said, after a thoughtful moment. "Perhaps that was what I needed. No; they will not gibbet any of us to-day; and possibly not to-morrow." Then, with a sudden dropping of the mask of easy-going indifference: "Give me the key to your room, and find me a swift stenographer. Then go over to the Lake Shore headquarters and ask to have the Nadia coupled to the evening train for New York."
"But the president?" Ford began. "Didn't he say something about going over these new lines on an inspection trip?"
"Never mind Uncle Sidney: on this one occasion he will change his plans and go back to New York with us," said Adair curtly.
"Good," said Ford approvingly. "And how about opening the new through line for business? Do we go on? Or do we hang it up until we find out where we are 'at'?"
"Don't hold it up a single minute. Drive it for all the power you can get behind it. If we have to collide with things, let's do it with the throttle wide open. Now find me that shorthand person quickly, will you?"
By what means the president was persuaded or coerced into doing the thing he had not planned to do, Ford was not to know. But for that matter, after carrying out Adair's instructions the engineer plunged at once into his own Herculean task of reorganization, emerging only when he made a tardy sixth at the president's dinner table in the hotel cafe in the evening.
The dinner, which the young engineer had been fondly counting upon as a momentary relaxation from the heart-breaking business strain, was a dismal failure on its social side. President Colbrith, as yet, it appeared, in blissful ignorance of the latest news from New York, had reserved the seat of honor for his new assistant, and the half-hour was filled to overflowing with minute and cautionary definitions of the assistant's powers and duties.
Ford listened with a blank ear on that side. There was work to do, and one man to do it. He did not care particularly to hear instructions which he would probably have to disregard at the first experimental dash into the new field. He meant to hold himself rigidly to account for results; more than this he thought not even Mr. Colbrith had a right to require.
After dinner he indemnified himself for the kindergarten lecture by boldly taking possession of Miss Adair for the short walk over to the private car. The entire world of work was still ahead, and a corps of expert stenographers was at the moment awaiting his return to the C. P. & D. offices, where he had established temporary headquarters; but he shut the door upon the exigencies and listened to Miss Alicia.
"I am so sorry we are not going to be here to see your triumph," she was saying; adding: "It is a triumph, isn't it?"'
"Only a beginning," he amended. "And it won't be spectacular, if we can help it. Besides, this east-end affair is only a preliminary. A little later on, if our tackle doesn't break, we shall land the really big fish for which this is only the bait."
"Shall you never be satisfied?" she asked jestingly. And then, more seriously: "What is your ambition? To be able to buy what your neighbor can not afford?"
"Big money, you mean? No, I think not. But I like to win, as well as other men."
"To win what?"
"Whatever seems worth winning—this fight, in the present instance, and the consequent larger field. Later, enough money to enable me to think of money only as a stepping-stone to better things. Later still, perhaps—"
He stopped abruptly, as though willing to leave the third desideratum in the air, but she would not let him.
"Go on," she said. "Last of all?"
"Last of all, the love of a true woman."
"Oh!" she scoffed, with a little uptilt of the admirable chin. "Then love must come trailing along at the very end, after we have skimmed the cream from all the other milk pans in orderly succession."
"No," he rejoined gravely. "I put it clumsily—as I snatch purses. As a matter of sober fact, love sets the mile-stones along any human road that is worth traversing."
She glanced up at him and the blue eyes were dancing. Miss Alicia Adair knew no joy to compare with that of teasing, and it was not often that the fates gave her such a pliable subject.
"Tell me, Mr. Ford; is—is she pretty?"
"She is beautiful; the most beautiful woman in the world, Miss Adair."
"How fine! And, of course, she is a paragon of all the virtues?—an angel without the extremely inconvenient wings?"
"You have said it: and I have never doubted it from the moment I first laid eyes on her."
"Better and better," she murmured. Then: "She has money?"
"I suppose she has; yes, she certainly has money. But that doesn't make any difference—to her or to me."
"It is simply idyllic!" was the ecstatic comment. "After all this there remains but one other possible contingency. Has she a willing mind, Mr. Ford?"
They had reached the steps of the Nadia, and the others had gone within. Ford looked soberly into the depths of the laughing eyes and said: "I would give all my chances of success in this Pacific Southwestern affair to be able to say 'yes' to that."
The station gong was clanging the departure signal for the New York train, and he swung her lightly up to the step of the car.
"Good-by," she said, turning to smile down upon him. And then, "I don't believe you, you know; not the least bit in the world."
"Why don't you?" he demanded.
"Because the woman doesn't live who would be worth such a sacrifice as that would be—to Mr. Stuart Ford."
And this was her leave-taking.
THE SINEWS OF WAR
The general offices of the C. P. & D. Railway were crowded into a half-dozen utilitarian rooms on the second floor of the company's freight station building in the Chicago yards. In two of these rooms, with a window outlook upon a tangle of switching tracks with their shifting panorama of cars and locomotives, Ford set up his standard as chief executive of the three "annexed" roads, becoming, in the eyes of three separate republics of minor officials and employees, the arbiter of destiny.
Naturally, the announcement that their railroads had been swallowed whole by the Pacific Southwestern had fallen as a thunderclap upon the rank and file of the three local companies; and since, in railway practice, a change of owners usually carries with it a sweeping change in department heads, the service was instantly demoralized.
During the first few hours of Ford's administration, therefore, the wires were buzzing with hasty resignations; and those whose courage was not whetted to the quitting point took a loose hold upon their duties and waited to see what would happen. Under such chaotic conditions Ford took his seat in the mean little office over the freight station, and flung himself ardently into the task of bringing order out of the sudden confusion. Effectively to support Adair and the reconstructionists on the board it was critically necessary that there be immediate and cheering news from the front.
It was in the preliminary wrestle with disintegration that the young engineer's gift of insight and his faculty of handling men as men stood him in good stead. He was fresh from his trip over the new extension, on which he had met and shrewdly appraised the men who were now his subordinates. With the human field thus mentally mapped and cross-sectioned he was enabled to make swift and sure selections, cutting out the dead timber remorselessly, encouraging the doubtful, reassuring the timid, assorting and combining and ordering until, at the close of the second day of fierce toil, he was ready to make his first report to Adair.
Track connections at junction points completed to-day. General and division operating and traffic departments in the saddle and effectively organized. With proper cooeperation on part of General Manager North, grain should begin to move eastward to-morrow. Can get no satisfactory replies from North. Have him disciplined from your end. Answer. FORD.
To this telegram there was a prompt and voluminous reply from the seat of war in the East. In a free fight on the Stock Exchange, a battle royal generaled by Brewster and Magnus in which every inch of ground had been sharply contested by brokers buying up P. S-W. in the interest of principals unnamed, a majority of the Southwestern stock—safe but exceedingly narrow—had been secured by the reconstructionists.
In accordance with Ford's suggestion, North had been "called down" by wire, and Ford was instructed to report instantly any failure of effort on the part of the Denver headquarters to set the grain trains in motion.
Otherwise, and from the New York point of view, the situation remained most hopeful. The fight in the Street had unified the factions in the board of directors, and even the timid ones were beginning to clamor for an advance into the territory of the enemy.
Ford read Adair's letter-length and most unbusiness-like telegram with the zest of the fine wine of triumph tingling in his blood. With the Chicago outlet fairly open and in working order, and a huge tributary grain crop to be moved, it should be only a matter of days until the depressed Pacific Southwestern stock would begin to climb toward the bonding figure.
This was the first triumphant conclusion, but afterward came reaction and a depressive doubt. Would the stock go up? Or would the enemy devise some assault that would keep it down in spite of the money-earning, dividend-promising facts? Upon the expected rise hung the fate of Ford's cherished ambition—the building of the western extension. Without a dividend-paying Chicago-Denver main line, there could be no bond issue, no thirty millions for the forging of the third and most important link in the great traffic chain.
Ford walked the floor of his office, called by courtesy, "private," for an anxious hour, balancing the probabilities, and finally determined to take the desperate chance. There was a vast mountain of preliminary work to be leveled, huge purchasing expenses to be incurred, before the first step could be taken in the actual building of the western extension; and the summer was advancing day by day. He did not hope to get the extension completed in a single season. But to get it over into the promising mining field on the lower Pannikin before snow-flying meant work of the keenest, without the loss of a single day. Could he afford to play the safe game and wait until the building capital should be cannily in Mr. Magnus' bank vaults?
He decided that he could not; and when he reached a decision, Ford was not the man to hesitate before taking the plunge. On the morning of the third day he called Truitt, sometime superintendent of the C. P. & D., and now acting manager of the Chicago Extension, and gave him his instructions.
"You say there are three grain trains moving on the line now, Mr. Truitt: there will be three more before night. Keep them coming, and give them the right of way over everything but the United States mails. Can you handle this without help from me?"
"We'll give it a pretty stiff try," was the prompt rejoinder. "But you are not going to leave us, are you, Mr. Ford?"
"No; but for the next forty-eight hours I am going to lock my door, and I don't want to be disturbed for anything less than a disaster or a wire from New York. Please give orders accordingly, will you?"
The orders were given; and, left with his force of stenographers, Ford began to walk the floor, dictating right and left. Letters and telegrams to steel mills, to contractors, to bridge builders, to the owners of grading outfits, and to labor agencies, clicked out of the typewriters in a steady and unbroken stream, and the din was like that of a main-line telegraph office on a hot piece of track.
All day long, and far into the night, the office force wrought unceasingly, digging away at the mountain of preliminary correspondence; and by the next morning the wire replies were beginning to come in.
Then came the crux. To insure prompt delivery of material, definite orders must be placed immediately. A delay of a single day might entail a delay of weeks in the shipments. Yet the risk of plunging the company into debts it might never be able to pay was appalling. What if the stock should not go up as prefigured?—if the bonds could not be floated?
It was with the feeling that he might well be signing his own death-warrant that Ford put his name to the first order for two hundred thousand dollars' worth of steel rails for immediate delivery to the company's line in Chicago. But after the first cold submergence it came more easily, and when he left the office an hour before midnight, a cool million would not have covered the obligations he had assumed during the strenuous day.
Kenneth was sitting up for him when he reached his hotel, and the usually impassive face of the general counsel reflected trouble.
"Out with it," said Ford wearily; and suddenly the new million of indebtedness became a mountain weight to grind him to powder.
"We're blocked," was the brief announcement. "Two of the grain trains are in, and the Transcontinental lawyers have won the toss. We're enjoined by the court from using the service tracks to the elevators. Didn't your local people tell you?"
"No," said Ford. "I had given orders that I was not to be disturbed. But what of it? You expected something of the sort, didn't you?"
"Yes; and I provided for it. The injunction will be dissolved when we have our final hearing; but long before that time the mischief will be irreparable, I'm afraid."
"It will be blazoned far and wide that we can't deliver the goods—that the opposition has done us up. I've tried to keep it out of the newspapers, or, rather, to persuade them not to make too much of it. But it wouldn't go. The Transcontinental has all the pull in this town, it appears."
"And you think it will affect the price of the stock?"
"It is bound to, temporarily, at least. And coming upon the heels of to-day's sudden tumble—"
"What's that?" demanded Ford, dry-lipped, adding: "I haven't seen a paper since morning."
Kenneth wagged his head gloomily. "It's pretty bad. P. S-W. closed at thirty-three—five points off yesterday's market."
"Good Lord!" Ford's groan was that of a man smitten down in the heat of the fight. "Say, Kenneth, within a single sweep of the clock-hands I have contracted for more than a million dollars' worth of material for the western extension—more than a million dollars' worth!"
"Well, I'm afraid you have sinned in haste to repent at leisure," said the lawyer, with a weary man's disregard for the amenities. Then he added: "I'm going to bed. I've had about all I can stand for one day."
Ford went to the room clerk for his key; reeled would be the better word, since his brain was whirling. There was a telegram in his box, and he tore it open with fresh and sharper misgivings. It was from Adair.
The sick man's getting sicker. What is the matter with your prescription? Stock gone off five points, and the bears are squeezing us to beat the band. Stories flying on the Street that we are a kite without an effective tail; that the courts will keep us out of the elevators. What do you say?
Ford consulted his watch. There was barely time to catch the midnight train for New York, and his determination was taken on the spur of the moment. It was all or nothing, now.
Hastily writing a wire to the cashier of the Denver bank where he kept his personal account, and another to Adair, and leaving brief notes for Kenneth and Truitt, he took a cab and had himself driven at a gallop to the Union Station. He was the last man through the platform gates, but he made his train, and was settling himself in the sleeper when another telegram was thrust into his hand. This was from Frisbie, at Saint's Rest; and that it brought more bad news might be argued from the way in which he crushed it slowly in his hand and jammed it into his pocket. On this day, if never before, he was proving the truth of the old adage that misfortunes do not come singly.
Upon arriving in New York late the following evening, he had himself driven to the Waldorf, where he found Adair waiting for him. A few words sufficed to outline the situation, which the lapse of another day had made still more desperate. So far from recovering, the falling stock had dropped to twenty-nine and a half, and there was every indication that the bottom was not yet reached.
"How do you account for it?" asked Ford, when the dismal tale had been told.
"Oh, it's easy enough, when you know how," was the light-hearted rejoinder. "As I wired you, there was something of a scramble on the floor of the Exchange last week when we were fighting to find out whether we should control our own majority or let the Transcontinental have it. Our pool got its fifty-one per cent. all right, but in the nature of things the enemy stood as the next largest stock-holder in P. S-W., since they'd been buying right and left against us. Now, since we don't need any more, and nobody else wants it, all the Transcontinental people have to do is to unload on the market, and down she goes."
Ford looked incredulous, and then wrathful.
"Adair, tell me: did I have to stop my work when my time is worth fifty dollars a minute, and come all the way to New York to tell you folks what to do?" he demanded.
Adair's laugh was utterly and absolutely care-free.
"It looks that way, doesn't it? Have you got the compelling club up your sleeve, as usual?"
"A boy might carry it—and swing it, too," was the disgusted answer. "When does the board meet again? Or has it concluded to lie down in the harness?"
"Oh, it gets together every morning—got the meeting habit, you know. Everybody's in a blue funk, but we still have the daily round-up to swap funeral statistics."
"All right. Meet me here in the morning, and we'll go and join the procession. Can you make it nine o'clock?"
"Sure. It's too late to go home, and I'll stay here. Then you'll be measurably certain that I can't escape. May I see the tip end of the club?"
"No," said Ford grumpily. "You don't deserve it. Go to bed and store up a head of steam that will carry you through the hardest day's work you ever hoped to do. Good night."
They met again at the breakfast-table the following morning, and Ford talked pointedly of everything save the P. S-W. predicament. One of Adair's past fads had been the collecting of odd weapons; Ford discovered this and drew the young man skilfully into a discussion of the medieval secrets of sword-tempering.
"I've a bit of the old Damascus, myself," said the engineer. "Tybee—he was on the Joppa-Jerusalem road in the building—picked it up for me. Curious piece of old steel; figured and flowered and etched and inlaid with silver. There were jewels in the pommel once, I take it; the settings are still there to show where some practical-turned vandal dug them out."
Adair was quite at a loss to guess how old swords and their histories could bear upon the financial situation, but he was coming to know Ford better. Some one has said that it is only the small men who are careful and troubled on the eve of a great battle. So the talk was of ancient weapons until the time for action arrived; and a smooth-faced gentleman sitting at a near-by table and marked down by Ford—though not by Ford's companion—listened for some word of enlightenment on the railroad situation, and was cruelly disappointed.
"Why wouldn't you talk?" asked Adair, when they were driving down-town in the young millionaire's auto. "Or rather, why did you persist in keeping me to the old swords?"
"For one reason, I enjoy the old swords—as a relaxation. For another, Mr. Jeffers Hawley, who was once one of the Transcontinental lawyers in Denver, was sitting just behind you, with eager ears. You didn't know that. Hold on a minute; tell your man to stop at the Chemical Bank. I want you to introduce me to the cashier."
"Now, what the deuce are you starting a New York bank account for?" queried Adair, as they came out of the bank together and climbed into the tonneau of the waiting touring car. "Couldn't you draw on the treasurer? What's the use of your being the assistant to the president, I'd like to know?"
"Wait," was the answer; and the questioner waited, perforce.
The board was already in session when the two young men were admitted to the private room in the rear of the Broad Street offices, and Ford was welcomed as a man who has recklessly steered the ship upon the rocks. There were even some open recriminations, notably on the part of the president; but Ford sat quietly under them, making no defense, and folding and refolding a slip of paper in his fingers as he listened.
When they gave him leave to speak, he still made no attempt to explain. Instead, he rose, walked to the other end of the table, and tossed the bit of folded paper across to Mackie, the broker.
"I inherited a little money, and I have made and saved enough more to make it an even twenty thousand dollars," he said. "I don't know of any more promising investment just now than Pacific Southwestern at twenty-nine and a half. Will you be good enough to buy for my account, Mr. Mackie?"
The effect was electrical. President Colbrith sat up very straight in his chair; two or three of the anxious ones opened on Ford with a rapid fire of questions; and Brewster, the copper magnate, sat back and chuckled softly in his beard.
"No, gentlemen; there is no change in the situation, so far as I know. Of course, you are not so foolish as to let the newspaper talk of the tie-up at the Chicago elevators influence you," Ford was saying to the anxious inquirers. "And, apart from that, everything is going our way. As I have remarked, our stock at the present figure is good enough for me, and I only wish I had two hundred thousand, instead of twenty thousand, to put into it."
Brewster stopped chuckling long enough to hold up a finger to the broker. "You may buy for my account, too, Mackie, while you are at it—and keep on buying till I tell you to quit."
This broke the deadlock instantly, and for a few minutes the board room was as noisy as the wheat pit with a corner threatening. Brewster, still laughing in his beard, pulled Ford out of the press at the broker's end of the table.
"I'm going to ask only one thing of you, young man," he began, his shrewd little eyes twinkling. "Just let me know when you are going to get out, so I can pull through without having to take the bankruptcy."
"I'll do it, Mr. Brewster," laughed Ford. "Only I'm not going to get out—unless you folks freeze me out."
"Then it isn't a long bluff on your part?"
"It is, and it isn't. We still stand to win if we have the nerve to hold on—in which event P. S-W. at twenty-nine and a fraction is a gold mine. That's one view of it, and the other is this: we've simply got to corner our own stock if we expect to sell thirty millions additional bonds."
"Well, I guess you've gone the right way about it. But are you sure about these Chicago terminals? A legal friend of mine here says you'll never get in."
"He was possibly paid to say it," said Ford hotly. "There has never been a shadow of doubt touching our trackage rights on the C. P. & D. contracts, or upon our ability to maintain them. All the Transcontinental people hoped to do was to make a newspaper stir to help keep our stock down. They know what we are going to do to them over in their western territory, and they won't stop at anything to block us."
"Of course; I think we were all inclined to be a little short-sighted and pessimistic here, Mr. Ford. When do you go back to your fighting ground?"
"You won't wait to see what happens here?"
"I don't need to, I am sure. And the minutes—my minutes—are worth dollars to the company just now."
"Well, go in and win—only don't forget to give me that tip. You wouldn't want to see a man of my age going to the poorhouse."
"One other word, Mr. Brewster," Ford begged, as the copper magnate was pointing for the door of escape. "Please don't let any of these timid gentlemen sell till we get our bonds floated. You mark my word: the temptation to make a big killing is going to be very great, within a week."
The copper king laughed; openly, this time.
"You overrate my influence, Mr. Ford; but I'll do what I can—by word of mouth and by example. You can count on me—as long as you let me stay on your side of the market."
Ford had three several invitations to luncheon after the meeting adjourned, but he accepted none of them. To Adair he made the declination courteous while they were trundling back to the Waldorf in the big touring car.
"I have lost an entire day because I could not take the time to secure a stenographer before leaving Chicago night before last. I must find one now and go to work."
"All right; if you must. But I was hoping I could take you out to Overlook to dinner this evening. Can't you come anyhow, and take a later train west?"
"Don't tempt me," said Ford. And then: "The ladies are quite well, I hope?"
"Oh, yes; they are in town to-day, and we are all going to luncheon together—though I shan't know just where until I go to the club. Failing the dinner, won't you make a knife and fork with us at one o'clock?"
"I should like to—more than anything else in the world," Ford protested, meaning it. "But you'll make my excuses to Mrs. Adair, won't you? We've simply got to get a three-cornered hustle on now, if we want to save the day in the West."
"Why? Is there anything new in that quarter?"
"There is: something that I didn't dare to mention back yonder in the board meeting. You may remember that I told you I had left a man in my place on the Plug Mountain—Frisbie? I had a wire from him, night before last, just as I was leaving Chicago. As you know, the Pacific Southwestern inherits, from the old narrow-gauge purchase, the right-of-way over Plug Pass and down the valley of the Pannikin. Frisbie wires that the Transcontinental people have begun massing building material at the terminus of their Saguache branch, only twenty miles from the Pass."
"And that means?—I'm lame on geography."
"It means that they'll cut in ahead of us, if they can. Plug Pass is the only available unoccupied outlet through the mountains for thirty or forty miles north or south; and if we don't get our building force on the ground mighty suddenly, we'll find it fortified and held by the enemy."
The touring car had turned into Broadway, and the traffic roar precluded further talk. But when Ford was dismounting from the tonneau at the entrance to his hotel, Adair said: "There appears to be no rest for the wicked. You ought to have some of that thirty million dollars to spend right now."
Ford's smile was little more than a sardonic grin.
"Adair," he said, "I'm going to tell you something else that I didn't dare tell those money-tremulous people in McVeigh and Mackie's private office. I have been signing contracts and buying material by the train-load ever since the first grain shipment was started eastward on our main line. Also, I've got my engineering corps mobilized, and it will take the field under Frisbie as its chief not later than to-morrow. Putting one thing with another, I should say that we are something over a fresh million of dollars on the wrong side of solvency for these little antics of mine, and I'm adding to the deficit by the hundred thousand every time I can get a chance to dictate a letter."
Adair lighted a cigarette and made a fair show of taking it easily. But a moment later he was lifting his hat to wipe the perspiration from his forehead.
"Lord! but you have the confidence of your convictions!" he said, breathing hard. "If we shouldn't happen to be able to float the bonds—"
"We are in too deep to admit the 'if.' The bonds must be floated, and at the earliest possible moment that Magnus will move in it. You wanted something big enough to keep you interested. I have been trying my best to accommodate you."
Adair leaned forward and spoke to his chauffeur. The man watched his chances for room to turn in the crowded street.
"Where are you going?" asked Ford.
"Back to McVeigh and Mackie's—where I can watch a ticker and go broke buying more Pacific Southwestern," was the reply, and just then the chauffeur found his opening and the big car whirled and plunged into the down-town stream.
In the financial news the next morning there was a half-column or more devoted to the sudden and unaccountable flurry in Pacific Southwestern. Ford got it in the Pittsburg papers and read it while the picked-up stenographer was wrestling with his notes. After the drop in the stock, caused, in the estimation of the writer, by the company's sudden plunge into railroad buying at wholesale, P. S-W. had recovered with a bound, advancing rapidly in the closing hours of the day from the lower thirties to forty-two, with a strong demand. The utmost secrecy was maintained, but it was shrewdly suspected that one of the great companies, of which the Pacific Southwestern was now a competitor on an equal footing for the grain-carrying trade, had gone in to absorb the new factor in trans-Missouri traffic. Other and more sensational developments might be expected if the battle should be fought to a finish. Then followed a brief history of the Pacific Southwestern, with a somewhat garbled account of the late dash for a Chicago terminal, but lacking—as Ford remarked gratefully—any hint of the company's designs in the farther West.
"If Adair and Brewster and the others only have the nerve to keep it up!" said Ford to himself. Then he tossed the paper aside and dived once more into the deep sea of extension building, working the picked-up stenographer until the young man was ready with his resignation the moment the final letter was filed for mailing in the Chicago station.
Five days the young engineer waited for news from New York—waited and worked like a high-pressure motor while he waited. Each day's financial news showed the continued and growing success of the home-made "corner," and now the reporters were predicting that the stock would go to par before the price should break.
Ford trembled for the good faith of his backers on the board. When one has bought at twenty-nine and a half and can sell within the week for eighty-seven, the temptation is something tremendous. But at the closing hour of the fifth day the demand was still good; and when Ford reached the hotel that night there was a telegram from Adair awaiting him.
He tore it open and read it, with the blood pounding through his veins and a roar which was not of the street traffic drumming in his ears.
P. S-W. closed at ninety-two to-day, and a Dutch syndicate will take the bonds. Success to you in the Western wilderness. Brewster wants to know how soon you'll reach his Utah copper mines. ADAIR.
"I'm no cold-water thrower, Ford, as you know. But if I were a contractor, and you were trying to get me to commit myself to any such steeplechase, I should say no, and confirm it with a cuss-word."
It was a week after the successful placing of the Western Extension building-fund bonds with the Dutch syndicate, and Ford, having ordered things to his liking on the newly opened Chicago line, had taken the long step westward to Denver to begin the forging of the third link in the great railway chain.
Frisbie, now first assistant engineer in charge of construction, had come down from Saint's Rest for a conference with his chief, and the place of conferrings was a quiet corner in one of the balconies overlooking the vast rotunda of the Brown Palace Hotel; this because the carpenters were still busy in the suite of rooms set apart for the offices of the assistant to the president in the Pacific Southwestern headquarters down-town.
"You mean that the time is too short?" said Ford, speaking to Frisbie's emphatic objection.
"Too short at both ends," contended the little man with the devilish mustaches and chin beard. "The Copah mining district is one hundred and twenty miles, as the crow flies, from the summit of Plug Pass—say one hundred and forty by the line of our survey down the Pannikin, through the canyon and up to the town. Giving you full credit for more getting-ready than I supposed any man could compass in the three weeks you've been at it, I still think it is impossible for us to reach Copah this season."
"You must change your belief, Dick," was the curt rejoinder. "This is to be a campaign, not only of possibilities, but of things done. We go into Copah with the steel gangs before snow flies."
"I know; that's what you've been saying all along. But you're looking at the thing by and large, and I'm figuring on the flinty details. For example: you'll admit that we can't work to any advantage west of the mountains until we have made a standard gauge out of the Plug Mountain branch. How much time have you been allowing for that?"
"No time at all for the delay: about three weeks, maybe, for the actual changing of the gauge," said Ford coolly.
"All right," laughed Frisbie. "Only you'll show us how. It doesn't lie in the back of my head—or in Crapsey's, unless he's a better man than I hired him for."
"Who is Crapsey?"
"He is a Purdue man that I picked up and started out on the branch to make figures on the change of gauge. The other three parties, under Major Benson, Jack Benson and Roy Brissac, are setting the grade stakes down the Pannikin, and Leckhard is wrestling with the construction material you've been dumping in upon us at Saint's Rest. That left me short, and I hired Crapsey."
"Good. If he is capable, he may do the broadening. Call him in and set him at it."
"But, man! Don't you want the figures first?"
"My dear Dick! I've had those figures for two years, and there's nothing very complicated about that part of our problem. Call your man in and let him attack the thing itself."
"Everything goes: you may consider him recalled. But broadening the Plug Mountain to standard gauge doesn't put us into Copah this summer, does it?"
"No; our necessities will do that for us. See here; let me show you." Ford took out his note-book and on a blank page of it outlined a rough map, talking as he sketched. "Three weeks ago you wired me that the Transcontinental people were massing building material at the terminus of their Saguache branch."
"So I did," said Frisbie.
"And the day before yesterday you wired again to say that it was apparently a false alarm. What made you change your mind?"
"They are hauling the stuff away—over to their Green Butte line, I'm told."
"Why are they hauling it away?"
"The bluff—their bluff—was called. We had got busy on Plug Pass, and they saw there was no hope of cutting in ahead of us at that point."
"Exactly. Now look at this map for a minute. Here is Saint's Rest; here is the Copah district; and here is Green Butte, the junction of their narrow gauge with the standard-gauge Salt Lake and Eastern. If you were on the Transcontinental executive committee and saw an active competing line about to build a standard-gauge railroad through the Copah district and on to a connection with your narrow gauge's outlet at Green Butte, what would you advise?"
Frisbie nodded. "It's easy, when you know how, isn't it They'll standardize their narrow gauge to Green Butte, make an iron-clad traffic contract with the S. L & E. to exclude us, and build a branch from Jack's Canyon, say, up into the Copah country." And then in loyal admiration: "That's what I call the sure word of prophecy—your specialty, Stuart. How many nights' sleep did you lose figuring that out?"
"Not any, as it happens," laughed Ford. "It was a straight tip out of the East. The plan, just about as you've outlined it, was adopted by the Transcontinental powers that be, sitting in New York last week. By some means unknown to me, Mr. Adair got wind of it, and made a flying trip to Chicago to put me on—wouldn't even trust the wire with it. Now you understand why we've got to wake the Copah echoes with a locomotive whistle this season."
"Copah—yes," said Frisbie doubtfully. "But that is only a way station. What we need is Green Butte and the Pacific coast outlet over the S. L & E.; and they stand to euchre us out of that, hands down. What's to prevent their making that traffic contract with the Mormon people right now?"
"Nothing; if the S. L & E. management were willing. But just here the political situation in Mormondom fights for us. Last year the Transcontinental folk turned heaven and earth over to defeat the Mormon candidate for the United States Senate. The quarrel wasn't quite mortal enough to stand in the way of a profitable business deal; but all things being equal, the Salt Lake line will favor us as against its political enemy."
"You're sure of that?" queried Frisbie.
"As sure as one can be of anything that isn't cash down on the nail—with the money locked up in a safety deposit vault. By the sheerest good luck, the Mormon president of the S. L & E. happened to be in New York at the time when Adair had his ear to the Transcontinental keyhole. Adair hunted him up and made a hypothetical case of a sure thing: if our Western Extension and the Transcontinental, standard-gauged, should be knocking at the Green Butte door at the same time, what would the S. L & E. do? The Mormon answer was a bid for speed; first come, first served. But Adair was given to understand, indirectly, that on an equal footing, our line would be given the preference as a friendly ally."
"Bully for the Mormon! But you say Copah—this summer. When we reach Copah we are still one hundred and forty miles short of Green Butte. And if you can broaden the Plug Mountain in three weeks—which you'll still allow me to doubt—the Transcontinental ought to be able to broaden its Green Butte narrow gauge in three months."
"If you had cross-sectioned both lines as I have, you wouldn't stumble over that," said Ford, falling back, as he commonly did, upon the things he knew. "We shall broaden the Plug Mountain without straightening a curve or throwing a shovelful of earth on the embankment, from beginning to end. On the other hand, the Green Butte narrow gauge runs for seventy miles through the crookedest canyon a Rocky Mountain river ever got lost in. There is more heavy rock work to be done in that canyon than on our entire Pannikin division from start to finish."
"That's bully for us," quoth the first assistant. "But, all the same, we shouldn't stop at Copah, this fall."
"We shall not stop at Copah," was the decisive rejoinder. "The winters on the western side of the range are much milder than they are here, and not to be spoken of in the same day with your Minnesota and Dakota stamping-ground. If we can get well out of the mountains before the heavy snows come—"
Frisbie wagged his head.
"I guess I've got it all, now—after so long a time. We merely break the record for fast railroad building—all the records—for the next six months or so. Is that about it?"
"You've surrounded it," said Ford tersely.
"Good enough: we're ready to make the break when you give the word. What are we waiting for?"
"Just at this present moment, for the contractors."
"Why, I understood you had closed with the MacMorrogh Brothers," said Frisbie.
"No. At the last moment—to relieve me of a responsibility which might give rise to charges of favoritism, as he put it—Mr. Colbrith took the bids out of my hands and carried the decision up to the executive committee. Hence, we wait; and keep a growing army of laborers here under pay while we wait," said Ford, with disgust thinly masked. Then he added: "With all due respect to Mr. Colbrith, he is simply a senile frost!"
"Been cooling your fingers, has he? But I understood from the headquarters people down-town, that the MacMorroghs had a sure thing on the grading and rock work. Their bid was the lowest, wasn't it?"
"Yes; but not the cheapest for the company, Dick. I've been keeping tab on the MacMorroghs for a good while: they are grafters; the kind of men who take it out of the company and out of their labor in a thousand petty little steals—three profits on the commissary, piece-work for subs where they know a man's got to lose out, steals on the working hours, fines and drawbacks and discounts on the pay-rolls, and all that. You know how it's done."
"Sure," agreed Frisbie, with his most diabolical grin. "Also, I know how it keeps the engineering department on the hottest borders of Hades, trying to hold them down. The good Lord deliver us!"
"I wanted to throw their bid out without consideration," Ford went on. "But again Mr. Colbrith said 'No,' adding that the MacMorroghs were old contractors on the line, and that Mr. North had always spoken very highly of them."
"Ah; the fine Italian hand of Mr. North again," said Frisbie. "And that reminds me: are we going to be at war with the main line operating department?"
Ford shook his head. "Not openly, at least. North was down to meet my train when I came in last night, and you would never have suspected that I left Denver six weeks ago without his blessing. And now I'm reminded. I have a luncheon appointment with him at twelve, and a lot of letters to dictate before I can keep it. Go down and do your wiring for Crapsey, and if we lose each other this afternoon, I'll meet you here at dinner this evening."
It was while Ford was working on his mail, with one of the hotel stenographers for a helper, that a thick-set, bull-necked man with Irish-blue eyes and a face two-thirds hidden in a curly tangle of iron-gray beard, stubbed through the corridor on the Pacific Southwestern floor of the Guaranty Building, and let himself cautiously into the general manager's outer office. The private secretary, a faultlessly groomed young fellow with a suggestion of the Latin races in his features, looked up and nodded.
"How are you, Mr. MacMorrogh?" he said; and without waiting for a reply: "Go on in. Mr. North is expecting you."
The burly one returned the nod and passed on to the inner room. The general manager, a sallow, heavy-visaged man who might have passed in a platform gathering for a retired manufacturer or a senator from the Middle West, swung in his pivot-chair to welcome the incomer.
"Glad to see you, MacMorrogh. Sit down. What's the news from New York?"
The contractor found a chair; drew it close to the general manager's desk, and filled it.
"I'm thinking you'll know more about that than I will, Misther North," he replied, in a voice that accorded perfectly with the burly figure and piratical beard. "Ford's fighting us with his fishtes."
"Why?" asked the general manager, holding his chin in his hand—a gesture known the entire length of the Pacific Southwestern as a signal of trouble brewing, for somebody.
"God knows, then; I don't," said the MacMorrogh. "I wint to Chicago to see him when the bid was in, and d'ye think he would lave me talk it over with him? Not him! Wan day he'd be too busy; and the next, I'd have to call again. 'Twas good for him I was not me brother Dan. Dan would've kicked the dure in and t'rown him out av the windy."
The wan ghost of a smile flitted across the impassive face of the big man at the desk.
"Let me tell you something, MacMorrogh. If you, or your brother Dan, ever find it necessary to go after Ford, don't give him notice by battering down doors. You won't, I know. But about the contract: you haven't heard from the executive committee?"
"Not the half of wan wor-rd."
"Have you any idea of what is causing the delay?"
"'Tis dommed well I know, Misther North. Ford is keeping the wires hot against us. If I could have Misther Colbrith here with you for wan five minutes—"
The general manager broke in, following his own line of thought.
"Ford is in Denver; he came in from Chicago last night. Why don't you go up to the Brown and have it out with him?"
"Fight it out, d'ye mean?"
"Certainly not. Make friends with him."
The contractor sat back in his chair and plunged his stubby hands deep into his pockets.
"Give me the sthraight tip, Misther North."
"It ought to suggest itself to you. This is a big job, with a great deal of money passing. Your profits, over and above what you will make out of the company, will be quite large. Ford is an ambitious young man, and he is not building railroads for his health."
The MacMorrogh was nodding slowly. Nevertheless, he made difficulties.
"Me hand's not light enough for that, Misther North."
Again the general manager smiled.
"You require a deal of prompting, sometimes, Brian. What's the matter with a trusty go-between?"
"H'm, that's it, now. But where to lay me finger on the right man. 'Tis a risk to run—with a yooung fire-brand like Ford holding the other end iv the string."
"Still I think the man can be found. But first we must make sure of your contract, with or without Ford. Your suggestion about taking the matter up with Mr. Colbrith in person strikes me favorably. Can you spare the time to go to New York?"
"Sure I can."
"The wan minute for sthriking is whin the iron's hot, Misther North."
The general manager put aside the thick file of papers he had been examining when MacMorrogh entered, and began to set his desk in order.
"I have been thinking I might make it convenient to go with you. I presume you have no objection to going as my guest in the Naught-Seven?"
"'Tis an honor you're doing me, Misther North, and I'll not be forgetting it."
"Not at all. There are some matters connected with this contract that I'd like to talk over with you privately, and if we can agree upon them, I may be able to help you with Mr. Colbrith and the executive committee."
The general manager pressed one of the electric buttons on the side of the desk, and to the clerk who answered gave a brief order: "Have the Naught-Seven provisioned and made up to go east as a special at twelve-ten to-day. Tell Despatcher Darby to make the schedule fast—nineteen hours or less to the River."
The clerk nodded and disappeared, and North turned again to MacMorrogh.
"Now about that other matter: I'll find you a go-between to approach Ford; but to be quite frank with you, you'll have to be liberal with the young man for his services. When you go into the diplomatic field, you have to spend money." He was pressing another of the electric buttons as he spoke, and to the office boy who put his face in at the door, he said: "Ask Mr. Eckstein to step in here a minute."
It was the private secretary, the well-groomed young man with the alien eyes and nose who answered the summons. North gave him his instructions in a curt sentence.
"Mr. MacMorrogh would like to have a little talk with you, Eckstein: take him into the other room where you can be undisturbed."
It was half an hour later when the door of the library opened to readmit the private secretary and the contractor, and in the interval the division superintendent's clerk had returned to say that the special train schedule was made up, and that the Naught-Seven would be waiting at the Union Station at twelve-ten.
"Well?" said the general manager, lifting a slow eyebrow at MacMorrogh and compressing into the single word his wish to know what had been done in the conference of two.
"'Tis all right, Misther North," said the contractor, rubbing his hands. "'Tis a crown jewel ye have in this yooung—"
North cut the eulogy short in a word to his secretary.
"I go east, special, at twelve-ten, Eckstein, as Mr. MacMorrogh has probably told you. I have a luncheon appointment at twelve with Mr. Ford. Meet him when he comes, and make my excuses—without telling him anything he ought not to know. If you can take my place as his host, do so; but in any event, keep him from finding out where we have gone until we are well on the way. That's all."
This was why Ford, walking the few blocks from his hotel at noon to keep his engagement with North, found the general manager's private office closed, and a suave, soft-spoken young man with a foreign east of countenance waiting to make his superior's excuses.
"Mr. North was called out of town quite unexpectedly on a wire," was the private secretary's explanation. "He tried to telephone you at the Brown, but the operator couldn't find you. He left me to explain, and I've been wondering if you'd let me take his place as your host, Mr. Ford."
Now Ford's attitude toward his opponents was, by reason of his gifts, openly belligerent; wherefore he fought against it and tried to be as other men are.
"I am sure Mr. North is quite excusable, and it is good-natured in you to stand in the breach, Mr. Eckstein," he said. "Of course, I'll be glad to go with you."
They went to Tortoni's, and to a private room; and the luncheon was an epicurean triumph. Eckstein talked well, and was evidently a young man of parts. Not until the cigars were lighted did he suffer the table-talk to come down to the railroad practicalities; and even then he merely followed Ford's lead.
"Oh, yes; we have made arrangements to give you a clear deck in the Denver yards for your material and supplies," he said, in answer to a question of Ford's about side-track room and yard facilities at the point which would have to serve as his base. "Following your orders, we have been forwarding all that your Plug Mountain rolling stock could handle, but there is considerable more of it side-tracked here. After the MacMorrogh grading outfit has gone to the front, we shall have more room, however."
"The MacMorrogh outfit?" queried Ford. "Do they store it in our yards?"
"Oh, no. They have a pretty complete railroad yard of their own at their headquarters in Pueblo. But they have three train-loads of tools and machinery here now, waiting for your orders to send them to the front."
Ford weighed the possibilities thoughtfully and concluded that nothing could be lost by a frank declaration of principles.
"They have given you folks a wrong impression, Mr. Eckstein," he said mildly. "The contract for the grading on the Western Extension is not yet awarded; and if I can compass it, the MacMorrogh Brothers' bid will be thrown out."
The private secretary tried to look mystified, with just the proper touch of a subordinate's embarrassment.
"I'm only a clerk, Mr. Ford," he said, "and, of course, I'm not supposed to know more than I see and hear in the regular way of business. But I understood that the MacMorroghs were in the saddle; that they were only waiting for you to provide track-room at Saint's Rest for their tool cars and outfit."
"No," said Ford. "It hasn't got that far along yet."
Eckstein looked at his watch.
"Don't let me keep you, if there is anything else you want to do, Mr. Ford; but I'll confess you've aroused my curiosity. What is the matter with the MacMorroghs?"
Ford answered the question by asking another.
"Do you know them, Mr. Eckstein?"
"Why—yes; as Mr. North's chief clerk would be likely to know the firm of contractors which has been given a good share of the Pacific Southwestern work for a number of years."
"Do you know any good of them?"
"Bless me! yes: I don't know anything else of them. Three hearty, bluff, rough-tongued Irishmen; lacking diplomacy and all the finer touches, if you like, but good fellows and hustlers of the keenest."
Ford fastened his companion in a steady eye-grip. "One question, Mr. Eckstein; do they play fair with all concerned?"
"They are more than fair; they are generous—with the company, and with the company's representatives with whom they have to do business. On two contracts with us they have lost money; but I happen to know that in both instances they kept their promises to the engineering department to the letter."
Ford had cast off the eye-grip and he appeared to be studying the fresco design of the ceiling over the private secretary's head.
"And those promises were—?"
Eckstein laughed boyishly. "You needn't make a mystery of it with me, Mr. Ford. I'm one of the family, if I haven't any initials after my name. I know—we all know—that there are certain profits—not made out of the company, of course—that a contractor is always willing to share with his good friends, the engineers."
Ford's attitude instantly became that of a freshman wishing to learn the ropes.
"Consider me, Mr. Eckstein," he said. "I'm new to the construction business—or at least, I've never been at the head of it before. What are these—er—perquisites?"
The private secretary thought he had entered the thin edge of the wedge and he drove it heartily.
"They are perfectly legitimate, of course. The contractors run a commissary to supply the workmen—nobody suspects them of doing it at cost. Then there are the fines imposed to secure faithful work, the per capita commission paid on the labor sent in by the engineers, the discounts on time-checks, the weekly hospital and insurance dues collected from the men. All those things amount to a good round profit on a contract like ours."
"To about how much, in figures, should you say?" queried Ford, with an air of the deepest interest.
"To enough to make your share, as head of the construction department, touch ten thousand a year, on a job as big as ours—with a liberal provision for Mr. Frisbie, besides."
Ford blew reflective smoke rings toward the ceiling for a full minute or more before he said quietly: "Do I understand that you are authorized to guarantee me ten thousand a year in commissions from the MacMorrogh Brothers, Mr. Eckstein?"
"You forget that I'm only a clerk, and an onlooker, as you may say. But if you accept MacMorrogh's bid, and he doesn't do the square thing by you and Mr. Frisbie, you may call me in as a witness, Mr. Ford. Does that clear up the doubt?"
"Perfectly," was the quiet rejoinder. "Under these conditions, I suppose it is up to me to wire the executive committee, withdrawing my objections to the MacMorroghs, isn't it?"
"That is the one thing Mr. MacMorrogh asks." The secretary whipped out a note-book and pencil. "Shall I take your message? I can send it when I go back to the office."
"Thank you," said Ford; then he began to dictate, slowly and methodically: "To S.J. Colbrith, care McVeigh and Mackie, New York. This is to recall my objections to MacMorrogh Brothers, as stated in letter of the twenty-fifth from Chicago. Further investigation develops the fact that they are quite honest and capable, and that they will pay me ten thousand dollars a year for withdrawing my opposition."
Eckstein's pencil had stopped and he was gasping for breath.
"Great Scott!" he ejaculated. "That won't do, Mr. Ford! You can't put a thing like that into a telegram to the president!"
"Why not?" was the cool inquiry. "You said it was perfectly legitimate, didn't you?"
"Yes, but—" the entrance of a waiter to clear the table provided a merciful stop-gap, and Eckstein, hurriedly consulting his watch, switched abruptly. "By Jove! I'm due at the office this minute to meet a lot of cattlemen," he stammered, and escaped like a man hastening for first aid to the mistaken.
Ford laughed long and silently when he found himself alone in the private dining-room; and he was still chuckling by fits and starts when, after an afternoon spent with Auditor Evans, he recounted his adventure to Frisbie over the Brown cafe dinner table that evening. But Frisbie took all the humor out of the luncheon episode when he said soberly:
"He laughs best who laughs last, Stuart. Eckstein took a fall out of you one way, even if he did fail in the other; he kept you safely shut up at Tortoni's while Mr. North and the chief of the MacMorroghs got away on a special train for New York. Beard, the Union Station operator, told me. Which means that they'll have a full day with Mr. Colbrith and the executive committee before you can possibly get there to butt in."
"No, it doesn't; necessarily," Ford contradicted, rising suddenly and signaling a waiter.
"What are you going to do?" queried Frisbie, dropping his knife and fork and preparing to second his chief.
"Come and see. I'm going to get out another special train and give Mr. North a run for his money," was the incisive answer. "Hike down to the despatcher's office with me and help cut out the minutes."
THE ENTERING WEDGE
Has civilized humanity, in the plenitude of twentieth century sophistication, fully determined that there is no such thing as luck?—that all things are ordered, if not by Providence, at least by an unchangeable sequence of cause and effect?
Stuart Ford was a firm believer in the luck of the energetic; which is to say that he regarded obstacles only as things to be beaten down and abolished. But in the dash to overtake and pass the general manager's one-car special, the belief was shaken almost to its reversal.
He knew the Pacific Southwestern locomotives—and something of the men who ran them. The 1016 was one of the fast eight-wheelers; and Olson, the engineer, who had once pulled passenger on the Plug Mountain, was loyal and efficient. Happily, both the man and the machine were available; and while Frisbie was calling up the division superintendent at his house to ask the loan of his private car for the assistant to the president, Ford was figuring the schedule with the despatcher, and insisting upon speed—more speed.
"What's come over you big bosses, all at once?" said Darby, to whom Ford's promotion was no bar to fellowship or free speech. "First Mr. North wants me to schedule a special that will break the record; and now you want to string one that will beat his record."
"Never mind my troubles, Julius," was the evasive reply. "Just you figure to keep things out of my way and give me a clear track. Let's see—where were we? Cheyenne Crossing at 2 a.m., water at Riddle Creek, coal at Brockton—"
The schedule was completed when Frisbie came back to say that the 1016, with the superintendent's car attached, was waiting on track Six. Ford went down, looked the gift horse in the mouth, and had the running gear of the car overhauled under his own supervision before he would give Olson the word to go, pressing the night car inspectors into service and making them repack the truck journals while he waited.