But such a meeting was the most remote thing possible. There were nearer bridges to be crossed, and Sprudell was anxious to be rid of his guests that he might think.
When Bruce stepped out of the elevator the next morning, Sprudell greeted him effusively and this time Bruce, though with no great enthusiasm, took his plump, soft hand. From the first he had a feeling which grew stronger, as the forenoon waned, that Sprudell was "riding herd on him," guarding him, warding off chance acquaintances. It amused him, when he was sure of it, for he thought that it was due to Sprudell's fear lest he betray him in his role of hero, though it seemed to Bruce that short as was their acquaintance Sprudell should know him better than that. When he had the young man corralled in his office at the Tool Works, he seemed distinctly relieved and his vigilance relaxed. He handed Bruce his own letter and a roll of notes, saying with a smile which was uncommonly gracious considering that the money was his own:
"I suppose it won't make any difference to you that your gold-dust has taken on a different form."
"Why, no," Bruce answered. "It's all the same." Yet he felt a little surprise. "But the letter from 'Slim's' sister, and the picture—I want them, too."
"I'm sorry," Sprudell frowned in perplexity, "but they've been mislaid. I can't think where I put them, to save my soul."
"How could you misplace them?" Bruce demanded sharply. "You kept them all together, didn't you? I wanted that picture."
"It'll turn up, of course," Sprudell replied soothingly. "And when it does I'll get it to you by the first mail."
Bruce did not answer—there seemed nothing more to say—but there was something in Sprudell's voice and eyes that was not convincing. Bruce had the feeling strongly that he was holding back the letter and the picture, but why? What could they possibly mean to a stranger? He was wrong in his suspicions, of course, but nevertheless, he was intensely irritated by the carelessness.
He arose, and Sprudell did likewise.
"You are going West from here?"
Bruce answered shortly:
"On the first train."
Sprudell lowered his lids that Bruce should not see the satisfaction in his eyes.
"Good luck to you, and once more, congratulations on your safe return."
Bruce reluctantly took the hand he offered, wondering why it was that Sprudell repelled him so.
"Good-bye," he answered indifferently, as he turned to go.
Abe Cone in his comparatively short career had done many impulsive and ill-considered things but he never committed a worse faux pas than when he dashed unannounced into Sprudell's office, at this moment, dragging an out-of-town customer by the arm.
"Excuse me for intrudin'," he apologized breathlessly, "but my friend here, Mr. Herman Florsheim—shake hands with Mr. Sprudell, Herman—wants to catch a train and he's interested in what I been tellin' him of that placer ground you stumbled on this fall. He's got friends in that country and wanted to know just where it is. I remember you said something about Ore City bein' the nearest post-office, but what railroad is it on? If we need any outside money, why, Herman here—"
Bruce's hand was on the door-knob, but he lingered, ignoring the most urgent invitation to go that he ever had seen in any face.
"I'm busy, Abe," Sprudell said so sharply that his old friend stared. "You are intruding. You should have sent your name."
Bruce closed the door which he had partially opened and came back.
"Don't mind me," he said slowly, looking at Sprudell. "I'd like to hear about that placer—the one you stumbled on last fall."
"We'll come another time," Abe said, crestfallen.
Bruce turned to him:
"No, don't go. I've just come from Ore City and I may be able to tell your friend something that he wants to know. Where is your placer ground, Sprudell?"
Sprudell sat down in his office chair, toying with a desk-fixture, while Bruce shoved both hands in his trousers' pockets and waited for him to speak.
"Burt," he said finally, "I regret this unpleasantness, but the fact is you did not comply with the law—you have never recorded and you are located out."
"So you've taken advantage of the information with which I trusted you to jump my ground?" Bruce's eyes blazed into Sprudell's.
"The heirs could not be found, you were given up for dead, and in any event I've not exceeded my rights."
"You have no rights upon that ground!" Bruce answered hotly, "My locations were properly made in 'Slim's' name and my own. The sampling and the cabin and the tunnel count for assessment work. I had not abandoned the claim."
"Nevertheless, my engineer informs me——"
"Your engineer?" A light dawned.
"Wilburt Dill—pity you did not meet him, a bright young chap—"
"I met him," Bruce answered grimly. "I shall hope to meet him again."
"No doubt you will," Sprudell taunted, "if you happen to be there when we're putting up the plant. As I was saying, Mr. Dill's telegram, which came last night, informs me that he has carried out my instructions, and therefore, individually, and as the President of the Bitter Root Placer Mining Company, I now control one hundred and sixty acres of ground up and down the river, including the bar upon which your cabin stands." Sprudell's small, red mouth curved in its tantalizing smile.
"You'll never hold it!" Bruce said furiously.
"The days of gun-plays have gone by," Sprudell reminded him. "And you haven't got the price to fight me in the courts. You'd better lay down before you start and save yourself the worry. What can you do? You have no money, no influence, no brains to speak of," he sneered insultingly, "or you wouldn't be down there doing what you are. You haven't a single asset but your muscle, and in the open market that's worth about three-fifty a day."
Bruce stood like a mute, the blood burning in his face. Even toward "Slim" he never had felt such choking, speechless rage as this.
"You Judas Iscariot!" he said when he could speak. "You betrayed my hospitality—my trust. Next to a cache robber you're the meanest kind of a thief I've ever known. I've read your story in the newspaper, and so has the old man who saved your rotten life. We know you for the lying braggart that you are. You made yourself out a hero when you were a weakling and a coward.
"You're right—you tell the truth when you twit me with the fact that I have no money no influence, perhaps no brains—not a single asset, as you say, but brute strength; yet somehow, I'll beat you!" He stepped closer and looking deep into the infantile blue eyes that had grown as hard as granite, reiterated—"Somehow I'm going to win!"
To say that Abe Cone and Mr. Herman Florsheim departed is not enough—they faded, vanished, without a sound.
Sprudell's eyes quailed a little beneath the fierce intensity of Bruce's gaze, but for a moment only.
"I've heard men talk like that before." He shrugged a shoulder and looked Bruce up and down—at his coat too tight across the chest, at his sleeves, too short for his length of arm, at his clumsy miner's shoes, as though to emphasize the gulf which lay between Bruce's condition and his own. Then with his eyes bright with vindictiveness and his hateful smile of confidence upon his lips, he stood in his setting of affluence and power waiting for Bruce to go, that he might close the door.
THORNS—AND A FEW ROSES
Helen Dunbar was exercising that doubtful economy, walking to save car-fare, when she saw Mae Smith with her eyes fixed upon her in deadly purpose making a bee-line across the street. If there was any one thing more needed to complete her depression it was a meeting with Mae Smith.
She stopped and waited, trying to think what it was Mae Smith resembled when she hurried like that. A penguin! that was it—Mae Smith walked exactly like a penguin. But Helen did not smile at the comparison, instead, she continued to look somberly and critically at the woman who approached. When Helen was low spirited, as now, Mae Smith always rose before her like a spectre. She saw herself at forty another such passe newspaper woman trudging from one indifferent editor to another peddling "space." And why not? Mae Smith had been young and good-looking once, also a local celebrity in her way when she had signed a column in a daily. But she had grown stale with the grind, and having no special talent or personality had been easily replaced when a new Managing Editor came. Now, though chipper as a sparrow, she was always in need of a small loan.
As Helen stood on the corner, in her tailor-made, which was the last word in simplicity and good lines, the time looked very remote when she, too, would be peddling space in a $15 gown, that had faded in streaks, but Helen had no hallucinations concerning her own ability. She knew that she had no great aptitude for her work and realized that her success was due more often to the fact that she was young, well-dressed, and attractive than to any special talent. This was all very well now, while she got results, but what about the day when her shoes spread over the soles and turned over at the heels, and she bought her blouse "off the pile?" When her dollar gloves were shabby and would not button at the wrist? What about the day when she was too dispirited to dress her hair becomingly, but combed it straight up at the back, so that her "scolding locks" hung down upon her coat-collar, and her home-trimmed hat rode carelessly on one ear?
All these things were characteristic of Mae Smith, who personified unsuccessful, anxious middle-age. But there was one thing, she told herself as she returned Mae Smith's effusive greeting, that never, never, no matter how sordid her lot became, should there emanate from her that indefinable odor of poverty—cooking, cabbage, lack of ventilation, bad air—not if she had to hang her clothing out the window by a string!
"I've been over to the Chronicle office," Mae Smith chattered. "Left some fashion notes for the Sunday—good stuff—but I don't know whether he'll use 'em; that kid that's holdin' down McGennigle's job don't buy much space. He's got it in for me anyhow. I beat him on a convention story when he was a cub. I was just goin' down to your office."
"Yes? I'm on the way to the doctor's."
"You don't look well, that's a fact. Sick?"
Helen smiled, faintly. "I do feel miserable. Like every one else I got a drenching at the Thanksgiving Game."
"That's too bad," Mae Smith murmured absently. What was a cold compared to the fact that she needed two dollars and a half? "Say, I wonder if I could get a little loan for a few days? You know I bought this suit on the installment plan and I'm two weeks behind on it. The collector was around yesterday and said he'd have to take it back. I can't go around gettin' fashion notes in my kimono, and the milkman wouldn't leave any milk until I paid for the last ticket. I'm up against it and I thought maybe—"
"How much do you want?"
"About two dollars and a half." The tense look faded instantly from Miss Smith's face.
Helen did not mention, as she laid that amount in her eager hand, that it was part of the money she had saved to buy a pair of long gloves.
"Thank you"—gaily—"ever so much obliged! I've got a corking idea in my head for a Sunday special and just as soon as I write it and get paid—"
"No hurry," Helen answered with a quizzical smile, and she watched Mae Smith clamber joyously on a street car to ride two blocks and spend the fare that Helen had walked eight blocks to save.
The girl's spirits were low and her face showed depression when she mounted the broad stone steps of the physician's city office and residence, but when she came down the look had changed to a kind of frozen fright.
She had not felt like herself for weeks, but she did not dream that it was anything which time and a little medicine would not cure. Now, he had told her that she must leave the city—stop her work at once.
He advised the South or West—particularly the West—some place where it was high and dry. How lovely—and so simple! Just stop work and start! Why didn't he say St. Petersburg or the Arctic circle. With no income save what she earned from week to week they were equally impossible.
She had come in time, he had assured her, but she must not delay. Filled with consternation, sick with dread and horror of what she saw before her, Helen walked slowly to her hotel, the shabby place where she had found board and lodging within her means. She loathed it, everything about it—its faded tawdry splendor, the flashy, egotistical theatrical folk who frequented it, the salaried mediocrities who were "permanent" like herself, the pretentious, badly cooked food; but as she climbed the yellowish marble steps she thought despairingly that even this would be beyond her reach some day.
If only Freddie were alive! There was a lump in her throat as she removed her hat and looked at her pale face in the old-fashioned bureau mirror in her room. She might have gone to him in such an emergency as this—she had saved money enough to have managed that. He had been a bad son and an utterly indifferent brother, but surely he would not have turned her out.
Her shoulders drooped and two tears slipped from beneath her lashes as she sat on the edge of her narrow bed with her hands lying passively in her lap. Tears were so weak and futile in a world where only action counted that it was seldom they ever reached her eyes, though they sometimes came close.
Practical as Helen's life had made her in most things, she was still young enough to build high hopes on a romantic improbability. And nothing was more improbable than that "Slim" Naudain, even if he had lived, ever would have returned to make amends.
But she had thrown the glamour of romance about her scapegrace brother from the day he had flung out of the house in ignominy, boasting with the arrogance of inexperience that he would succeed and come back triumphant, to fill them with envy and chagrin. She never had heard from him directly since, but she had kept her childish, unreasoning faith that he would make good his boast and compensate her for her share of the fortune which it had cost to save him from his evil deeds.
She had not realized until Sprudell had told her of his death how strongly she had counted upon him. He was the only one left to her of her own blood, and had been the single means of escape that she could see from the exhausting, uncongenial grind and the long, lonely hours in the shabby hotel when her work was done. If the future had looked dark and hopeless before, how much worse it seemed with illness staring her in the face!
The money Freddie had left her would have gone a long way toward the vacation after she had used the larger part of it to pay off a long-standing obligation which her mother had incurred. The thought of the money reminded her of the letter and photograph. She brushed her wet cheeks with her hand and getting up took the soiled and yellowing envelope from the bureau drawer, wondering again why his murderer had sent it back.
The quick tears came once more as she read the ingenuous scrawl! What centuries ago it seemed since she had written that! She bit her lip hard but in spite of herself she cried—for her lost illusions—for her mother—for that optimistic outlook upon life which never would come back. She had learned much since that smiling "pitcher" was taken—what "mortgages" mean, for instance—that poverty has more depressing depths than the lack of servants and horses, and that "marrying well," as she interpreted a successful marriage then, is seldom—outside of "fiction and Pittsburgh"—for the girl who earns her own living. Young men who inherit incomes or older men of affairs do not look in shops and offices for their wives. Helen Dunbar had no hallucinations on this score.
Propinquity, clothes, social backing, the necessary adjuncts to "marrying well," had not been among her advantages for many years. There remained on her horizon only the friendly youths of mediocre attainments that she met in her daily life. She liked them individually and collectively in business, but socially, outside of the office, they made no appeal.
Ill-health was a misfortune she never had considered. It was a new spectre, the worst of all. If one were well one could always do something even without much talent, but helpless, dependent—the dread which filled her as she walked up and down the narrow confines of her room was different from the vague fears of the inexperienced. Hers came from actual knowledge and observation obtained in the wide scope of her newspaper life. The sordid straits which reduce existence to a matter of food and a roof, the ceaseless anxiety destroying every vestige of personal charm, the necessity of asking for loans that both borrower and lender know to be gifts—grudgingly given—accepted in mingled bitterness and relief—Helen Dunbar had seen it all. The pictures which rose before her were real. In her nervous state she imagined herself some day envying even Mae Smith, who at least had health and irrepressible spirits.
But there must be no more tears, she told herself at last. They were a confession of weakness, they dissipated courage; and the handkerchief which had been a moist ball dried in her hot hand. She said aloud to her flushed reflection in the glass:
"Well," determinedly, "I've never thought myself a coward and I won't act like one now. There's been many a thousand before me gone through this experience without whining and I guess I can do the same. Until I'm a sure enough down-and-outer I'll do the best I can. I must find a cheaper room and buy an oil-stove. Ugh! the first step on the down grade."
There was a rap upon the door and she lowered the shade a little so that the bell-boy with her evening paper should not see her reddened eyes. Instead of the paper he carried a long pasteboard box.
Flowers? How extraordinary—perhaps Peters; no, not Peters, as she read the name of a side street florist on the box, he was not to be suspected of any such economy as that. Roses—a dozen—a little too full blown to last very long but lovely. T. Victor Sprudell's card fell out as she took them from the box.
"OFF HIS RANGE"
Bruce stood before the blackboard in the Bartlesville station studying the schedule. A train went west at 11.45. The first train went east at 11.10. He hesitated a moment, then the expression of uncertainty upon his face hardened into decision. He turned quickly and bought a ticket east. If Sprudell had lied he was going to find it out.
As he sat by the car window watching the smug, white farm-houses and big red barns of the middle west fly by, their dull respectability, their commonplace prosperity vaguely depressed him. What if he should be sentenced for life to walk up to his front door between two rows of whitewashed rocks, to live surrounded by a picket fence, and to die behind a pair of neat green blinds? But mostly his thoughts were a jumble of Sprudell, of his insincere cordiality and the unexpected denouement when Abe Cone's call had forced his hand; of Dill and his mission, and disgust at his own carelessness in failing to record his claims.
They concentrated finally upon the work which lay before him once he had demonstrated the truth or falsity of Sprudell's assertion that Slim's family were not to be found. He turned the situation over and over in his mind and always it resolved itself into the same thing, namely, his lack of money. That obstacle confronted him at every turn and yet in spite of it, in spite of the doubts and fears which reason and caution together thrust into his mind, his determination to win, to outwit Sprudell, to make good his boast, grew stronger with every turn of the car wheels.
Ambition was already awake within him; but it needed Sprudell's sneers to sting his pride, Sprudell's ingratitude and arrogant assumption of success in whatever it pleased him to undertake, to arouse in Bruce that stubborn, dogged, half-sullen obstinacy which his father had called mulishness but which the farmer's wife with her surer woman's intuition had recognized as one of the traits which make for achievement. It is a quality which stands those who have it in good stead when failure stares them in the face.
It did not take Bruce long to discover that in whatever else Sprudell had prevaricated he at least had told the truth when he said that the Naudain family had disappeared. They might never have existed, for all the trace he could find of them in the city of a million.
The old-fashioned residence where "Slim" had lived, with its dingy trimmings, and its marble steps worn in hollows, affected him strangely as he stood across the street where he could see it from roof to basement. It made "Slim" seem more real, more like "folks" and less like a malignant presence. It had been an imposing house in its time but now it was given over to doctors' offices and studios, while a male hair-dresser in the basement transformed the straight locks of fashionable ladies into a wonderful marcelle.
Bruce went down to make some inquiries and he stared at the proprietor as though he were some strange, hybrid animal when he came forward testing the heat of a curling-iron against his fair cheek.
No, the hair-dresser shook his fluffy, blonde head, he never had heard of a family named Naudain, although he had been four years in the building and knew everyone upstairs. A trust company owned the place now; he was sure of that because the rent collector was just a shade more prompt than the rising sun. Yes, most certainly he would give Bruce the company's address and it was no trouble at all.
He was a fascinating person to Bruce, who would have liked to prolong the conversation, but the disheveled customer in the chair was growing restless, so he took the address, thanked him, and went out wondering whimsically if through any cataclysm of nature he should turn up a hair-dresser, sweet-scented, redolent of tonique, smelling of pomade, how it would seem to be curling a lady's hair?
Back in the moderate-priced hotel where he had established himself, he set about interviewing by telephone the Naudains whose names appeared in the directory. It was a nerve-racking task to Bruce, who was unfamiliar with the use of the telephone, and those of the name with whom he succeeded in getting in communication seemed singularly busy folk, indifferent to the amenities and entirely uninterested in his quest. But he persisted until he had exhausted the list.
Since there was no more to do that night, in fact no more to do at all if the trust company failed him, he went to bed: but everything was too strange for him to sleep well.
A sense of the nearness of people made him uneasy, and the room seemed close although there was no steam and the window was wide open. The noises of the street disturbed him; they were poor substitutes for the plaintive music of the wind among the pines. His bed was far too soft; he believed he could have slept if only he had had his mattress of pine-boughs and his bear-grass pillow. The only advantage that his present quarters had over his cabin was the hot and cold water. It really was convenient, he told himself with a grin, to have a spring in the room.
The street lamp made his room like day and as he lay wide-eyed in the white light listening to the clatter of hoofs over the pavement, he recalled his childish ambition to buy up all the old horses in the world when he was big—he smiled now at the size of the contract—all the horses he could find that were stiff and sore, and half dead on their feet from straining on preposterous loads; the horses that were lashed and cut and cursed because in their wretched old age they could not step out like colts. He meant to turn them into a pasture where the grass was knee-deep and they could lie with their necks outstretched in the sun and rest their tired legs.
He had explained the plan to his mother and he remembered how she had assured him gravely that it was a fine idea indeed. It was from her that he had inherited his passionate fondness for animals. Cruelty to a dumb brute hurt him like a blow.
On the trip out from Ore City an overworked stage horse straining on a sixteen per cent. grade and more had dropped dead in the harness—a victim to the parsimony of a government that has spent millions on useless dams, pumping plants, and reservoirs, but continues to pay cheerfully the salaries of the engineers responsible for the blunders; footing the bills for the junkets of hordes of "foresters," of "timber-inspectors" and inspectors inspecting the inspectors, and what not, yet forcing the parcel post upon some poor mountain mail-contractor without sufficient compensation, haggling over a pittance with the man it is ruining like some Baxter street Jew.
Like many people in the West, Bruce had come to have a feeling for some of the departments of the government, whose activities had come under his observation, that was as strong as a personal enmity.
He put the picture of the stage-horse, staggering and dying on its feet, resolutely from his mind.
"I never will sleep if I get to thinking of that," he told himself. "It makes me hot all over again."
From this disquieting subject his thought reverted to his own affairs, to "Slim's" family and his self-appointed task, to the placer and Sprudell. Nor were these reflections conducive to sleep. More and more he realized how much truth there was in Sprudell's taunts. Without money how could he fight him in the Courts? There were instances in plenty where prospectors had been driven from that which was rightfully theirs because they were without the means to defend their property.
Squaw Creek was the key to the situation. This was a fact which became more and more plain. However, Sprudell was undoubtedly quite as well aware of this as he was himself and would lose no time in applying for the water right. The situation looked dark indeed to Bruce as he tossed and turned. Then like a lost word or name which one gropes for for hours, days, weeks perhaps, there suddenly jumped before Bruce's eyes a paragraph from the state mining laws which he had glanced over carelessly in an idle moment. It stood out before him now as though it were in double-leaded type.
"If it isn't too late! If it isn't too late!" he breathed excitedly. "Dog-gone, if it isn't too late!"
With the same movement that he sprang out on the floor he reached for his hat; then he recalled that telegraph operators were sometimes ladies and it would be as well to dress. He made short work of the performance, however, and went downstairs two steps at a time rather than wait for the sleepy bell-boy, who did double duty on the elevator at night. The telegraph office was two squares away, the wondering night-clerk told him, and Bruce, stepping frequently on his shoelaces, went up the street at a gait which was more than half suspicious to the somnambulant officer on the beat.
The trust company's doors had not been opened many minutes the next morning before Bruce arrived. The clerk who listened to his inquiries was willing enough to give him any information that he had but he had none beyond the fact that the property in question had passed from the possession of a family named Dunbar into the hands of the trust company many years ago, and no person named Naudain had figured in the transfer, or any other transfer so far as he could ascertain from consulting various deeds and documents in the vault.
It was puzzling enough to Bruce, who was sure that he had read the number and the street correctly and had remembered it, but the clerk was waiting politely for him to go, so he thanked him and went out.
As Bruce stood in the wide stone archway of the building watching the stream of passers-by hastening to their offices and shops, some faint glimmerings of the magnitude of the task he had set himself in raising money among strangers to defend the placer ground if need be and install the hydro-electric plant for working it, came to him. He had little, if any, idea how to begin or where, and he had a feeling as he studied the self-centred faces of the hurrying throng that if he should fall on his knees before anyone among them and beg for a hearing they would merely walk around him and go on.
It occurred to Bruce that the clerk inside was an uncommonly good fellow, and friendly; he believed he would ask his advice. He might make some useful suggestions. Bruce acted at once upon the idea and again the clerk came forward cheerfully. Going to the point at once, Bruce demanded:
"How would a stranger go about raising money here for a mining proposition?"
A quizzical expression came into the clerk's eyes and a faint smile played about his mouth. He looked Bruce over with some personal interest before he answered.
"If I was the stranger," he said dryly, "I'd get a piece of lead-pipe and stand in an area-way about 11.30 one of these dark nights. That's the only way I know to raise money for mining purposes in this town."
Bruce stepped back abruptly and his dark face reddened.
"Sorry I bothered you," he eyed the clerk steadily, "but I made a mistake in the way I sized you up."
It was the clerk's turn to flush, but because he really was a good fellow and there was that in Bruce's unusual appearance that he liked, he called him back when he would have gone.
"I apologize," he said frankly, "I hadn't any business to get funny when you asked me a civil question, but the fact is the town's been worked to death with mining schemes. Nearly everyone's been bitten to the point of hydrophobia and I doubt if you can raise a dollar without friends."
"I wouldn't say I had much show if that's the case," Bruce answered, "for I'm a long way off my range."
In his well-worn Stetson, with his dark skin tanned by sun and wind and snow to a shade that was only a little lighter than an Indian's; using, when he talked, the wide, careless gestures that bespeak the far West, Bruce was so obviously of the country beyond the Mississippi that the clerk could not repress a smile.
"I've never promoted anything more important than a theatre party or a motor trip," the clerk vouchsafed, "but I should think some of the brokers who handle mining stocks would be the people to see. There's a good firm two doors above. I can give you the names of a few people who sometimes take 'flyers' on the side but even they don't go into anything that isn't pretty strongly endorsed by someone they know. There's always the chance though," he continued, looking Bruce over speculatively, "that someone may take a fancy to you personally. I've noticed that personality sometimes wins where facts and figures couldn't get a look in."
Bruce answered simply:
"That lets me out again, I've no silver tongue. I've talked with too few people to have much fluency."
The clerk did not contradict him though he was thinking that Bruce could thank his personality for the time he was giving him and the pains he was taking to help him.
"Here," handing Bruce a hastily written list. "You needn't tell them I sent you for it wouldn't do any good. Some of them come in here often but they look upon me as an office fixture—like this mahogany desk, or that Oriental rug."
"This is mighty good of you," said Bruce, as grateful as though he had written special letters of endorsement for him to all his friends. "Say," with his impulsive hospitality, "I wish you could come out and visit me. Couldn't you get away the end of August when the bull-trout and the redsides are biting good?"
"Me?" The clerk started, then he murmured wistfully: "When the bull-trout and the redsides are biting good! Gee! I like the way that sounds! Then," with a resigned gesture, "I was never farther west than South Bethlehem; I never expect to have the price."
He looked so efficient and well dressed that Bruce had thought he must receive a large salary and he felt badly to learn that the prosperity of such a nice chap was only clothes deep. He promised to look in on him before he left the city and tell him how he had gotten on; then he took his list and went back to the hotel prepared to spend some anxious hours in the time which must intervene before he could expect to hear from his night telegram. He hoped the answer would come in the morning, for disappointments, he had learned, were easier to bear when the sun shone.
The telegram was awaiting him when he returned from an excursion to a department store which had been fraught with considerable excitement. A majestic blonde had assumed a kind of protectorate over him and dissuaded him from his original intention of buying thirty yards of ruching for Ma Snow with a firmness that approached a refusal to sell him anything so old-fashioned, although he protested that it had looked beautiful in the neck and sleeves of his mother's gowns some fifteen years before. Neglecting to explain that his gift was for a woman all of fifty, a pink crepe-de-chine garment was held alluringly before his embarrassed eyes and a filmy petticoat, from beneath which, in his mind's eye, Bruce could see Pa Snow's carpet-slippers, in which Ma Snow "eased her feet," peeping in and out. In the end he fought his way out—through more women than he had seen together in all his life—with a box of silk hose in appallingly vivid colors and a beaded bag which, he had it on the saleslady's honor, was "all the rage."
Bruce took the yellow envelope which the desk-clerk handed him and looked at it with a feeling of dread. He had counted the hours until it should come and now he was afraid to open it. It meant so much to him—everything in fact—the moment was a crisis but he managed to tear the envelope across with no outward indication of his dread.
He took in the contents at a glance and there was such relief, such renewed hope in his radiant face that the desk-clerk was moved to observe smilingly: "Good news, I gather." And Bruce was so glad, so happy, that for the moment he could think of nothing more brilliant to answer than—"Well I should say so! I should say so!"
HIS ONLY ASSET
It would be a pleasure to record that Capital found Bruce's personality so irresistible that his need of funds met with instant response, that the dashing picturesqueness of his appearance and charm of his unconventional speech and manner was so fascinating that Capital violated all the rules observed by experienced investors and handed out its checks with the cheery "God bless you m' boy!" which warms the heart toward Capital in fiction. Such, however, was not the case.
It took only one interview to disabuse Bruce's mind of any faint, sneaking idea he may have had that he was doing Capital a favor for which it would duly thank him. The person whom he honored with his first call strongly conveyed the impression after he had stated his case that he considered that he, Bruce, had obtained valuable time under false pretenses. Certainly the last emotion which he seemed to entertain for the opportunity given him was gratitude, and his refusal to be interested amounted to a curt dismissal.
The second interview, during which Bruce was cross-examined by a cold-eyed gentleman with a cool, impersonal voice, was sufficient to make him realize with tolerable clearness his total unpreparedness. What engineer of recognized standing had reported upon the ground? None! To what extent, then, had the ground been sampled? How many test-pits had been sunk, and how far to bed-rock? What was the yardage? Where were his certified assay sheets, and his engineer's estimate for hydro-electric installation? What transportation facilities?
Bruce, still dazed by the onslaught, had turned and looked at the door which had closed behind him with a briskness which seemed to say "Good riddance," and muttered, thinking of the clerk's one sanguine suggestion: "Personality! I might as well be a hop-toad."
But in his chagrin he went to extremes in his contemptuous estimate of himself, for there was that about him which generally got him a hearing and a longer one than would have been accorded the average "promoter" with nothing more tangible upon which to raise money than his unsupported word. His Western phraseology and sometimes humorous similes, his unexpected whimsicalities and a certain naivete secretly amused many of those whom he approached, though they took the best of care not to show it lest he mistake their interest in himself for interest in his proposition.
One or two went so far as to pass him on by giving him the name of a friend, but, mostly, they listened coldly, critically, and refused with some faint excuse or none. There was no harder task that Bruce could have set himself than applying to such men for financial help for, underneath, he was still the sensitive boy who had bolted from the dinner-table in tears and anger to escape his father's ridicule, and, furthermore, he was accustomed to the friendly spirit and manner of the far West.
The chilling stiffness, the skepticism and suspicion, the curtness which was close to rudeness, at first bewildered, then hurt and humiliated him, finally filling him with a resentment which was rapidly reaching a point where it needed only an uncivil word or act too much to produce an explosion.
But if he was like that boy of other days in his quick pride, neither had he lost the tenacity of purpose which had kept him dragging one sore, bare foot after the other to get to his mother when the gulches he had to pass were black and full of ghostly, fearsome things that the hired man had seen when staying out late o' nights. This trait now kept him trudging grimly from one office to another, offering himself a target for rebuffs that to him had the sting of insults.
He had come to know so well what to expect that he shrank painfully from each interview. It required a strong effort of will to turn in at the given number and ask for the man he had come to see, and when he saw him it required all his courage to explain the purpose of his call. Bruce understood fully now how he was handicapped by the lack of data and the fact that he was utterly unknown, but so long as there was one glimmer of hope that someone would believe him, would see the possibilities in his proposition as he saw them, and investigate for himself Bruce would not quit. The list of names the clerk had given him and many others had long since been exhausted. Looking back it seemed to him that he was a babe in swaddling clothes when he started out with his telegram and his addresses, so full of high hopes and the roseate expectations of inexperience.
Day after day he plodded, his dark face set in grim lines of purpose, following up clews leading to possible investors which he obtained here and there, and always with the one result. What credentials had he? To what past successes could he point? None? Ah, good-day.
One morning Bruce opened his eyes and the conviction that he had failed leaped into his mind as though it had been waiting like a cat at a mouse hole to pounce upon him the instant of his return to consciousness.
"You have failed! You have got to give up! You are done!" The words pounding into his brain affected him like hammer blows over the heart. He laid motionless, inert, his face grown sallow upon the pillow, and he thought that the feelings of a condemned man listening to the building of his gallows must be something like his own.
Those who have struggled for something, tried with all their heart and soul, fought to the last atom of their strength, and failed, know something of the sickening heaviness, the dull, aching depression which takes the vitality and seems actually to slow up the beating of the heart.
Out in the world, he told himself, where men won things by their brains, he had failed like any pitiable weakling; that he had been handicapped by unpreparedness was no palliation of the crime of failure. Ignorance was no excuse. In humiliation and chagrin he attributed the mistakes of inexperience to lack of intelligence. His mother had over-estimated him, he had over-estimated himself. It was presumption to have supposed he was fitted for anything but manual labor. Sprudell had been right, he thought bitterly, when he had sneered that muscle was his only asset.
He could see himself loading his belongings into Slim's old boat, his blankets and the tattered soogan and bobbing through the rapids with the blackened coffee-pot, the frying pan, and lard cans jingling in the bottom, while Sprudell, with his hateful, womanish smile, watched his ignominious departure. Bruce drew his sleeve across his damp forehead. If there was any one thing which could goad him to further action it was this picture.
He arose and dressed slowly. Bruce had known fatigue, the weakness of hunger, but never anything like the leaden, heavy-footed depression which comes from intense despondency and hopelessness.
As his finances had gone down he had gone up, until he was now located permanently on the top floor of the hotel where the hall carpets and furniture were given their final try-out before going into the discards. The only thing which stopped him from going further was the roof. He had no means of judging what the original colors in his rug had been save by an inch or two close to the wall, and every brass handle on the drawers of his dresser came out at the touch. The lone faucet of cold water dripped constantly and he had to stand on a chair each time he raised the split green shade. When he wiped his face he fell through the hole in the towel; he could never get over a feeling of surprise at meeting his hands in the middle, and the patched sheets on his bed looked like city plots laid out in squares.
He loathed the shabbiness of it, and the suggestion of germs, decay, down-at-the-heel poverty added to his depression. He never had any such feelings about his rough bunk filled with cedar boughs and his pine table as he had about this iron bed, with its scratched enamel and tin knobs, which deceived nobody into thinking them brass, or the wobbly dresser that he swore at heartily each time he turned back a fingernail trying to claw a drawer open.
Bruce had vowed that so long as a stone remained unturned he would stay and turn it, but—he had run out of stones. Three untried addresses were left in his note-book and he looked at them as he ate his frugal breakfast speculating as to which was nearest.
"If I'd eaten as much beef as I have crow since I came to this man's town," he meditated as he dragged his unwilling feet up the street, "I'd be a 'shipper' in prime A1 condition. I've a notion I haven't put on much weight since it became the chief article of my diet. If thirty days of quail will stall a man what will six weeks of crow do to him? I doubt if I will ever entirely get my self-respect back unless," he added with the glimmer of a smile, "I go around and lick some of them before I leave."
"I suppose," his thoughts ran on, "that it's a part of the scheme of life that a person must eat his share of crow before he gets in a position to make some one else eat it, but dog-gone!" with a wry face, "I've sure swallowed a double portion." Then he fell to wondering if—he consulted his note-book—J. Winfield Harrah had specialized at all upon his method of serving up this game-bird which knows no closed season?
As he sat in Harrah's outer office on a high-backed settee of teak-wood ornate with dragons and Chinese devils, with his feet on a rug which would have gone a long way toward installing a power-plant, looking at pictures of Jake Kilrain in pugilistic garb and pose, the racing yacht Shamrock under full sail, and Heatherbloom taking a record smashing jump, the spider-legged office boy came from inside endeavoring to hide some pleasurable excitement under a semblance of dignity and office reticence.
"Mr. Harrah has been detained and won't be here for perhaps an hour."
"I'll wait," Bruce replied laconically.
The office boy lingered. He fancied Bruce because of his size and his hat and a resemblance that he thought he saw between him and his favorite western hero of the movies; besides, he was bursting with a proud secret. He hunched his shoulders and looked cautiously behind toward the inner offices. Between his palms he whispered:
"He's been arrested."
It delighted him that Bruce's eyes widened.
"Third time in a month—speedin' in Jersey—his new machine is 80 horse-power—! A farmer put tacks in the road and tried to kill him wit' a pitchfork. Say! my boss et him. I bet he'll get fined the limit." His red necktie swelled palpably and he swaggered proudly. "Pooh! he don't care. My boss, he—"
"Yes ma'am." The stenographer's call interrupted further confidences from Willie and he scuttled away, leaving Bruce with the impression that the boy's admiration for his boss was not unmixed with apprehension.
The hour had gone when the door opened and a huge, fiery-bearded, dynamic sort of person went swinging past Bruce without a glance and on to the inner offices. The office boy's husky "That's him!" was not needed to tell him that J. Winfield Harrah had arrived. The air suddenly seemed charged electrically. The stenographer speeded up and dapper young clerks and accountants bent to their work with a zeal and assiduity which merited immediate promotion, while "Willie," Bruce noticed, came from a brief session in the private office with the dazed look of one who has just been through an experience.
When Bruce's turn came Harrah sat at his desk like an expectant ogre; there was that in his attitude which seemed to say: "Enter; I eat promoters." His eyes measured Bruce from head to foot in a glance of appraisement, and Bruce on his part subjected Harrah to the same swift scrutiny.
Without at all being able to explain it Bruce felt instantly at his ease, he experienced a kind of relief as does a stranger in a strange land when he discovers someone who speaks his tongue.
Harrah appeared about Bruce's age, perhaps a year or two older, and he was as tall, though lacking Bruce's thickness and breadth of shoulder. His arms were long as a gorilla's and he had huge white fists with freckles on the back that looked like ginger-snaps. Fiery red eyebrows as stiff as two toothbrushes bristled above a pair of vivid blue eyes, while his short beard resembled nothing so much as a neatly trimmed whisk broom, flaming in color. His skin was florid and his hair, which was of a darker shade than his beard, was brushed straight back from a high, white forehead. A tuft of hair stood up on his crown like the crest on a game-cock. Everything about him indicated volcanic temperament, virility, and impulsiveness which amounted to eccentricity.
Harrah represented to Bruce practically his last chance, but there was nothing in Harrah's veiled, non-committal eyes as he motioned Bruce to a chair and inquired brusquely: "Well—what kind of a wild-cat have you got?" which would have led an observer to wager any large amount that his last chance was a good one.
Bruce's eyes opened and he stared for the fraction of a second at the rudeness of the question, then they flashed as he answered shortly.
"I'm not peddling wild-cats, or selling mining stock to widows and orphans—if you happen to be either."
Capital is not accustomed to tart answers to its humor caustic, from persons in need of financial assistance for their enterprises. Harrah raised his toothbrush eyebrows and once more he favored Bruce with a sweeping glance of interest, which Bruce, in his sensitive pride, resented.
"Who sent you?" Harrah demanded roughly.
"Never mind who sent me," Bruce answered in the same tone, reaching for his hat which he had laid on the floor beside him, "but he had his dog-gone nerve directing me to an ill-mannered four-flusher like you."
The color flamed to Harrah's cheek bones and over his high, white forehead.
"You've got a curious way of trying to raise money," he observed. "I suppose," dryly, "that's what you're here for?"
"You suppose right," Bruce answered hotly as he stood up, "but I'm no damn pauper. And get it out of your head," he went on as the accumulated wrath of weeks swept over him, "that you're talking to the office boy. I've found somebody at last that's big enough to stand up to and tell 'em to go to hell! Sabe? You needn't touch my proposition, you needn't even listen to it, but, hear me, you talk civil!"
As Harrah arose Bruce took a step closer and looked at him squarely.
A lurking imp sprang to life in Harrah's vivid eyes, a dare-devil look which found its counterpart in Bruce's own.
"I believe you think you're a better man than I am."
"I can lick you any jump in the road," Bruce answered promptly.
Harrah looked at him speculatively, without resentment, then his lips parted in a grin which showed two sharp, white, prominent front teeth.
"On the square," eagerly, "do you think you can down me?"
"I know it," curtly—"any old time or place. Now, if it suits you."
To Bruce's amazement Harrah took his hand and shook it joyfully.
"I wouldn't be surprised if you could! You look as hard as nails. Do you box or wrestle?"
Bruce wondered if he was crazy.
He answered shortly: "Some."
"Bully!" excitedly. "The best luck ever! We'll have a try-out in private and if you're the moose I think you are you can break him in two!"
"Break who in two?"
"The Spanish Bull-dog! Eureka!" he chuckled gleefully. "I'll back you to the limit!"
"What's the matter with you?" Bruce demanded. "Are you loco?"
"Close to it!" the eccentric capitalist cried gaily,—"with joy! He bested me proper the other night at the Athletic Club—he dusted the mat with me—and I want to play even." Seeing that Bruce's face did not lose its look of mystification he curbed his exuberance: "You see I've got some little reputation as a wrestler so when Billy Harper ran across this fellow in Central America he imported him on purpose to reduce the swelling in my head, he said, and he did it, for while the chap hasn't much science he's so powerful I couldn't hold him. But you, by George! wait till I spring you on him!"
"Say," Bruce answered resentfully, "I came East to raise money for a hydro-electric power plant, not to go into the ring. It looks as if you're taking a good deal for granted."
"That's all right," Harrah answered easily. "How much do you want? What you got? Where is it?"
Bruce told him briefly.
Harrah heard him through attentively and when he was done Harrah said candidly:
"Perhaps you've been told before that without a qualified engineer's report it isn't much of a business proposition to appeal to a business man."
"Once or twice," Bruce answered dryly.
"Nevertheless," Harrah continued, "I'm willing to take a chance on you—not on the proposition as you've put it up to me but on you personally, because I like you. I'll head your inscription list with $5000 and introduce you to some men that will probably take a 'flyer' on my say-so. If you're still short of what you think you'll need I'll make up the remainder, all providing"—with a quick grin—"that you go in and wallop that Greaser!"
Bruce's expression was a mixture of many.
Finally he replied slowly:
"Well, it isn't just the way I'd figured out to interest Capital and I reckon the method is unique in mine promotion, but as I'm at the end of my rope and have no choice, one more meal of 'crow' won't kill me." He went on with a tinge of bitterness, thinking of Sprudell: "Since muscle is my only asset I'll have to realize on it." Then his dark face lighted with one of the slow, whimsical smiles that transformed it—"Unchain the 'Spanish Bull-dog,' feller!"
Harrah rang for the office boy and reached for his hat.
"William," he said sternly when the quaking youth stood before him, "tell those people outside not to wait. I'm called away on business—urgent, important business and I can't say when I'll be back."
Would the car never come—would it never come! Helen walked once more to the corner from the shelter of a building in one of the outlying mill districts where an assignment had taken her.
The day was bitterly cold with a wind blowing which went through her coat and skirt as though they were light-weight summer clothing. She held her muff against her cheek and she peered up the street and the dark background accentuated the drawn whiteness of her face with the pinched, blue look about her mouth and nostrils. The girl was really suffering terribly. She had passed the chattering stage and was enduring dumbly, wondering how much longer she could stand it, knowing all the time that she must stand it as there was no place to go inside and missing the car which ran at half hour intervals meant missing the edition. She was paid to stand it, she told herself, as she stamped her feet which were almost without feeling. The doctor's emphatic warning came to her mind with each icy blast that made her shrink and huddle closer to the wall of the big storage building. Exposure, wet feet, were as suicidal in her condition as poison, he had told her. She could guard against the latter but there was no escape from the former if she would do her work conscientiously for long, cold rides and waits on street corners were a recognized part of it.
She could not afford even to dress warmly. There was absolutely nothing but fur that would keep out such penetrating wind and cold as this, and anything at all presentable was beyond her means.
"And they tell us, these smug, unctuous preachers warming their shins before their study fires, that living is a privilege, and we should be grateful to the Almighty for being allowed to go through things like this! I can't see it!" she declared to herself in angry rebellion. "I haven't one thing on earth to look forward to—unless—" her hand tightened on a letter inside her muff—"unless I take a way out which, in the end, might be worse."
Sprudell's note had come by special delivery from the Hotel Strathmore just as she was leaving the office, so she had not stopped to answer it. He had made several trips from Bartlesville since their first meeting, under the pretext of business, but it did not require any great acumen to discover that he came chiefly to see her.
Now, thinking that it might divert her mind from her misery, Helen turned her back to the wind and drew out his note for a second reading. One would scarcely have gathered from her expression as she turned the pages that she was reading a cordial dinner invitation.
Everything about it grated upon her—and the note was so eminently characteristic. She observed critically the "My dear Miss Dunbar," which he considered more intimate than "Dear Miss Dunbar." She disliked the round vowels formed with such care that they looked piffling, and the elaborately shaded consonants. The stiffness, the triteness of his phraseology, and his utter lack of humor, made his letters dull reading but most of all his inexact use of words irritated her—it made him seem so hopeless—far more so than bad spelling. She even detested the glazed note paper which she was sure was a "broken lot" bought at a bargain in a department store.
"To-night I have a matter of supreme importance to impart," she read, "make every effort to join me. The evening may prove as eventful to you as to me, so do not disappoint me, Mignonne."
"Mignonne!" Her lips curled. "Idiot! Imbecile! Ignoramus!" Savagely—"Donkey!"
She leaned a shoulder against the cold bricks of the warehouse, her head drooped and a tear slipped down her cheek to turn to frost on the dark fur of her muff.
Helen was too analytical and she had had the opportunity of knowing and observing men in too many walks of life not to have by this time a fairly good insight into Sprudell's character. At least she understood him to the extent of reading his motives and interpreting his actions with tolerable accuracy. She tried to be charitable and endeavored not to dwell upon the traits which, in the light of his lover's attitude, made him ridiculous. When she received tender offering of stale fruit-cake and glucose jam from a cut-rate grocer, large boxes of candy from an obscure confectioner, and other gifts betraying the penurious economy which always tempered his generosity, she endeavored to assure herself that it came merely from the habit of saving in small ways which many self-made men had in common. She dwelt resolutely upon his integrity, upon the acumen which had made him a business success; yet in her heart she could not help likening him to a garment of shoddy material aping the style of elegance. While endeavoring to palliate these small offenses Helen knew perfectly that they were due to the fact that he was innately what was known in the office vernacular as a "cheap skate," striving to give the impression of generosity at a minimum of expense.
Helen had grown sensitive about her cough and shrank from comment upon it. She did her best to stifle it and she herself spoke of it lightly; but to-day, when she came into the warm air of the office after the nightmare of a wait on the corner and the long, cold ride afterward, it set her coughing violently, so violently that it attracted the attention of her neighbor, who called over the partition jocularly but with a note of seriousness in his voice—
"We'll have to ship you to Colorado, Miss Dunbar, if you go on like that!"
Helen caught her clasped hands quickly to her breast, a trick she had when startled.
"Yes?" she answered lightly but her expression was frightened.
People were noticing! It was the last straw needed. When she laid out her most becoming frock that evening it was the white flag of capitulation. The odds were too heavy—she felt she must surrender before it was too late. While she dressed her hair with more than usual care she scrutinized her face closely for that indefinable look which conveys to the initiated a hint of something deeper-seated than the languor of fatigue.
If Helen had cared at all for Sprudell's approbation she would have had the reward for her pains in the pleased, self-satisfied air of proprietorship with which he followed her to the table he had reserved in the fashionable restaurant of the Hotel Strathmore. He missed none of the interested looks directed at her as she passed, and glowed with satisfaction.
"If they notice her like this in a city," he thought triumphantly, "she'll make 'em sit up in Bartlesville!" Sprudell's cup of happiness seemed running full.
"You're looking great to-night," he whispered as they sat down.
"Fine feathers—" she smiled slightly—"my one good gown."
"My dear, you can have a hundred—a thousand!" he cried extravagantly. "It's up to you!"
She studied him curiously, wondering what had happened. He was tremulous with suppressed excitement; his high spirits were like the elation of intoxication and he ordered with a lavishness which made him conspicuous.
But Sprudell was indifferent to appearances, seeming to survey the world at large from the height of omnipotence and it seemed to Helen that every objectionable trait he had was exaggerated, twice enlarged under the stimulus of this mysterious, exalted mood. His egotism loomed colossal, he was oblivious to everything and everybody but himself, else he could not have failed to see the growing coldness in her eyes.
Helen herself had little appetite, so while Sprudell partook of the numerous dishes with relish she inspected him anew from the critical viewpoint of the woman who intends to marry without love. As she dissected him it occurred to her that Sprudell exemplified every petty feminine prejudice she had. She disliked his small, red mouth, which had a way of fixing itself in an expression of mawkish sentimentality when he looked at her, and there was that in the amorous, significant light in his infantile blue eyes which sickened her very soul. She disapproved of his toddling walk, his fat, stooped shoulders, his spats and general appearance of over-emphasized dapperness. The excessive politeness, the elaborate deference which he showed her upon occasions, exasperated her, and it was incredible, she thought, that a part in a man's back hair should be able to arouse such violence of feeling. But it did. She hated it. She loathed it. It was one of her very strongest aversions. She had always hoped never even to know a man who parted his back hair and now she was going to marry one.
She tried to imagine herself going through life making a pretense of taking his learning and his talents seriously, of refraining carefully from calling attention to his errors or correcting his misstatements, of shielding him from the ridicule which his pedantry must bring upon him when he mingled with his superiors, smoothing over smarts when he bullied and "talked down," without convincing his adversaries—as Helen had seen other women do. But could she do it? When it came right down to brass tacks, she asked herself, could she exchange herself, her freedom, her individuality, all the years to come if many were spared her, for the chance to get well and for relief from anxiety about food and clothes and shelter?
To marry Sprudell meant immunity from freezing on street corners, from mental and physical exhaustion, from the rebuffs which were a part of her work and which hurt far worse than anyone guessed because she could never regard them as impersonal. Women were making such exchanges every day and with less excuse—for luxury or position merely—but could she do it?
Must she grow into an old woman without a single romance in her life? That much seemed every woman's right. What had she done that the Fates should "have it in for her" like this? She clenched her hands under the shelter of the tablecloth. This thing she had made up her mind to do seemed such a horrid, sordid, vulgar end to youth and sentiment.
Sprudell meanwhile was revolving in his mind the best method of imparting effectively and dramatically the news which was burdening him. He considered beginning with a Latin quotation from his Vest-Pocket Manual—"Labor omnia vincit"—or something like that—but ended, when he felt the right moment had arrived, by stating the fact bluntly and abruptly:
"I'm going to be as rich as Croesus."
Helen looked up, to see his red lower lip trembling with excitement.
"My dear," solemnly, "I shall have fabulous wealth."
Undoubtedly he was in earnest. She could see that from the intensity shining in his eyes. Wonderingly she took the pamphlet which he withdrew from its envelope and passed to her, watching her face eagerly as she read.
PROSPECTUS OF THE BITTER ROOT PLACER MINING COMPANY
proclaimed the outside page, and the frontispiece contained a picture of seven large mules staggering up a mountain trail under a load of bullion protected by guards carrying rifles with eight-foot barrels.
"That illustration is my idea," he said proudly.
"It's very—very alluring," Helen conceded. "And you are interested?"
"Interested!" gleefully, "it's all mine! Wait till you go on."
The first paragraph of the text read:
We have, with infinite hardship and difficulties and a large personal expense, secured absolute legal ownership, and physical possession, of eight placer claims, making 160 acres of the richest, unworked placer ground in the United States.
Queen of Sheba No. 1:—Area about 15 acres.
Section 1—600 x 300 feet. Examined by the best obtainable placer experts and under the most favorable conditions money could afford. Prospect Shaft No. L:—Through natural, clean sand and fine river gravel. Depth of pit 10 feet. Every foot showed gold in paying quantities. A four foot streak, extremely rich, passes through this section. Red-rock was not reached but the values increase with depth, as is usually true.
Average workable depth of this section 60 ft. Average assay .6235 per cubic yard. 600 x 300 x 60——400,000 cu. yds. @ .6235 $249,400 Estimated cost of working 5 cents per cu. yd. 20,000 ———— Estimated Net Profit $229,000
"That's one of the poor claims," he explained carelessly, "we probably won't bother with it."
"The yardage of 'The Pot of Gold' and claims 'Eureka' 1 and 2 totalled millions, while the leanest next to 'The Queen of Sheba,' yielded a net profit of $700,000."
Then the monotony of facts and figures was varied by another illustration showing a miner in hip-boots and a sou'wester blithely handling a giant which threw a ten-inch stream into a sand-bank.
"I drew the rough sketch for that and the artist carried out my ideas." Sprudell wished to convey the impression that along with his many other gifts he possessed artistic talent, had he only chosen to develop it.
Helen read at random:
Numerous prospect holes, cuts and trenches fully corroborate the value of the ground. There are rich streaks and spots yielding 25 cts. to 50 cts. to the pan of what area the Giant alone will tell. Every surface foot yields gold in paying quantities. It is pay-dirt from the grass-roots. While we confine our estimates to the actual ground examined, nevertheless we are certain the real wealth lies on bed-rock.
The home claim with its rustic log cabin provides a delightful home for those interested in the enterprise, supplying comforts and luxuries which money cannot purchase in large cities. Game and fish in greatest abundance infest its door-yard. We have seen fifty grouse and twenty mountain sheep within three hundred feet of the doorway. Bear may be had at any time for the going after.
It must be borne in mind, all of these placers are the ancient beds of a least two separate periods of a great river, consequently, bed-rock will undoubtedly reveal fabulous wealth which cannot be uncovered in an examination. It would be useless to attempt to exaggerate the possibilities of these properties. The plain, simple facts are far more potent than unestablished fiction could possibly be.
All the claims we have described represent virgin ground, something seldom found, now, anywhere in the U. S. There is not a wagon track in the whole valley. It has heretofore been too difficult of access to tempt capital to come in here. We have changed the whole situation. Our Saw-mill, which we now have in operation, is the wonder of the place, and is, of course, our salvation, for without that, of course, we could not construct flumes to put water upon our placer ground.
We have partially constructed a wagon road to shorten and make less arduous the difficult trip into this paradise. Nevertheless, it is a paradise, when once within its charmed environments. Gold is the commonest product there.
This is quite sufficient.
The confidential details which accompany this prospectus will make known our financial requirements.
We know we have a great fortune in sight, but, hidden away in the greater depths are unknown possibilities of fabulous riches, for this great river is noted for its richness on bed-rock. Millions have been taken out of its sand with the crudest devices.
We have demonstrated our good faith and our confidence in the worth of these properties by a personal expenditure approximating fifty thousand dollars in cash.
We have taken every legal precaution and necessary physical step to insure an absolutely safe and profitable investment.
We are now ready, and desire, to finance a close corporation, with a limited capital, to operate this property on a scale BEFITTING ITS IMPORTANCE.
Helen closed the pamphlet and passed it back. She knew nothing of mining and had no reason to doubt its truth or Sprudell's honesty. Not only the facts but the magnitude of the possibilities as he had outlined them were bewildering. He might, indeed, become as rich as Croesus and, she thought, how like a tyrant he would use his power!
"Well?" He looked at her, exultant, gloating. For the moment he had the appearance of a person whose every wish had been granted. His eyes blazed with excitement, his face was crimson. Dazzled, intoxicated by the prospect of his great wealth, he felt himself omnipotent, immune from the consequences of rude manners and shameless selfishness, safe from criticism among the very rich. He felt a wild, reckless impulse to throw the cut-glass rose-vase on the floor—and pay for it.
"Well?" he repeated arrogantly. He felt so sure of her, for what woman who earned her own living would refuse what he now could offer! He was impatient for her to say something that would show how much she was impressed.
And still Helen did not answer. Looking at him as he bared himself in his transport, the realization came swiftly, unexpectedly that she could not marry him if to refuse meant the beginning of sure starvation on the morrow! Not because she was too honorable, too conscientious, to marry without love in her present circumstances, but because it would be an actual impossibility for her to marry Sprudell.
It was not a question of honor or conscience, of mental uncongeniality, temperamental differences, or even the part in his back hair; it was, as she realized, a case of physical repulsion pure and simple.
From her first acquaintance with him she had shrunk involuntarily from the touch of his hand, the slightest contact; when he sat beside her in taxicabs and at the theatre she invariably had been unpleasantly conscious of his nearness. She was convinced now that her reluctant feet would have refused to carry her to the altar, and her tongue to answer according to her bidding.
If she had been less strong in her likes and dislikes, less violent in her prejudices, she might have forced herself to dwell upon the advantages over her present position and come to accept the situation with something like serenity. But she was too strong a character to adapt herself complacently to a livelong, intimate association with a person so genuinely, so uncontrollably, physically repugnant to her as was Sprudell.
Psychologically, it was curious—no doubt there were women in the world who had, or did, or might, adore Sprudell; but for herself she understood clearly now that the single kindly feeling she had for him was the gratitude she felt she owed him.
"I congratulate you," she said finally. "It is a remarkable story—most romantic! Money is power—there never was anything truer—Listen!" She raised a finger. "Isn't that your name? Yes; the boy is paging you."
Sprudell ostentatiously opened the telegram which was brought to him, secretly pleased at seeming to be thus pursued by the requirements of his large business interests; but his frown of importance and air of a man with weighty matters to decide was wasted upon Helen, who was watching a lively party of men making its way to a nearby table reserved for six.
The original locator has beat us to the water-right. Applied by wire while I was snowed up. Advise making best terms possible with him. Letter follows. Dill.
He looked as if some one had struck him in the face.
Helen was still watching the advancing party. She murmured, with a smile of amusement, as Sprudell laid the telegram down:
"Here, coming in the lead, is our unfailing news supply—Winfield Harrah. You've heard of him no doubt. Behind him, the big one—that huge chap with the black eyes, is the mysterious Samson from the West who whipped the 'Spanish Bull-dog.' 'The Man from the Bitter Roots' I think they call him."
Subconsciously, Sprudell heard what she was saying and his eyes followed hers. The start he gave caused her to turn her head quickly. His face was more than colorless, it was chalky even to the lips.
"Burt!" He exclaimed involuntarily, "Bruce Burt!" He could have bitten his tongue out the instant after.
Bruce Burt! the murderer! Of all things in the world that he should be "The Man from the Bitter Roots"—dining at the Strathmore—the guest of Winfield Harrah! Weren't people punished for murder in the West? Sprudell had intimated that he would hang for it. Helen's grey eyes were big with amazement and indignation while she watched him being seated.
She saw the widening of his eyes when he recognized Sprudell, the quick hardening of his features and the look that followed, which, if not exactly triumph, was certainly satisfaction. Involuntarily she glanced at Sprudell and the expression on his face held her eyes. It fascinated her. For the moment she forgot Bruce Burt in studying him.
She thought she had read his real nature, had seen his dominant characteristic in the blatant egotism that had shown itself so strongly in his elation. But this was different, so different that she had a queer feeling of sitting opposite an utter stranger. It was not dislike, resentment, fear; it was rather a sly but savage vindictiveness, a purposeful malice that would stop at nothing. In the unguarded moment Sprudell's passion for revenge was stamped upon his face like a brand. Helen had thought of him contemptuously as a bounder, a conceited ignoramus—he was more than these things, he was a dangerous man.
But why this intense antagonism? Why should they not speak? Sprudell had not told her of a quarrel.
"Who are those men!" he asked in an undertone, and she noticed that he was breathing hard in an excitement he could not conceal.
As she named them in turn she saw that Bruce Burt was regarding her with the puzzled, questioning look one gives to the person he is trying to place.
The one stipulation which Bruce had made when he consented to meet the "Spanish Bull-dog" was that his name should not be known in the event of the match being mentioned in the papers; so Harrah had complied by introducing him to his friends by any humorous appellation which occurred to him. It proved a wise precaution, since directly Bruce's challenge had been sent and it was known that he was Harrah's protege, the papers had made much of it, publishing unflattering snapshots after he had steadily refused to let them take his picture.
It was true enough, as Helen had said, he had whipped the "Spanish Bull-dog," loosened his tenacious grip in a feat of strength so sensational that the next morning he had found himself featured along with an elopement and a bank failure.
They called him "The Man from the Bitter Boots," and a staff artist depicted him as a hairy aborigine that Winfield Harrah had had captured to turn loose on the Spanish gladiator. Which humor Bruce did not relish, for Sprudell's taunt that "muscle" was his only asset still rankled.
The betting odds had been against him in the Athletic Club, for Bruce's size ofttimes made him look clumsy, but if Bruce had a bear's great strength he had also a bear's surprising quickness and agility. And it was the combination which had won the victory for him. Unexpectedly, with one of the awkward but swift movements which was characteristically bear-like, Bruce had swooped when he saw his opening and thrown the "Bull-dog" as he had thrown "Slim"—over his shoulder. Then he had whirled and pinned him—both shoulders and a hip touching squarely. There had been no room for dispute over the decision. Friends and foes alike had cheered in frenzy, but beyond the fact that the financial help which Harrah promised was contingent upon his success, Bruce felt no elation. The whole thing was a humiliation to him.
But Harrah had been as good as his word. They had filed in to Bruce's top floor room one evening—Harrah's friends headed by Harrah. They had seemed to regard it as a lark, roosting on his bed and window-sill and table, while Bruce dropped naturally to a seat on his heel, camp-fire fashion, with his back against the wall, and to their amusement outlined his proposition and drew a map of the location of his ground on the carpet with his finger.
But they had not taken much interest in detail, they were going into it chiefly to please Harrah. Bruce saw that clearly and it piqued him. He felt as though his proposition, his sincerity, counted for nothing, but while it nettled him more than ever, it put him on his mettle.
Bruce's brief acquaintance with Harrah already had opened up new vistas, shown him unknown possibilities in life. They were sport-loving, courteous, generous people that Harrah drew about him—merry-hearted as those may be who are free from care—and Bruce found the inhabitants in this new world eminently congenial. He never had realized before how much money meant in the world "outside." It was comfort, independence, and most of all the ability to choose, to a great extent, one's friends instead of being forced to accept such as circumstances may thrust upon one.
Bruce saw what anyone may see who looks facts in the face, namely, that money is the greatest contributory factor to happiness, no matter how comforting it may be to those who have none to assure themselves to the contrary. There may even be doubts as to whether the majority of rich invalids would exchange their check-books for the privilege of being husky paupers in spite of the time-honored platitude concerning health.
Yet Bruce could not help a certain soreness that all he had fought for so doggedly and so unavailingly came so easily as the result of a rich man's whim.
Laughingly, with much good-humored jest, they had made up the $25,000 between them and then trailed off to Harrah's box at the opera, taking Bruce with them, where he contributed his share to the gaiety of the evening by observing quite seriously that the famous tenor sounded to him like nothing so much as a bull-elk bugling.
Harrah's subscription which had headed the list had been half of his winnings and the other half had gone to his favorite charity—The Home For Crippled Children. "If you get in a hole and need a little more I might dig up a few thousand," he told Bruce privately, but the others stated plainly that they would not commit themselves to further sums or be liable for assessments.
Bruce had gone about with Harrah since then and with so notable a sponsor the world became suddenly a pleasant, friendly place and life plain sailing; but now every detail had been attended to, and, eager to begin, Bruce was leaving on the morrow, this dinner being in the nature of a farewell party.
To see Bruce in the East and in the company of these men on top of Dill's telegram was a culminating blow to Sprudell, as effective as though it had been planned. Stunned at first by the loss of the water-right which made the ground valueless, then startled, and astonished by Bruce's unexpected appearance, all his thoughts finally resolved themselves into a furious, overmastering desire to defeat him. Revenge, always his first impulse when injured, was to become an obsession. Whatever there was of magnanimity, of justice, or of honor, in Sprudell's nature was to become poisoned by the venom of his vindictive malice where it concerned Bruce Burt.
Bruce had altered materially in appearance since that one occasion in his life, in Sprudell's office, when he had been conscious of his clothes. Those he now wore were not expensive but they fitted him and for the first time in many years he had something on his feet other than hob-nailed miner's shoes. Also he laid aside his stetson because, as he explained when Harrah deplored the change, he thought "it made folks look at him." "Folks" still looked at him for even in the correct habiliments of civilization he somehow looked picturesque and alien. Powerfully built, tanned, with his wide, forceful gestures, his utter lack of self-consciousness, there was stamped upon him indelibly the freedom and broadness of the great outdoors.
He was the last person, even in that group, all of whose members were more or less notable, who would have been suspected of a cold-blooded murder.
Against her will Helen found herself looking at him. It seemed unnatural; she was shocked at herself, but he attracted her irresistibly. Her brother's murderer was handsome in a dark, serious, unsmiling way which appealed to her strongly.
She tried to fix her attention upon the food before her, to keep up a conversation with Sprudell, who made no pretense of listening; but just so often as she resolved not to look again, just so often she found herself returning Bruce Burt's questioning but respectful stare.
Helen took it for granted that his object in coming East was to meet the "Spanish Bull-dog," but Sprudell knew better. He had seen enough of Bruce to guess something of his fixity of purpose when aroused and Dill's telegram confirmed it. But he had thought that, naturally, Bruce would return to the West at once from Bartlesville to try and hold his claims, from which, when he was ready, through a due process of law, if necessary, Sprudell would eject him.
To find him here, perhaps already with formidable backing, for the moment scattered Sprudell's wits, upset him; the only thing in his mind which was fixed and real was the determination somehow to block him.
A vaguely defined plan was already forming in his mind, and he wanted to be alone to perfect it and put it into immediate execution. Besides, he was far from comfortable in the presence of the man who, temporarily at least, had outwitted him, nor was he too preoccupied to observe Bruce's obvious interest in Helen. He made the motion to go as soon as possible and in spite of his best efforts to appear deliberate his movements were precipitate.
Bruce found it impossible to keep his attention upon the conversation at his own table. After his first surprise at seeing Sprudell his mind and eyes persisted in fixing themselves upon Sprudell's companion. He could not rid himself of the notion that somewhere he had seen her, or was it only a resemblance? Yet surely if he ever had known a girl with a profile like that—such hair, such eyes, such a perfect manner—he would not have forgotten her! Was it the face of some dream-girl that had lingered in his memory? It was puzzling, most extraordinary, but whoever she was she looked far too nice to be dining with that—that—. His black brows met in a frown and unconsciously his hands became fists under the table.
He felt a sharp pang when he saw that they were preparing to go. Why couldn't it be his luck to know a girl like that? He wondered how it would seem to be sitting across the table from her, talking intimately. And he found considerable satisfaction in the fact that she had not smiled once at Sprudell during the conversation. He would not have said that she was enjoying herself particularly.
Then she arose and the gloves in her lap fell to the floor. He had an impulse to jump and slide for them but the waiter was ahead of him. Sprudell looked back impatiently.
"Thank you so much." She smiled at the waiter-fellow and Bruce knew her.
Slim's sister! There was no mistaking the sweetly serious eyes, the smiling lips with which he had grown familiar in the yellowish picture. She was older, thinner, the youthful roundness was gone, but beyond question she was Slim's sister!
She passed the table without a glance and in something like a panic he watched her leave the room. He would never see her again! This was the only chance he'd ever have. Should he sit there calmly and let it pass! He laid his napkin on the table, and explained as he rose hastily:
"There's someone out there I must see. I'll be back, but don't wait for me."
He did not know himself what he meant to say or do, beyond the fact that he would speak to her even if she snubbed him.
She had stepped into the cloak room for her wrap and Sprudell was waiting in the corridor. Immediately when he saw Bruce he guessed his purpose and the full significance of a meeting between them rushed upon him. He was bent desperately upon preventing it. Sprudell took the initiative and advanced to meet him.
"If you've anything to say to me, Bruce, I'll meet you to-morrow."
"I've nothing at all to say to you except to repeat what I said to you in Bartlesville. I told you then I thought you'd lied and now I know it. That's Slim's sister."
"That is Miss Dunbar."
"I don't believe you."
"I'll prove it."
"It isn't necessary; besides," he sneered, "she's particular who she knows."
"Not very," Bruce drawled, "or she wouldn't be here with you." He added obstinately: "That's Slim's sister."
Helen came from the cloak room and stopped short at seeing Bruce and Sprudell in conversation. Certainly this was an evening of surprises.
"Are you ready, Miss Dunbar?" Sprudell placed loud emphasis upon the name.
Sprudell, who was walking to meet her, glanced back at Bruce with a smile of malice but it was wasted upon Bruce, who was looking at the girl. Why should there be that lurking horror and hostility in her eyes? What had Sprudell told her? On a sudden desperate impulse and before Sprudell could stop him, he walked up to her and asked doggedly, though his temerity made him hot and cold:
"Why do you look at me as if I were an enemy? What has Sprudell been telling you?"
"I forbid you to answer this fellow—" Sprudell's voice shook and his pink face had again taken on the curious chalkiness of color which it became under stress of feeling. Forgetting prudence, his deferential pose, forgetting everything that he should have remembered in his rage at Bruce's hardihood, and the fear of exposure, he shook his finger threateningly before Helen's face.
On the instant her chin went haughtily in the air and there was a dangerous sparkle in her eyes as she replied:
"You are presumptuous, Mr. Sprudell. Your manner is offensive—very."
He ignored her resentment and laid his hand none too gently upon her arm, as though he would have turned her forcibly toward the door. The action, the familiarity it implied, incensed her.
"Take your hand away," Helen said quietly but tensely.
"I tell you not to talk to him!" But he obeyed.
"I intend to hear what Mr. Burt has to say."
"You mean that?"
"Then you'll listen alone," he threatened. "You can get home the best you can."
"Suit yourself about that," Helen replied coolly. "There are taxicabs at the door and the cars run every six minutes."
Bruce contributed cordially:
"Sprudell, you just dust along whenever you get ready."
"You'll repent this—both of you!" His voice shook with chagrin and fury—"I'll see to that if it takes the rest of my life and my last dollar."
Bruce warned in mock solicitude:
"Don't excite yourself, it's bad for your heart; I can tell that from your color."
Sprudell's answer was a malignant look from one to the other.
"On the square," said Bruce ruefully when the last turn of the revolving door had shut Sprudell into the street, "I hadn't an idea of stirring up anything like this when I spoke to you."
"It doesn't matter," Helen answered coldly. "It will disabuse his mind of the notion that he has any claim on me."
"It did look as though he wanted to give that impression."
Bruce was absurdly pleased to find himself alone with her, but Helen's eyes did not soften and her voice was distant as she said, moving toward the nearest parlor:
"If you have anything to say to me, please be brief. I must be going."
"I want to know what Sprudell has told you that you should look at me almost as if you hated me?"
"How else would I look at the man who murdered my brother in cold-blood."
He stared at her blankly in an astonishment too genuine to be feigned.
"I murdered your brother in cold-blood! You are Slim's sister, then?"
"I'm Frederic Naudain's sister, if that's what you mean—his half-sister."
The light of understanding grew slowly on Bruce's face. The revelation made many things plain. The difference in the name accounted for his inability to trace her. It was easy enough now to account for Sprudell's violent opposition to their meeting.
"He told you that it was a premeditated murder?"
Watching him closely Helen saw that his tanned skin changed color.
"Why, I came East on purpose to find you!" he exclaimed. "To make amends—"
"Amends!" she interrupted, and the cold scorn in her voice made the perspiration start out on his forehead.
"Yes, amends," he reiterated. "I was to blame in a way, but not entirely. Don't be any harder on me than you can help; it's not any easy thing to talk about to—his sister."
She did not make it easier, but sat waiting in silence while he hesitated. He was wondering how he could tell her so she would understand, how not to shock her with the grewsome details of the story. Through the wide archway with its draperies of gold thread and royal purple velvet a procession of bare-shouldered, exquisitely dressed women was passing and Bruce became suddenly conscious of the music of the distant orchestra, of the faint odor of flowers and perfume, of everything about him that stood for culture and civilization. How at the antipodes was the picture he was seeing! For the moment it seemed as though that lonely, primitive life on the river must be only a memory of some previous existence. Then the unforgettable scene in the cabin came back vividly and he almost shuddered, for he felt again the warm gush over his hand and saw plainly the snarling madman striking, kicking, while he fought to save him. He had meant to tell her delicately and instead he blurted it out brutally.
"I made him mad and he went crazy. He came at me with the axe and I threw him over my shoulder. He fell on the blade and cut an artery. Slim bled to death on the floor of the cabin."
"Ugh—how horrible!" Bruce imagined she shrank from him. "But why did you quarrel—what started it?"
Bruce hesitated; it sounded so petty—so ridiculous. He thought of the two old partners he had known who had three bloody fights over the most desirable place to hang a haunch of venison. "Salt," he finally forced himself to answer.
"Sprudell told me that and I could not believe it."
She looked at him incredulously.
"We were down to a handful, and I fed it to a band of mountain-sheep that came to the cabin. I had no business to do it."
"You said that he went crazy—do you mean actually?"
"Then why do you blame yourself so much?"
"Because I should have pulled out when I saw how things were going. We had quarrelled before over trifles and I knew he would be furious. You can't blame me more than I blame myself, Miss Dunbar. I suppose you think they should hang me?" There was a pleading note in the question and he wiped the perspiration from his forehead while he waited for her answer.
She did not reply immediately but when she finally looked him squarely in the eyes and said quietly: "No, because I believe you," Bruce thought his heart turned over with relief and joy.
"What you have told me shows merely that he had not changed—that my hopes for him were quite without foundation. Even as a child he had a disposition—a temper, that was little short of diabolical. We have all been the victims of it. I should not want to see another. He disgraced and ruined us financially. Now," Helen said rising, "you must go back to your friends. I'll take a taxicab home—"
"Please let me go with you. They can wait for me—or something," he added vaguely. The thought of losing sight of her frightened him.
She shook her head.
"No—no; I won't listen to it." She gave him her hand: "I must thank you for sending back my letter and picture."
"Sprudell gave them to you!"
"Yes, and the money."
"Why, yes." She looked at him inquiringly.
Just in time Bruce caught and stopped a grin that was appearing at the thought that Sprudell had had to "dig up" the money he had returned to him out of his own pocket.
"That's so," he agreed. "I had forgotten. But Miss Dunbar," eagerly. "I must see you on business. Your brother left property that may be valuable."
"Property? Mr. Sprudell did not mention it."
"I suppose it slipped his mind," Bruce answered drily. "You'll give me your address and let me come to-morrow?"