"Am I going mad?" he demanded feebly. "Do I understand you to say that you own this paper?"
"Roughly speaking, about three days."
Among his audience (still excepting Mr. Jarvis, who was tickling one of the cats and whistling a plaintive melody) there was a tendency toward awkward silence. To start assailing a seeming nonentity and then to discover he is the proprietor of the paper to which you wish to contribute is like kicking an apparently empty hat and finding your rich uncle inside it. Mr. Renshaw in particular was disturbed. Editorships of the kind to which he aspired are not easy to get. If he were to be removed from Peaceful Moments he would find it hard to place himself anywhere else. Editors, like manuscripts, are rejected from want of space.
"I had a little money to invest," continued John. "And it seemed to me that I couldn't do better than put it into Peaceful Moments. If it did nothing else, it would give me a free hand in pursuing a policy in which I was interested. Smith told me that Mr. Scobell's representatives had instructions to accept any offer, so I made an offer, and they jumped at it."
Pugsy Maloney entered, bearing a card.
"Ask him to wait just one moment," said John, reading it.
He turned to Mr. Renshaw.
"Mr. Renshaw," he said, "if you took hold of the paper again, helped by these other gentlemen, do you think you could gather in our old subscribers and generally make the thing a live proposition on the old lines? Because, if so, I should be glad if you would start in with the next number. I am through with the present policy. At least, I hope to be in a few minutes. Do you think you can undertake that?"
Mr. Renshaw, with a sigh of relief, intimated that he could.
"Good," said John. "And now I'm afraid I must ask you to go. A rather private and delicate interview is in the offing. Bat, I'm very much obliged to you and Otto for your help. I don't know what we should have done without it."
"Aw, Chee!" said Mr. Jarvis.
"Then good-by for the present."
"Good-by, boss. Good-by, loidy."
Long Otto pulled his forelock, and, accompanied by the cats and the dog, they left the room.
When Mr. Renshaw and the others had followed them, John rang the bell for Pugsy.
"Ask Mr. Scobell to step in," he said.
The man of many enterprises entered. His appearance had deteriorated since John had last met him. He had the air of one who has been caught in the machinery. His face was even sallower than of yore, and there was no gleam in his dull green eyes.
He started at the sight of Betty, but he was evidently too absorbed in the business in hand to be surprised at seeing her. He sank into a chair, and stared gloomily at John.
"Well?" he said.
"Well?" said John.
"This," observed Mr. Scobell simply, "is hell." He drew a cigar stump mechanically from his vest pocket and lighted it.
"What are you going to do about it?" he asked.
"What are you?" said John. "It's up to you."
Mr. Scobell gazed heavily into vacancy.
"Ever since I started in to monkey with that darned Mervo," he said sadly, "there ain't a thing gone right. I haven't been able to turn around without bumping into myself. Everything I touch turns to mud. I guess I can still breathe, but I'm not betting on that lasting long. Of all the darned hoodoos that island was the worst. Say, I gotta close down that Casino. What do you know about that! Sure thing. The old lady won't stand for it. I had a letter from her." He turned to Betty. "You got her all worked up, Betty. I'm not blaming you. It's just my jinx. She took it into her head I'd been treating you mean, and she kicked at the Casino. I gotta close it down or nix on the heir thing. That was enough for me. I'm going to turn it into a hotel."
He relighted his cigar.
"And now, just as I got her smoothed down, along comes this darned tenement business. Say, Prince, for the love of Mike cut it out. If those houses are as bad as you say they are, and the old lady finds out that I own them, it'll be Katie bar the door for me. She wouldn't stand for it for a moment. I guess I didn't treat you good, Prince, but let's forget it. Ease up on this rough stuff. I'll do anything you want."
"We only want you to make the houses fit to live in," she said. "I don't believe you know what they're like."
"Why, no. I left Parker in charge. It was up to him to do what was wanted. Say, Prince, I want to talk to you about that guy, Parker. I understand he's been rather rough with you and your crowd. That wasn't my doing. I didn't know anything about it till he told me. It's the darned Wild West strain in him coming out. He used to do those sort of things out there, and he's forgotten his manners. I pay him well, and I guess he thinks that's the way it's up to him to earn it. You mustn't mind Parker."
"Oh, well! So long as he means well—!" said John. "I've no grudge against Parker. I've settled with him."
"Well, then, what about this Broster Street thing? You want me to fix some improvements, is that it?"
"Why, say, I'll do that. Sure. And then you'll quit handing out the newspaper stories? That goes. I'll start right in."
"That's taken a heap off my mind," he said.
"There's just one other thing," said John. "Have you by any chance such a thing as a stepfather's blessing on you?"
John took Betty's hand.
"We've come round to your views, Mr. Scobell," he said. "That scheme of yours for our future looks good to us."
Mr. Scobell bit through his cigar in his emotion.
"Now, why the Heck," he moaned, "couldn't you have had the sense to do that before, and save all this trouble?"
Smith drew thoughtfully at his cigar, and shifted himself more comfortably into his chair. It was long since he had visited the West, and he had found all the old magic in the still, scented darkness of the prairie night. He gave a little sigh of content. When John, a year before, had announced his intention of buying this ranch, and, as it seemed to Smith, burying himself alive a thousand miles from anywhere, he had disapproved. He had pointed out that John was not doing what Fate expected of him. A miracle, in the shape of a six-figure wedding present from Mrs. Oakley, who had never been known before, in the memory of man, to give away a millionth of that sum, had happened to him. Fate, argued Smith, plainly intended him to stay in New York and spend his money in a civilized way.
John had had only one reply, but it was clinching.
"Betty likes the idea," he said, and Smith ceased to argue.
Now, as he sat smoking on the porch on the first night of his inaugural visit to the ranch, a conviction was creeping over him that John had chosen wisely.
A door opened behind him. Betty came out on to the porch, and dropped into a chair close to where John's cigar glowed redly in the darkness. They sat there without speaking. The stirring of unseen cattle in the corral made a soothing accompaniment to thought.
"It is very pleasant for an old jail bird like myself," said Smith at last, "to sit here at my ease. I wish all our absent friends could be with us to-night. Or perhaps not quite all. Let us say, Comrade Parker here, Comrades Brady and Maloney over there by you, and our old friend Renshaw sharing the floor with B. Henderson Asher, Bat Jarvis, and the cats. By the way, I was round at Broster Street before I left New York. There is certainly an improvement. Millionaires now stop there instead of going on to the Plaza. Are you asleep, John?"
"Excellent. I also saw Comrade Brady before I left. He has definitely got on his match with Jimmy Garvin."
"Good. He'll win."
"The papers seem to think so. Peaceful Moments, however, I am sorry to say, is silent on the subject. It was not like this in the good old days. How is the paper going now, John? Are the receipts satisfactory?"
"Pretty fair. Renshaw is rather a marvel in his way. He seems to have roped in nearly all the old subscribers. They eat out of his hand."
Smith stretched himself.
"These," he said, "are the moments in life to which we look back with that wistful pleasure. This peaceful scene, John, will remain with me when I have forgotten that such a man as Spider Reilly ever existed. These are the real Peaceful Moments."
He closed his eyes. The cigar dropped from his fingers. There was a long silence.
"Mr. Smith," said Betty.
There was no answer.
"He's asleep," said John. "He had a long journey to-day."
Betty drew her chair closer. From somewhere out in the darkness, from the direction of the men's quarters, came the soft tinkle of a guitar and a voice droning a Mexican love-song.
Her hand stole out and found his. They began to talk in whispers.